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Super Bowl of firsts, lasts, bests

Super Bowl of firsts, lasts, bests

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — This Super Bowl is one of comebacks, of firsts and lasts, and — if San Francisco wins — the best.

A win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday gives the 49ers six championships, matching Pittsburgh's record number of titles in the Super Bowl era. Unlike the Steelers, the Niners have never lost one.

Of course, they haven't won one in 18 years, either.

"There's a tradition with the San Francisco 49ers, but these guys are paving their own way," said Hall of Fame receiver and three-time champion Jerry Rice. "They're playing with a lot of swagger."

Or as owner Denise DeBartolo York said, "We've come full circle and the dynasty will prevail."

Host city New Orleans has come full circle, too. Ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, losing a quarter of its population, abandoned by the Saints for an entire season, the city couldn't imagine hosting another Super Bowl. But as New Orleans recovered and rebuilt, it envisioned staging what Patriots owner Robert Kraft calls "the pre-eminent sporting event."

The NFL agreed it was time to return. And even if Commissioner Roger Goodell is despised here after slapping the Saints with suspensions and fines in the bounty scandal, the vibes from the French Quarter and Warehouse District this week have been supportive, even uplifting.

"It's also terrific for us to be back here in New Orleans," Goodell said, joking about voodoo dolls in his likeness. "Our 10th Super Bowl here, the first since Katrina, and it's clear this city is back bigger and better than ever."

There's the tale of the head coaching brothers, Baltimore's John and San Francisco's Jim, the first siblings to face off in a Super Bowl. And Ray Lewis, the pre-eminent linebacker of his generation on his self-proclaimed last ride with the Ravens. (His farewell party was somewhat sidetracked for two days this week when Lewis waved off a report that he tried to get unusual products like deer-antler spray to speed his recovery from an arm injury that sidelined him for 10 games.)

"There are so many storylines to this game that make it bigger than just the Super Bowl," 49ers CEO Jed York said.

Such as the Harbaughs, sons of a lifetime coach who took different paths to the top of the NFL.

Baltimore's John, older by 15 months, has made his career standing on the sideline with a headset. He's the only head coach to win playoff games in his first five seasons; his quarterback, Joe Flacco, has the same distinction as he heads into his first Super Bowl. Jim Harbaugh was a first-round draft pick and quarterbacked four teams in 14 pro seasons before going into coaching. He was an immediate success at the San Diego Toreros in the college Pioneer League, then at Stanford before the 49ers won a bidding war for him in 2011.

This week's family reunion has been light-hearted, though that will change Sunday.

"It's probably a little tougher emotionally," John Harbaugh said of facing his brother. "It's a little tougher just from the sense of I don't think you think about it when you're coaching against somebody else; it's more about the scheme and the strategy. There's a little bit of a relationship element that's more strong than maybe coaching against someone else.

"I'll have a better answer for you after the game. I've never been through this before. This is all new."

It's also new for the QBs, Flacco and Colin Kaepernick.

Flacco is no fluke, holding the career record for road playoff wins with six. But until outplaying Peyton Manning and Tom Brady this year, he hadn't gotten the Ravens to the Super Bowl. He has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in the postseason, padding a resume that soon will make him one very highly paid quarterback: Flacco's contract expires after this game. Even with a franchise tag applied by Baltimore, he'll make about $14.6 million next season.

"When you talk about winning, as quarterbacks in the playoffs," Flacco said, "I would think that all of them have Super Bowl victories. So that's really the only one that matters, and that's what we're trying to get."

Naturally, so are the 49ers, whose midseason adoption of the pistol offense to best use Kaepernick's dynamic versatility added a dimension no one has been able to stop. The Niners might never have taken such a huge step had incumbent Alex Smith, in the midst of his best season, not sustained a concussion on Nov. 11. Kaepernick took over and the offense took off.

Once Smith was healthy, he no longer was the starter. Jim Harbaugh gambled by sticking with the raw second-year quarterback who brought more game-breaking skills to the position.

Difficult decisions like that are sometimes foolhardy, sometimes inspired.

This one worked superbly, and Kaepernick stands one victory from joining Joe Montana and Steve Young as a 49er Super Bowl champion.

"It was tough watching this team do well and not being able to contribute," said Kaepernick, more recognized before his promotion for his collection of tattoos than for his strong arm and sprinter's speed. "For me, what kept me going was the fact that I might get an opportunity to get out there. When I did, I needed to take advantage of it."

The 49ers hope to take advantage in the same Superdome where they were at their most dominant, beating Denver 55-10 in 1990 in the biggest rout the Super Bowl has seen.

The Steelers are recognized as the true powerhouse of the Super Bowl era, which is nearly a half-century old. Four of those titles came in the 1970s, with Mean Joe Greene and the Steel Curtain shutting down opponents while Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann were scoring on them.

But the last two were in 2005 and 2008, and they've been perennial playoff qualifiers, too. That kept them in the football forefront.

For the 49ers the golden years of Montana, Rice, Young and Ronnie Lott ended with the 1994 season. They didn't even make the playoffs from 2003-10, and this is their first trip back to the Super Bowl.

Rice sees Super Bowl win No. 6 coming Sunday.

"We had players who played well in the big game," he said. "My best football that I played happened in the playoffs and in the Super Bowl. It's the same with these players."

None of whom, except for center Jonathan Goodwin and linebacker Clark Haggans, has won a title. That's still one more ring than the Ravens have: Lewis is the sole NFL champion in Baltimore.

Lewis hungers for these teammates to taste their first title — and to do it in his last game.

"I've touched the Lombardi (Trophy), and I know how it feels," the perennial All-Pro said. "For these guys who've made this journey with me to feel that, it would be the perfect ending for my career."

Like Lewis, 49ers receiver Randy Moss also could be suiting up for the final time, although he hopes to play another year.

Grabbed off the scrap heap after his career spiraled into oblivion and no team would touch him in 2011, Moss didn't do much on the field (28 catches, 434 yards) this season. His loudest headlines came this week when he proclaimed himself the greatest receiver ever; maybe he's never seen Rice's numbers.

Teammates say Moss was very influential as a mentor and teacher.

"Randy's like my older brother," said Michael Crabtree, who emerged as a top receiver in his fourth pro season. "An older brother you would have that's been through a lot that you just can learn from just talking to him, watching him.

"He's a legend and I hope he'll be here next year."

Lewis won't be. He'll don the face paint, put on his No. 52 for the final time, and see if he can replicate the championship of a dozen years ago.

"You can never top the first one, because that's an unknown feeling," Lewis said before adding with a chuckle, eyes widening, "but a second one — that might be the only way you really can top it."

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Justin Tucker missed a game-tying PAT, but the Ravens aren't fazed at all

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USA TODAY Sports

Justin Tucker missed a game-tying PAT, but the Ravens aren't fazed at all

Justin Tucker making an extra point for the Baltimore Ravens is a sure thing.

As sure as the sun will rise each morning, Tucker's dependability and success have been a constant for the team. But on an afternoon where winds of around 17 mph were a factor though 60 minutes, Tucker's success came to a shocking halt. 

After Joe Flacco and the offense made their way downfield, Flacco found wide receiver John Brown in the end zone to make the score 24-23 with 24 seconds left in regulation.

In walked the most accurate kicker in NFL history to do what he's done so many times before; keep the Ravens in the game. As the ball sailed off Tucker's foot, it took a right and became the first point-after-touchdown the kicker has ever missed.

"I felt like when the ball came off my foot, that I hit it just how I wanted to," Tucker said at the podium following the Ravens' Week 7 loss to the Saints. "Don't get me wrong, today was a challenging day to kick the ball in our stadium, to the right of our bench."

Two hundred and twenty two-straight PATs. 222 consecutive makes, including 112 consecutive since PATs were moved back to the 15-yard line in 2015. Tucker was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September, marking the fifth time he's been awarded the honor.

From the field to the press box and all the way to the nosebleeds, M&T Bank Stadium was in shock. 

"A lot of things go through your mind, but I've been there plenty of time," Flacco said. "If you play football long enough, you're going to be there at some point. We're a very tight team here, and the first thing you think about is your brother and him dealing with it. Justin's the best in the world at what he does, and he's the most confident person that I know. It's not going to be an issue." 

"We're a tight group – we are light years better than we've been in the past," safety Eric Weddle said in the locker room after the loss. "Shoot, 'Tuck' is going to win us some games. We're not worried about that missed kick. Shoot, I think it's the first extra point ever that he's missed. Let's not get on him too hard. He's going to be hard on himself. That wasn't the only reason we lost." 

The support for Tucker, in what was a one-off for their teammate, was apparent throughout the entire locker room. When Tucker took to the podium to address the media, long snapper Morgan Cox and punter Sam Koch stood in the interview room while their kicker tried to explain what went wrong in a show of support.

"This one just happened to get away from me," Tucker added. "I'll have to look at it. I can't tell you exactly what happened, but at the end of the day, I feel like I cost us the game. Every single one of my teammates thus far has told me the opposite, and no one plays wins or loses a game, but that's a tough thing to grapple with when you're the guy in the situation at the end of the game."

Even members of the Saints were in disbelief. Almost everyone was mentally preparing for overtime as Tucker's accuracy is known around the league.

"When [Tucker] missed it, I thought, 'Let's get up and get out of here,'" running back Mark Ingram said. "I mean, that guy is good, so I was shocked."

"I automatically was thinking about overtime and what we were going to do," quarterback Drew Brees added. "I was very, very surprised when he missed it."

What the Ravens and fans alike can take solace in is that Tucker's stats speak for themselves showing more positive plays than negative. While it was probably the most heartbreaking loss they've had since Week 17 of the 2017 season, Tucker's point of emphasis when speaking with the media postgame was about more than a missed extra point.

"But, more than anything, I just wanted to be here [at the podium]," he said. "If I was going to ever teach my son or any young person about accountability, I felt like it was really important that I stand up here and answer whatever questions you guys may have."

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What you need to know from the Ravens' 24-23 loss to the Saints

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What you need to know from the Ravens' 24-23 loss to the Saints

The Baltimore Ravens' top-ranked scoring defense clashed with the New Orleans Saints' top-ranked scoring offense in a game fans will soon never forget.

After a constant back and forth and a chance to tie the game, Justin Tucker missed his first ever point-after-touchdown attempt with seconds to spare.

Here's what you need to know from the Ravens' 24-23 loss over the Saints.

— We knew this game was going to be interesting and the Saints didn't waste any time getting things rolling. Facing a fourth down, New Orleans faked a punt for a five-yard gain from third-string quarterback Taysom Hill. The 20 play, 69-yard drive was highlighted by four fourth-down attempts, two challenges from the Ravens and a fumble recovery by nose tackle Michael Pierce on the final fourth down attempt at the six-yard line.

Not only was the 9:58 drive the longest opening drive by a team this season, it was the longest opening drive to result in zero points since the Browns' 9:59 opening drive Week 1 of 2015, per NFL research.

— Drew Brees continues making history during the 2018 season. The QB threw his 500th career touchdown to former Raven Ben Watson in the second quarter joining Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the prestigious club. Then when the clock hit zero and the Saints came away with the win, Brees also joined Manning and Favre as the third QB to beat all 32 NFL teams.

Prior to Sunday, Brees was 0-4 against the Ravens. He also became the NFL's all-time leading passer back in Week 5.

— It only took seven weeks, but rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson scored his first NFL touchdown with four seconds left in the first half. While it was only from one-yard out, it was nice to see Jackson kick it into gear with the clock ticking. He wasn't the only guy from the Ravens' 2018 draft class to make an impact. Tight end Mark Andrews scored an eight-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to put the team up 17-7 and left guard Bradley Bozeman and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. held down the O-line for much of the afternoon. 

— The Ravens' streak of not allowing a second-half touchdown in the 2018 season came to an end Sunday. Drew Brees gave the ball to running back Alvin Kamara at the top of the fourth quarter resulting in a two-yard touchdown. Kamara finished the day with 17 attempts for 64 yards and one touchdown. 

— Jimmy Smith's first start of 2018 didn't go quite as well as he'd like.

Smith was hit with two pass interference calls, with one of them coming in the end zone leading to a Saints touchdown and the other on one of many third downs. The cornerback had trouble covering wide receiver Michael Thomas, who heading into Week 7 was ranked fourth in the NFL,  all afternoon. One of their meetings resulted in a touchdown to put the Saints up 21-17.

— Then there was, of course, Justin Tuckers' first-ever PAT miss. After Joe Flacco hit John Brown in the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown with 0:24 left on the clock, the Ravens were preparing to go into overtime until that wasn't necessary. Tucker, who is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, was on the wrong side of history when his kick went wide right.

From the field to the nosebleeds, M&T Bank Stadium was in shock as the clock expired and the final score was 24-23.

Postgame, Tucker took responsibility for the team's loss while his head coach and teammates all reiterated that a game never comes down to just one play.