NEW ORLEANS — The journey to this Super Bowl wound through bounties and replacement refs, eventually bringing the big game back to the Big Easy – with a replacement quarterback, a sibling rivalry and a grand exit for one of the NFL's greatest players, clouded by the obscure healing powers of deer-antler spray.
It is a Super Bowl 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 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 I think 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.”
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. (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 plot about sons of a lifetime coach who took different paths to the top of the NFL.
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 San Diego – the Toreros in the college Pioneer League, not the Chargers in the NFL – and Stanford before the 49ers won a bidding war for him in 2011.
This week's family reunion has been light-hearted, though that figures to 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.”
And oh-so-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 (13-6), he'll make about $14.6 million next season.
“I think 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 (13-4-1), 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.
“I just think we had players who played well in the big game,” he said. “My best football that I played, I think, happened in the playoffs and in the Super Bowl. I think 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.”