Ed Reed was a study in contrasts, that surprising splotch of gray hair front and center in his Afro, his joyous exclamations ("Big Mac—you're a world champion! ... Tuck, give me one of those cigars!") interspersed with gasps of pain. The eight-time All-Pro free safety and native New Orleanian played 62 snaps, had five tackles and made the Super Bowl's only interception despite spraining the medial collateral ligaments in both knees, on separate plays. Bum wheels notwithstanding, Reed kept talking during the postgame bedlam about his desire to "go second-lining down Poydras Street."
Just as second-lining—parading exuberantly, often behind a brass band—is a distinctly New Orleans style of celebration, exhibiting resilience and winning ugly turned into Ravens trademarks this season. And Sunday was no exception. After taking a 28--6 lead, Baltimore removed its heel from San Francisco's throat. Five 49ers possessions later, Colin Kaepernick was throwing into the end zone for a two-point conversion that would've tied the score at 31.
"We got out of our gaps a little," said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, "and there were probably a couple of pressures I called that didn't help." Got out of your gaps? Coach, during those five possessions, you gave up chunks of 29, 15, 18, 31, 14, 32 and 21 yards. The poor chain gang couldn't catch its breath.
Reed offered this more candid assessment: "[The 49ers] made great adjustments at halftime"—sharpening them, no doubt, during the unscheduled post-Beyoncé intermezzo—"and we couldn't get nothin' stopped." Couldn't, that is, until they absolutely had to.
Whether it was Jacoby Jones's mother feeding the Ravens homemade jambalaya or Terrell Suggs rapping free-style at media day or Jim Harbaugh exhibiting a much higher pucker factor than his older brother in their joint press conference, the underdog Ravens were by far the looser outfit in the Big Easy. "[John] knows he's got a bunch of demented people on this team," said Suggs, "but he loves us."
That relaxed attitude enabled the Ravens to bolt to a commanding preblackout lead. It also helped them keep things in perspective as Kaepernick and the Niners roared back. According to the Ravens, it was almost inevitable that the 49ers would rally and come close to snatching the game. To win any other way, tight end Ed Dickson said, "wouldn't have been the Ravens way. The whole season we've been fighting through stuff like that."
The tribulations endured and overcome by Baltimore this season rivaled the trials of Job, and got almost as much ink. That adversity, what Ray Lewis called "the up-and-down roller coaster" of the season, conditioned the Ravens for the 49ers' bounce-back. "Nobody ever panicked," Lewis exulted. Which is not to say the stress did not boil over at times. "We didn't play great in the second half," said strong safety Bernard Pollard. "We were pissed off."
Despite some strong words on the sideline, the Ravens bowed their backs when they had to. "It was awesome to see guys get frustrated, get mad, then pull back together," said Reed. But Baltimore took bend-but-don't-break to a dangerous extreme. Frank Gore gashed the Ravens on runs of eight and 33 yards—he finished with 110—setting up a first-and-goal at the seven-yard line. A defense that had been papier-mâché for the better part of the half suddenly needed to be a rock. "We've been known primarily for defense through the years, but the offense carried us this year," Suggs allowed. "In the end, it came down to defense. We knew we needed just ... one ... stop. In the huddle Ray said it: 'We gotta win all four of these downs.'"
And they did, thanks in part to some curious decision-making by 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. On those final four plays, Kaepernick lined up just once in the pistol, which the Ravens had struggled to stop. "We weren't gonna let him run it in," said Suggs. "We were gonna make him do it with his arm." Three times Kaepernick targeted Michael Crabtree. Three times the ball fell incomplete.
An hour later, Reed agreed that the second half had probably given him a few more gray hairs. He'd collected a stout Montecristo cigar from kicker Justin Tucker, and he was still talking about second-lining it down Poydras back to the team hotel. This Super Bowl, he concluded, was like the Ravens' season itself: "Started good, got ugly, ended great."