The 49ers finally died at the Baltimore 5, after a 33-yard Frank Gore run gave them first-and-goal from the 7 with more than 2 minutes to score the winning touchdown. But San Francisco's second-year quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, wasn't up to that task, throwing incomplete three times in a row after a LeMichael James run to the 5.
"Games can go like that," Flacco said. He said he was sitting on the bench figuring the 49ers would score, thinking about how much time he might have to get within Justin Tucker's range for a game-winning field goal, when his defense stepped up and made it easy for him. "This game always comes down to 2-minute drives," he said.
"The final series of Ray Lewis' career was a goal-line stand to win the Lombardi Trophy," marveled Ravens coach John Harbaugh, an Eagles assistant from 1998-2007. Linebacker Lewis, 37, announced his pending retirement beforehand. He goes out with a pair of Super Bowl rings, won a dozen years apart. Harbaugh said winning it all "feels like Ray said it would feel."
Flacco was 22-for-33 for 287 yards, three first-half touchdowns and a 124.2 passer rating. With 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the postseason, Flacco, at 28, will now sign the kind of contract that top-echelon, Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks get, and that Ravens management pledged to give him, during a week peppered with questions about that detail.
In fact, Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, when asked about his success this week, said: "It goes with the quarterback. If Joe Flacco wasn't a very good quarterback right now, I'd probably be playing golf down in Alabama somewhere."
Flacco said afterward he hadn't been thinking about his contract, but he noted that owner Steve Bisciotti told him, "I could go beat on his desk and really put it to him" if Flacco won the Super Bowl.
"That's what I'm going to do," he said.
When the game ended on a free kick following a safety Baltimore took to keep from punting, it seemed fair to say that the Ravens reflected not just Flacco but the cool, solid, consistent personality of their coach. The 49ers proved to be more like his brother Jim, who will be remembered for his passionate pleading in vain for a holding penalty on the fourth-down incompletion that doomed the NFC champs - they were often brilliant but erratic, losing the turnover battle, taking more penalties, giving up a special-teams touchdown that made the difference. Had they won, it would have been one of the sloppiest, most up-and-down winning efforts ever. But there is a reason why nobody has ever come back from more than a 10-point deficit to win this game.
Jim Harbaugh said he tried to get the officials to be more concerned about holding by the Ravens' defenders all night but never got a flag. He said he felt the Jimmy Smith fourth-down hold on Michael Crabtree was "obvious."
Both coaches said their postgame meeting at midfield was the hardest thing they'd ever experienced.
"I told him, 'Congratulations,'" Jim Harbaugh said. "I told him I was proud of him."
Jim Harbaugh said his team "battled back to get in it, right to the brink of winning it."
John Harbaugh said: "The way that game played out, when it was 28-6 and the lights went out, whatever happened, I just knew with Jim Harbaugh being on the sideline, all those years we've been together, that that game was going to be a dogfight right down to the end. Those guys were coming back.
"There's no greater competitor, there's no greater coach in the National Football League, or in the world as far as I'm concerned, as Jim Harbaugh, and the way that team played proved it...I could not be more proud of him and what he's done there."
Going into the afternoon, a lot of experts thought the 49ers had the better roster but that Baltimore and specifically Flacco had a huge edge in big-game experience. This was as good an explanation as any for the dramatic difference between the halves.
"We've been put through those situations, so when they come up, we don't know if we're going to be successful in them, but the bottom line is, the moment doesn't get too big. We are comfortable," Flacco said. "We've been there before. We've failed before. We've succeeded before. We're not worried about the outcome."
"Joe was phenomenal," said John Harbaugh, who pointed out a first-down throw Flacco made in the fourth quarter on third-and-inches. Harbaugh said Flacco had three options on that play and went with the toughest, a fade to Anquan Boldin. "He has the guts of a burglar," Harbaugh said.
"That's why he's a great player," tight end Dennis Pitta said, when asked about Flacco's placid demeanor. "He doesn't change in tough situations. He was unbelievable."
Kaepernick, who had been a revelation since taking over for concussed Alex Smith at midseason, wobbled through an unfortunate first half. He looked increasingly rattled as the 49ers' deficit mounted. It seemed telling when, on his first throw after the Ravens took a 14-3 lead, Kaepernick badly overthrew Randy Moss, straight to Ed Reed, who has made a career of not dropping interceptions.
The 49ers were so hapless, even when Baltimore handed them a chance to rally following the Kaepernick interception, choosing to have Tucker run on a fake field goal on fourth-and-9 from the San Francisco 14, they had no juice. First down, Gore ran for no gain. Second down, Kaepernick had all day and receivers running free. He threw late to Moss, and the pass was nearly picked off. On third-and-10, Jim Harbaugh elected to set up the punt with a safe Gore 6-yard run, rather than giving Kaepernick another shot at throwing for a first down.
After the punt, Flacco found Jacoby Jones behind the defense. Jones was so alone, he fell as he caught the ball, then got up and ran it in, 56 yards total.
Flacco said he and the coaching staff were on the same page there, going for a pump-fake double move, figuring on third-and-10, the Niners would be sure he was just trying to move the sticks.
The 49ers drove for a field goal that needed to be a touchdown, and trailed 21-6 at halftime. There was lots of talk of how they'd been down 17-0 at Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game, but that was not the Super Bowl. Nobody has ever come back from 21-6 in the Super Bowl.
It was 28-6 when Jones chased Beyonce down the tunnel, running the second-half kickoff back 108 yards, touched only once, when San Francisco's Darcel McBath made a late dive, got hands on Jones but couldn't wrap.
Then, the lights went out, and for a while, everything changed. Kaepernick's 31-yard TD pass to Crabtree made it 28-13.
A 32-yard Ted Ginn Jr. punt return set up the 49ers again, and they made it 28-20 on a 6-yard Gore run. Then reliable Ray Rice fumbled, Tarell Brown both punching the ball out and recovering it. Niners' ball at the Baltimore 24, and it was settled that this was going to be like no Super Bowl, ever.
The Ravens' defense held, and beleaguered former Eagles kicker David Akers missed a 39-yard field goal - but Chykie Brown, diving, brushed the back of Akers' legs and was judged to have roughed the kicker. With another chance, from 34, Akers delivered.
Flacco, 18-for-27 for 252 yards, three touchdowns and a 133.6 passer rating through three quarters, drove the Ravens for a field goal that restored their eight-point margin, only briefly. Kaepernick was feeling it; he hit Moss for 32 yards, then zipped home himself from 15. Two-point conversion pass failed, 31-29 Ravens.
Flacco led another field-goal drive, leaving Kaepernick 4:19 to make history. He almost did.
"We're a tough, blue-collar city," Flacco said. "I think it's fitting that we won that way."