The Super Bowl is fundamentally different from almost every other championship round. In the NBA, the conference semifinals lead into the conference finals; the conference finals lead into the NBA Finals. It’s a seamless, uninterrupted transition. The move from championship weekend to the Super Bowl, with its extended waiting period and neutral-site location, is far from it. Given the three-tiered AFC dominance Ravens fans have long suffered under, I think it’s fair to say the Super Bowl long felt like a party we were just never quite cool enough to get invited to.
For two weeks, everyone’s been talking about us. Without making the Super Bowl, we probably don’t get the features on how awesome Ed Reed is, on how awesome Ozzie Newsome is. And no, these aren’t first downs or defensive stops, but a two-week celebration of your team is still something worth getting excited about. But is getting to the party enough?
I wrote two weeks ago that the AFC championship means more, and I stand by that. Like nearly all Super Bowls, I really couldn’t care less about the specific opponent — that the 49ers are an exceptionally good team pretty much summarizes my opinion of them. But now that we’re here, now that we’re at the party … well, we may as well win. Not for this year, necessarily; this year is still a roaring success if we lose 37-3. I want to win this year to validate the last 10. For better or worse, the descriptor “champion” absolves a team from blame or ridicule. Past losses are suddenly just building blocks, and future losses are just losses, not moral failings. The Steelers missed the playoffs this year largely because Ben Roethlisberger threw terrible interceptions against Dallas and Cincinnati, and no one had a conniption. The Spurs had a 20-game win streak and a 2-0 conference finals lead last spring, lost four straight games, and no one noticed because LeBron James might choke again. I don’t think anyone ever accused the Ravens of losing big games because they lacked mental toughness, but there’s certainly a sense they talk a lot for a team that doesn’t beat its biggest rivals a lot. We’re on the precipice of erasing that now.
The trouble with a precipice, though, is getting back if you fail. Of course, the Ravens were on a lesser precipice last year, failed in the most agonizing fashion imaginable, and then came back to the scene to complete it. But doing the same for a Super Bowl is even more difficult — it’s a round deeper, with a few more teams to outperform. At some point, you’ve had your last chance.
We never really know when a team’s window has closed (see: every discussion about the Boston Celtics over the last four years), but even if the franchise’s window remains open — which, given the young skill position talent and front office ingenuity at our disposal, could be longer than we instinctively believe — it is obviously the “last ride” for the Ravens as we know them.
The Ravens will probably play in another Super Bowl one day, because they’re not the Browns anymore. But it probably won’t be the final game in a Ravens jersey for the two best players in franchise history; it probably won’t come after a string of two AFC championship losses and five playoff appearances in the previous six years; and it definitely won’t be the game culminating the formative years of our sports fandom.
It all boils down to a single three-hour game that will start about three hours from now. It’s exhilarating, but utterly terrifying. And all we can do is watch.