Harbaughs make Super Bowl a family affair


American Football:When they were little, the Harbaugh brothers fought so heatedly that John, the older one, once recalled his mother wailing: “You’re brothers! You’re not supposed to act like this!”

John and Jim, the younger one, now have more in common than differences. They are the first brothers to be NFL head coaches, and last season they said they each sent game film to their adored father, Jack, a former college coach who inspired their careers.

And on Sunday, the brothers, separated in age by 15 months, grew that much closer, leading their teams - John’s Baltimore Ravens and Jim’s San Francisco 49ers - to conference championship victories on the road just hours apart, setting up a family feud twist on the Super Bowl in two weeks - the HarBowl.

“I don’t know if we had a dream this big,” John Harbaugh said. “We had a few dreams, we had a few fights. We had a few arguments. We will try to stay out of that business. We’ll let the two teams duke it out as much as possible.”

The Ravens’ 28-13 victory over the heavily favoured New England Patriots was their first win in three AFC championship game appearances in the last five years, and it returned them to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2000 season, when they trounced the Giants for the franchise’s only title.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was at the height of his career then, the defensive player of the year and the unquestioned leader of a defence-dominated team that dragged the offence behind it to the championship.

Several weeks ago, Lewis announced that this season would be his last. After he tore his triceps early in the season, the Ravens had kept him off the injured reserve list in hopes he could return for the play-offs.

A deep play-off run seemed unlikely, though. The Ravens lost four of the last five games in the regular season and John Harbaugh even made the dramatic decision to change offensive coordinators in the final month of the season, a move that mirrored Jim’s decision to make the inexperienced Colin Kaepernick his starting quarterback after Alex Smith was injured.

The Ravens' offence has played nearly perfectly in three play-off victories - quarterback Joe Flacco has thrown eight touchdown passes and no interceptions - and so Lewis’s career will end on a fitting stage for one of the greatest defensive players in history, who has watched the transformation of the Ravens from a team that struggled to score touchdowns during their first championship run to one that outdueled the NFL’s best offence on Sunday night.

Last week, Lewis, in a passing-the-torch moment, said Flacco had grown up after he had beaten Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in a double-overtime divisional-round upset. This time, Flacco outshone Tom Brady, who was hoping to become the first quarterback to reach six Super Bowls.

Brady and the Patriots have won three of them, but none since 2004. They lost their last two to the Giants, and now, with the rise of the Ravens, the Patriots’ dominance over the AFC has succumbed to a new challenger. It was the first time in 68 games that Brady started and the Patriots lost a game at home after leading at half-time.

To do that, Flacco led three sustained scoring drives - including one of 90 yards and another of 87 yards - with a mixture of no-huddle passing and timely runs by Ray Rice, undoubtedly aided by the early departure of Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, who suffered a thigh injury and did not return.

But, in a nod to the glorious defensive past, it was a tip by the Ravens’ defensive end Pernell McPhee of a fourth-quarter Brady pass - launching it into the air, where it descended into the hands of Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe - that effectively ended the Patriots’ season.

The Ravens were leading by 15 points, but the Patriots were driving into their territory. Brady looked stunned as he walked off the field, and that was to be expected. For most of his career, those are the kinds of mistakes the Patriots usually force on their opponents. Instead, their offence sputtered throughout the night, with dropped passes, bad throws and stalled drives.

They were shut out in the second half by, and lost three turnovers to, a defence that, for much of the season, had looked to be in decline. It was the first time since week two of the 2009 season that the Patriots were held to fewer than two touchdowns.

“Shut them out in the second half,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs screamed as he came off the field. “Tell them to have fun at the Pro Bowl.” Then Suggs called the Patriots arrogant and cursed them.

On paper, New England owned the first half, rolling up 48 plays to Baltimore’s 27. But thanks to a bit of botched clock management at the end of the first half -Brady scrambled with time ticking away, then waited too long to take a timeout - the Patriots had to settle for a field goal that gave them just a six-point lead at half-time, 13-7.

In the third quarter, the Ravens started a drive that lasted nearly nine minutes, and included no third downs. The Ravens specialised in a deep strike offence this season, but this was the kind of clock-chewing drive they needed - to give the tired defence a rest, and to keep Brady off the field. By the time Brady got the ball back, the Patriots were trailing - a short Flacco pass to Dennis Pitta on the right side of the end zone did the job - and the Patriots didn’t score again, the Ravens defence taking over, same as it ever was.

The Patriots’ final gasp, long after the stands had emptied, ended with Brady intercepted in the end zone with about a minute to play. Brady trudged off the field and, with Patriots’ fans having fled to their cars, the seats closest to the field were left to the thousands of purple-clad Ravens fans who had made the trip.

Ravens players sprinted onto the field jubilantly. Flacco walked along the side of the Gillette Stadium field, greeting fans. Brady was long gone into the locker room.

The Patriots' dynasty of the last decade seemed, at that moment, to be in decline. Perhaps it will rise again next season. But the Harbaugh family, their fights long behind them, might be about to begin one of their own.

With a bit more luck, the pair might have met in the Super Bowl last year but both came up short with the 49ers losing the NFC championship in overtime to the New York Giants and the Ravens losing by three points to the Patriots in the AFC.

The 49ers, one of the NFL’s most successful franchises, will be making their first appearance in the Super Bowl for 18 years.

They have never lost an NFL title game and if they maintain their perfect record they will tie the Pittsburgh Steelers’ record of six titles.

Their chances of just getting to the Super Bowl looked doomed after they fell 17-0 down in the early second quarter, a deficit no team had ever overcome in the NFC championship game.

With Kaepernick calling the shots, they rallied back with two touchdowns, briefly cutting the margin to three points before Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan connected with retiring tight end Tony Gonzalez to give the Falcons a 10-point advantage at half-time.

But the Falcons failed to score a single point in the second half while San Francisco running back Frank Gore scored two unanswered touchdowns to secure his team’s victory.

New York Times service

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