The National Football League may be heading into a fraught off-season, with Congressional hearings likely into the sport's safety, and a mega-lawsuit in which thousands of former players accuse the NFL for covering up the life-threatening dangers of head injuries. For a while at least, however, it can bask in the memory of one of the most thrilling – and bizarre – Super Bowls ever.
On Tuesday, gritty, blue-collar Baltimore will come to a standstill as the city lays on a parade and other festivities to celebrate the hometown Ravens' epic 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans on Sunday night, in the biggest showcase event in America's sporting calendar.
The game had everything and more: the touchlines duel of Jim and John Harbaugh, the first pair of brothers to coach in the NFL, let alone the Super Bowl; the perfect end to the career of Ray Lewis, the Ravens' legendary linebacker for 17 controversy-studded seasons, and of course the power failure that halted play for 34 minutes at the start of the second half.
Maybe the stoppage – hugely embarrassing for both the NFL and for the city that was hosting its first Super Bowl since Katrina laid waste to New Orleans in 2005 – played a bigger part in the outcome than any single player.
Seconds beforehand, the Ravens' wide receiver Jacoby Jones had returned the 49ers kick-off for a record-tying 108 yards, and a touchdown that gave Baltimore a seemingly unassailable 28-6 lead.
That spectacular play followed a near-flawless first half from Joe Flacco, the Ravens quarterback, who threw three touchdowns, including a 56-yard monster to the same Jacoby Jones. But then the lights went out, and when they came back on, everything changed.
Suddenly it was San Francisco with all the momentum and Baltimore making all the mistakes. Ten minutes, two touchdowns and a field goal later, the 49ers had slashed the deficit to 28-23. The Ravens padded out their lead with a field goal, only for Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback making just his 10th NFL start, to run in a 15-yard touchdown and bring his revitalised team within touching distance of the biggest comeback win in Super Bowl history.
In the end it was not to be, but not before, with just 110 seconds on the clock, Kaepernick had a fourth and five for a touchdown and – in effect – the Vince Lombardi trophy. But the pass was incomplete and the Ravens, displaying the hardscrabble virtues of their home city, somehow held on.
"Obviously, they [the 49ers] dealt with it better, they were able to turn the momentum of the game," Baltimore's John, the victorious Harbaugh sibling, said afterwards of the enforced interruption, caused apparently by a fault in the stadium's internal circuitry.
As for those nerve-shredding last few minutes, "How could it be any other way?" John added. " It wasn't perfect, it wasn't pretty, but it was us."
The same might be said for Baltimore's entire path to Super Bowl XLVII glory. From first to last, they did it the hard way. All four of their post-season games were on the road. In everyone of them they were the odds-makers' underdogs.
In two of them, they had to overcome the greatest quarterbacks of the era, first the Broncos' Peyton Manning in Denver, then New England's Tom Brady in the AFC championship game. In New Orleans' Superdome, they faced Kaepernick, a novice perhaps, but already being hailed as a future NFL great.
In the end the night would belong to Flacco, who completed 22 of 33 passes for a total of 287 yards, was named as the game's most valuable player, and is now set to take over from Lewis as the face of the Ravens franchise. But only just. Kaepernick seemed unsure of himself in the first half, but then so did the rest of his team. After the electrical malfunction was sorted out, every 49ers drive looked as if it would end in a score.
But one day, even in ecstatic Baltimore, memories of this magnificent encounter will fade. And for the NFL testing months lie ahead.
The likely Congressional hearings may prove little more than theatre. But the lawsuit, involving more than 4,000 players and their wives, is another matter – a threat not just to the finances of the NFL with its $9 billion revenue but, some warn, to the long-term survival of the country's most popular spectator sport.
"I'm a big football fan," President Obama told the New Republic magazine last month, "but I have to tell you, if I had a son I'd have to think long and hard before I'd let him play football."
At the least, rule changes are likely to diminish the sport's violence, one of its biggest appeals. At worst, pessimists warn, the NFL could even go the way of professional boxing.Reuse content