NEW ORLEANS -- The vision has consumed some of them for almost a decade. During their most painful moments as Ravens, they wondered if it would ever happen, if they would ever experience a moment that their leader has spoken of so many times.
Linebacker Ray Lewis is the only Ravens player qualified to talk about it. Twelve years ago, he stood on the field at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., and lifted the Lombardi Trophy as confetti rained down on the Super Bowl champions.
Now, in the final game of his sterling 17-year NFL career spent entirely in a Ravens uniform, he and his teammates finally have the opportunity to fulfill that vision together. When they take the field tonight and face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Ravens will be looking to celebrate the end to an important era for the franchise with a championship.
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"I want to win this game for a lot of guys. If I can leave them anything as a leader, I want to leave them a memory that we will never forget the rest of our lives," Lewis said. "Everything I'm here to do, my entire focus is to bring my teammates a championship. For me to get my second one, I couldn't ask for anything else. I couldn't ask for anything better than to see that confetti drop."
The "last ride" for Lewis has been a prime focus during the team's surprising run to a second Super Bowl, but for many Ravens, a victory would provide career validation or a fitting send-off.
Steve Bisciotti, a minority owner when the Ravens beat the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV who said he was a "fly on the wall" for the experience, would win his first ring since completing his purchase of the franchise in 2004. Ozzie Newsome would get his second, further cementing his status as one of the NFL's best general managers.
Bisciotti and Newsome were the first to say last week that they want a championship more for coach John Harbaugh, an unconventional hire in 2008 who has won everything but a Super Bowl, and his players.
Safety Ed Reed has played 11 seasons with the Ravens and will likely follow Lewis into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. While he has listened to Lewis talk about the feeling of winning a Super Bowl, Reed has endured near-misses and postseason heartbreak. He has a chance to change that tonight, less than a half-hour's drive from where he grew up.
"Ray told me that story so many times," Reed said. "That's what we're here to fight for. That's what we're here to battle for."
Reed is hardly alone. Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Vonta Leach, Anquan Boldin, Matt Birk, Bryant McKinnie, Marshal Yanda, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Cary Williams, Corey Graham and Bernard Pollard have played five or more seasons in the NFL without getting a chance to touch the Lombardi Trophy. While the NFC-champion 49ers have a relatively young nucleus, the Ravens' core is loaded with experience and running out of chances.
"Nobody can take that feeling away after it's all said and done," said Rice, who has made the playoffs in all five of his NFL seasons but will be playing in his first Super Bowl. "You are connected for life. ... This locker room is not going to be the same next year. It's the NFL; it's never the same. These things are one and done. That's the hardest part about the NFL. It wasn't one and done in college, it was three years. Myself, some of us are fortunate enough to play with guys for an extended amount of time, but for the most part everybody knows it's a one-shot deal. That's the feeling that hurts because these are guys you can generally say you love and you know you only get one time to do this with them."
That could be especially true of these Ravens. The retirement of Lewis, the longtime face of the franchise, will undoubtedly usher in a new era for the team, but he is likely to be one of many departures.
Reed, 34, is a free agent after this season and if he does decide to keep playing — the mercurial safety has flirted with retirement in the past — it's hardly certain the Ravens will bring him back. People close to Birk believe the 36-year-old will retire after his 15th NFL season and first appearance in the Super Bowl.
Defensive starters Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Williams, who will play key roles tonight, are going to be free agents. Up against the salary cap and needing to sign Flacco to an extension, the Ravens might not be able to afford to keep any of them. Several other veterans could be cap casualties as well.
"There probably will never be another 53 men like this ever again," rookie left guard Kelechi Osemele said. "Just the chemistry of this group is completely different. I can't imagine another team having the chemistry that we have."
Win or lose tonight, Suggs said, he doesn't expect the Ravens' roster to be overhauled. But he acknowledged that the fact that Lewis, the man he affectionately calls "The General," is moving on will automatically fuel talk of a shift with the Ravens. If Reed follows Lewis out of Baltimore, the Ravens' identity will move further to the offensive side of the ball with Flacco, Rice and young receiver Torrey Smith.
"It's a transition that you knew had to take place," said Brian Billick, an NFL analyst for Fox and the team's coach when the Ravens won the Super Bowl after the 2000 season. "You kind of knew it would happen with Ray leaving, from the defense-dominated group to now, the offensive side. But that's what this league is about. Ozzie has done a great job orchestrating it.
"It does feel odd. It will probably feel more odd at the beginning of next season if you look around and there's no Ray Lewis [and], if indeed, there's no Ed Reed."
After the Super Bowl, Billick watched his team's veterans slowly move on. Quarterback Trent Dilfer didn't play for the Ravens again. Tight end Shannon Sharpe, defensive tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, and safety Rod Woodson each played one more season before departing.
Only Lewis remains from that group. He soon will be gone, too. Before that, the Ravens have one more chance to experience something that only Lewis has. If there is confetti falling from the roof of the Superdome on them tonight and they are celebrating on the field, Lewis' and the Ravens' ride will be complete.
"We just knew that the relationship we have with guys like [Siragusa], and Jamal [Lewis] and Trent and all those guys, we have just a special love for them, for putting the Ravens on the map," Bisciotti said. "We're going to have that type of relationship with some of these guys, and I just want it to include the ring. I want it to include that history for Baltimore.
"When I knew Ray was going to retire, then certainly I doubled up my prayers. If it's ever going to happen, let it happen this year. I can honestly say that if Ed and Ray walk away, then for people like Haloti and Suggs and all those guys, I'll be just as happy for them. But if we miss this year and win it next year, it will kill me that Ray didn't get to walk out on top and that Ed may or may not be around to get his. So this is the year."
The end of an era?
The Ravens team that plays in Super Bowl XLVII tonight will likely have a decidedly different look next season. Below are key players who could leave for free agency or decide to retire.
|Player||Pos||Yrs with Ravens||Jeff Zrebiec's skinny|
|Matt Birk||C||4||After starting every game over the past four years, he's likely to retire.|
|Dannell Ellerbe||LB||4||He might have priced himself out of the Ravens' market with a strong season.|
|Paul Kruger||LB||4||Teams pay for pass rushers, and the free-agent-to-be had nine sacks this year.|
|Ray Lewis||LB||17||The longtime face of the franchise's next stop will be the Hall of Fame.|
|Bryant McKinnie||OT||2||Eligible for free agency, he might have salvaged his career with a strong finish.|
|Ed Reed||S||11||The Ravens could lose another longtime star to free agency or retirement.|
|Cary Williams||CB||4||Picked on early, Williams elevated his game and earned a nice free-agent contract.|