NEW ORLEANS –- When the Ravens won its first Super Bowl in 2001, it was with an all-time great defense.
Sunday, they did it with a dynamic offense that staked them to a 22-point lead early in the third quarter behind three touchdown passes from quarterback Joe Flacco en route to a 34-31 triumph.
With Flacco unable to get the Ravens in the end zone in the second half, however, the defense came through with a goal-line stand that started with 2:39 left in the game.
“The first half ended up being a really big part of the game,” said Flacco, the game’s MVP who threw all of his TDs in the first two quarters. “This game is crazy. The game always comes down to two-minute drives and that’s exactly what it came down to today. We were able to get it done in the first half and these guys came up that short.”
To be exact, that short is 5 yards. Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick failed on three consecutive passes to Michael Crabtree. The Ravens milked the clock, took an intentional safety, and gave the ball back with 12 seconds left.
With Kaepernick forced to be a passer instead of running the vaunted read-option with Frank Gore, the 49ers came from 17 points down to beat the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game 28-24. He was on the verge of doing it again.
Kaepernick overthrew a pass to Randy Moss that was intercepted by Ed Reed in the second quarter, but he overcame the shaky start to finish 16-for-28 passing for 302 yards and 1 TD.
“It is really not just Colin. He makes it go, but their offense is incredible,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “There are so many problems that they pose. Trying to find a defense to call is extremely difficult. I thought (defensive coordinator) Dean Pees did a tremendous job. I thought out players did a tremendous job of playing with discipline. You make one mistake – you do not cover it exactly right, you do not close it exactly right, and they make a big play.”
Kaepernick’s scoring throw came from 31 yards to Crabtree, who rumbled 15 of those yards after the catch for San Francisco’s first TD to cut the deficit to 28-13. A three-plays-and-out series by the Ravens, followed by a bad punt and a 32-yard return by Ted Ginn, set up a quick score.
On the second play of that drive, Gore ran the ball in from 6 yards to trim it to 28-20. To make matters worse, the Ravens lost defensive tackle Haloti Ngata to a knee injury on the play and he didn't return.
Ravens rookie kicker Justin Tucker made field goals of 19 and 38 yards in the fourth quarter that proved to be the winning margin. Tucker finished the season without missing a kick indoors.
Flacco threw touchdowns of 13 to Anquan Boldin, 1 to Dennis Pitta and 56 yards to Jacoby Jones to spot the Ravens the lead. It was enough for him to finish 22-for-33 for 287 yards and get the MVP trophy. Flacco didn't have an interception in the postseason and threw 11 touchdowns, tying him with Joe Montana and Kurt Warner for the most in a single playoff run.
Jones opened the third quarter with a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that pushed the lead to 28-6 for Baltimore. Then there was a 34-minute blackout at the Superdome and when the lights came on again the momentum shifted to San Francisco.
Before the goal-line stand, the defense did something else that was telling. Ray Rice lost his third postseason fumble when Tarell Brown jarred the ball loose on a reception.
San Francisco took over at the Ravens’ 24, but Kaepernick had two incomplete passes and Gore only gained three yards on a rush. They had to settle for a 34-yard field goal from David Akers and a 28-23 deficit.
They threatened, but they never could take the lead. Rice, who hadn't lost a fumble in the entire regular season, was off the hook. His previous turnovers, both came in a wild-card playoff win vs. the Indianapolis Colts, didn't lead to points.
"It was a hard-fought game," Reed said. "It's hard to enjoy that when you're playing a game like that against a great team. San Francisco played their hearts out. Any one of us could be right here. ... Oh my God, is it real?"