Somewhere between Jim Harbaugh's little-brother temper tantrum and John Harbaugh's cool big-brother congrats via CBS's cameras, this Super Bowl became a Christmas card certainty. The Harbowl. The family week in New Orleans. The Harbaugh parents' dream-slash-nightmare: The NFL's only brother head coaches facing each other in something much bigger than a backyard brawl.
It started when Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, led his team back from a three-score hole on the road Sunday, earning a 28-24 win in Atlanta. It completed when John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, led his team through three lead changes on the road three hours later, notching a 28-13 victory in New England.
John, the elder by exactly 15 months, had been asked about just this possibility last week, if the brothers Harbaugh, sons of a football coach, had ever talked about meeting in a Super Bowl.
"Not that I'd admit to," he'd said, with an impish grin.
Well, go ahead: There's no need for discretion anymore.
Ray Lewis is going to the Super Bowl. So is Joe Flacco, who had the audacity to call himself elite before this season started. And Colin Kaepernick, too, a tattooed quarterback who, for 15 of his 25 years, has had a pet turtle named Sammy. It's Lewis' farewell ceremony, Flacco's official ascension, Kaepernick's coming-out party and, most of all, a sea change for the country's most popular game. Staid and safe is out, new and bold is in.
That was Kaepernick and the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, winning not on the young quarterback's sprinter legs -- as they did last week -- but on his exquisite execution of the read-option offense.
That first touchdown by LaMichael James -- to finally, mercifully stop the Atlanta Falcons' game-opening run at 17 points -- was a zone read. Kaepernick saw Falcons end Kroy Biermann spying him and called the outside stretch; James went wide around Vernon Davis' block and quieted a raucous Georgia Dome crowd. It was a zone read when Kaepernick confused Stephen Nicholas, allowing running back Frank Gore to scoot into the end zone and cut Atlanta's lead to 24-21 in the third quarter. And it was an inside zone that the once-skeptical Gore Dirty Birded into the end zone for a second touchdown, giving the 49ers their first (and last) lead 6:37 into the fourth quarter and prompting the running back to declare of the read-option offense: "I love it."
And then that was Flacco and the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, with the fifth-year signal-caller besting Tom Brady a week after he bested Peyton Manning, and in a season in which he beat Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Brady a first time. Running back Ray Rice patiently bounced a run outside for the Ravens' first score, before Flacco put on a show in the second half, tossing two touchdowns to Anquan Boldin, one to Dennis Pitta and orchestrating 21 unanswered comeback points. This coming on a field that had never, in 67 previous tries, seen the Brady-Belichick Pats relinquish a halftime lead.
The defense hassled Brady, Lewis shed tears and it was clear the Ravens were following a recently set New York Giants formula, getting healthy and hot at the right time, playing with an intangible momentum (see: Lewis). And yet, both teams are following another prescription, too, one that says there's nothing wrong with tinkering, no mere waiting to see if the fates would align.
A year ago, San Francisco was in this NFC title game, at home and with Alex Smith as its quarterback. A Smith concussion in Week 10 of this season gave Jim Harbaugh the impetus to put in Kaepernick -- and to stay with the young quarterback, despite Smith's return to good health a short time later. The 49ers found a new dynamic.
A year ago, Baltimore was in this AFC title game, again in Foxborough and with Cam Cameron as its offensive coordinator. A late-season swoon gave John Harbaugh the impetus, in Week 15, to dismiss Cameron and promote quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell to OC. The Ravens found a new creativity.
Where Jim had the "Is he nuts?" quarterback change, John had the "Is he desperate?" offensive coordinator change. And now they both head to New Orleans.
But before we completely look forward, we must look back, because there was more to this day. Like the ashen look on Brady, who won so much so early, but has since suffered eight straight seasons of falling short.
There was Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, corralling the ball in the end zone late in the first half of the NFC game, then clutching it along the sideline, as if he knew it could be his last touchdown. Gonzalez might have revolutionized the tight end position, but after 16 years and one playoff win, he quietly conceded that it's time to make way for the likes of Davis, the 49ers tight end who's made the position a destination for freakish athletes.
There was Falcons owner Arthur Blank hanging his head, and there was San Francisco owner Jed York taking to Twitter to commend former 49ers head coach and current Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan for his classy congratulations. There were the Falcons, flummoxed by how to contain Kaepernick, Gore and Davis, too, wordlessly saying good luck with all of that to the Ravens. There were the Patriots, hearing Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs gleefully wish them fun at the Pro Bowl, and wondering if even the 49ers' defense could stop this train fueled by emotion.
There was Lewis, kissing the Gillette Stadium turf. There was Matt Ryan, cradling his dislocated shoulder.
Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.