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.
"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."