NEW ORLEANS — — This isn't just Ray Lewis' last ride anymore. It isn't just the heart-warming story of two competitive brothers meeting on the NFL's biggest stage. It isn't about Joe Flacco's status as an elite quarterback and the $100 million contract that will almost certainly come with it.
It's about everybody now.
For the past few weeks, it has been about No. 52. Now, it's about 53 — the number of players on the roster.
When the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers walk off the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night, Lewis will still be headed for the Hall of Fame. Flacco will still be on the verge of a fat new contract. And the Harbaughs, hopefully, will still spend some Thanksgivings together.
The only way this all works for everybody is for the Ravens to put a Size XLVII beatdown on the Niners and make the Super Bowl dream of every player and fan come true in a hail of confetti and self-congratulation. The rest of the week might be fun and exciting, but it's really just the consolation prize in advance for the guys who find out they weren't really the "team of destiny."
Don't misunderstand. No one is going to discount the obstacles that the Ravens overcame this year or the special — sometimes magical — things that have happened during their amazing late-season run. They made it to the big dance and nobody can take that away from them regardless of the outcome on Sunday. But you don't see a lot of former NFL players showing off their AFC and NFC championship rings this week, because second prize is never good enough for the truly elite.
So, revel in Jacoby Jones' miracle touchdown one more time. Fire up your TIVO and watch Ray Rice convert that all-but-impossible fourth-and-29 checkdown pass against the Chargers. Send a taunting text message to that front-running Patriots fan you knew in college. Get it out of your system, because the only thing that matters now is that parade down Pratt Street.
It's time to hunt, and not just to harvest the antlers.
Of course, John Harbaugh has been trying to make that point all week. So has his brother, but we're all hoping that Jim's guys just tuned it out and spent every night stumbling around Bourbon Street.
The Ravens already have gone further than any other team in the five-year Harbaugh era, but this isn't the Orioles growing into a champion. This opportunity may not come around again soon. This is a Ravens team with too many key players either likely to retire or likely to put too big a dent in next year's salary cap.
The TV networks will have several camera locations devoted strictly to Lewis. His every move will be debated over the course of the game. And if there's any case to be made to name him the game's Most Valuable Player, well, you can forgive the rest of the media for getting caught up in that hype, too.
It isn't really Lewis, however, who makes the Ravens burn to win this title. He certainly helps, with his history and hystrionics, but it is the 52 (there's that number again) other players on the roster who really have the most at stake. Lewis, as one teammate pointed out on the day he announced his pending retirement, already has a Super Bowl ring. This is an opportunity to have a locker room full of them.
Flacco's contract? Ed Reed's future? Whether John Harbaugh will show up with the Lombardi Trophy at Jim's July 4th family barbeque? All of that will take care of itself if the Ravens take care of business on Sunday night.
Will they win? The oddsmakers have finally given them some chance this time. They opened as huge 9 1/2-point underdogs to both the Broncos and the Patriots. This time, they opened as 5-point dogs and the line has dropped slightly since. The betting line is actually a pretty good measure of national public opinion, so every Raven will be poised to deliver the usual post-championship mantra that "nobody gave us a chance."
It won't really be true, but if they actually get the chance to say that, it will be music to the ears of a very grateful generation of Ravens fans.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app