Amid all of the improbable Sunday storylines, looking ahead to the Harbaugh Bowl and the rise of Colin Kaepernick and the vindication of Joe Flacco and the fact that Ray Lewis will be playing his final game ever in a Super Bowl, I could not help but think of a humble hero.
Ravens center Matt Birk, a man of unimpeachable character and a true pillar of the NFL, will be playing his final game in the biggest game of his career as well. Birk, a Harvard grad, a former Minnesota Vikings staple who most thought would never leave his home state, has done it the right way his entire career, and on Sunday he helped anchor a triumphant performance by a Ravens offensive line that atoned for past playoff failures. Birk began 2012 by being honored for his selfless charitable efforts by being named the Walter Payton Man of the Year, and he may well end up ringing in 2013 by hoisting a Lombardi.
New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork, in particular, had terrorized Flacco in the past, and especially a year ago in the AFC Championship Game at Foxborough. How would the Ravens interior line, with Birk mentoring rookie left guard Kelechi Osemele, meet the challenge this time? After all, Birk's knees have been more or less shot for years, he's been playing on guts and heart, and Baltimore drafted his replacement, Gino Gradkowski, last spring.
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In the haste to celebrate all of the other intriguing developments of this weekend of football, let us not forget what Birk has given to the game. He is one of the smartest players, for starters, and he has been an invaluable resource in Flacco's development, helping with protections and adjustments until the youngster fully took the reins of this team.
Baltimore appeared to gamble back in 2009, when they let emerging stud center Jason Brown depart in free agency, signing the biggest contract in NFL history for a center with the Rams. Most figured Birk would never leave the Vikings, but they came in low with their offers to him, and Baltimore swooped in. Only now, with Baltimore heading to the Super Bowl and Brown spending the entire 2013 season out of football, it seems like no gamble at all. Remember, Flacco was a very raw player, only a year removed from Delaware, when Birk was acquired. His steadying presence has played a key role in getting the quarterback, and team, to this point.
He has played in pain, in agony, and undergone plenty of surgeries. Yet Birk has also not missed a start since missing all of the 2005 season -- a stretch of 112 straight regular season games. Birk, in his 15th year, doesn't miss a snap. Not bad for a guy taken in the sixth round (173rd overall) back in 1998.
Ahead for Birk, a two-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler, awaits another massive challenge, this time the 49ers' defensive front, which many believe is the most physical and intimidating in the league. Only, it hasn't looked that way lately. The group lacked bite, again, in the pass rush Sunday, getting handled by Atlanta's offensive line for the most part. Justin Smith, playing with one arm, is still effective but not dominant. Aldon Smith, I am convinced, is masking a significant injury himself, as he was a ghost in the pass rush for a fifth straight game.
Two weeks is a lot of time to get healthy and correct some mistakes, but if the 49ers don't get that front four revved up, they could be in trouble. Baltimore's offensive line has been stout since the re-insertion of Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, shifting Osemele back to his natural position at guard and getting Michael Oher back to right tackle, where he belongs. San Francisco's linebackers have been exposed in coverage in recent weeks, and the Ravens are intent on slinging the ball around with Flacco playing at a superb level.
The extra time off will do Birk some good as well. It's been a grind for the Ravens to reach this point. And the best may be still to come.
If this team does have one more win in it, the cameras and attention will go to Ray Lewis in the aftermath. And rightfully so. But Birk will be savoring it just the same, and leaving the game the same way Lewis does. He'll do it with a lot less fanfare, though, content in his accomplishments and the admiration of his peers, and ready to move forward with the next phase of his life.
Whither the Pro Bowl?
So next weekend brings us the Pro Bowl.
Who cares? Personally, I liked the idea of kicking off Super Bowl week with the game in the same stadium as the Super Bowl itself. With the lease in Hawaii expiring, if anything I would go that route.
In trying to come up with some ways to make the game more interesting, I thought maybe it could be used as a testing ground for rule changes and things the Competition Committee is considering. Maybe that could make it somewhat more newsworthy. I think maybe doing a rookies-vs.-veterans thing might be worth a shot, rather than the traditional AFC vs. NFC.
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It's never going to be easy to replicate a sport as brutal as football in a meaningless all-star format. There is simply too much to risk from a health standpoint. So there will always be flaws. Scrapping it wouldn't cause many to shed tears and, honestly, with the NFL so intent on going global, maybe the best way to market its brightest stars is by playing this game abroad. Move it around in the UK. It won't be missed much back here.
Jauron deserves another shot
You can't tell me there isn't room in the NFL for Dick Jauron. He's one of a handful of coaches still out there looking for work who's worthy of a call.
Jauron did a hell of a job with a very young Browns defense for the past two years, despite getting absolutely no support from an inept offense and despite playing in a very competitive division full of quality quarterbacks. I understand the Browns wanting to go with a more aggressive, 3-4 schemer in new coordinator Ray Horton, but if I am rookie head coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, I am going to try to find a spot to bring a former head coach like Jauron on board to help run the side of the ball that Kelly has very little to do with.
• It's kind of crazy to think how few Patriots remain from their last Super Bowl winning team. Obviously, Brady and Wilfork are the constants, but I am struggling to come up with many other names on either side of the ball. The coaching staff has turned over a fair amount from the last time they brought home a Lombardi as well.
• Was pretty huge for John Harbaugh to get over the championship game hump. Before getting the win Sunday, he was 1-6 in the title game in his career going back to his time on Andy Reid's staff.
• You won't find an owner who is more down to earth and who has more class and dignity than Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. If you happened to throw back a few beers with him, you'd have no idea he is a powerful billionaire; he doesn't wear his money on his sleeve and he truly understands how to lead and motivate others in a selfless fashion. He gets it, and not every younger owner does.
• Amid all of the various subplots in this game, Randy Moss back in the Super Bowl is hardly chief among them. But in a year in which TO and Chad Johnson and some other high profile receivers faded away, Moss's decision to sit out the 2011 season has been rewarded with a chance at his first ring.