NEW ORLEANS All week the football pilgrims, and those who came for carnival and landed in the vortex of the Super Bowl, had strolled through a city reborn. The San Francisco 49ers came to complete a renaissance of their own.
It will have to wait.
The 49ers were beaten by the battle-tested Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, 34-31, in what began as a laugher and turned into a thriller. Jim Harbaugh, the fiery head coach who has taken a downtrodden franchise from upstart to power in two years, was left to smolder as his big brother John, head coach of the Ravens, became the first member of the family to hoist the coveted Lombardi Trophy.
"You continued to hear, 'Quest for six, quest for six, quest for six,'" said 49ers safety Donte Whitner, pressed in a suit and seated at a podium in the bowels of the Superdome. "And we wanted to get six. But we just fell short. And it's tough, man."
They had seen reminders of the first five triumphs everywhere the week before.
Joe Montana walked Bourbon Street. Steve Young and Jerry Rice appeared for interviews in the breezy French Quarter. Hundreds of disciples wore on their backs the names of these links to the not-so-distant past, memories of the glory days, of five championship rings in 13 years.
Those past teams didn't always reach the Super Bowl. But when they got there, riding a 25-year-old Montana and Bill Walsh to their first in 1982, they won it. Five times in five trips. And 18 years removed from the last title, these 49ers arrived in New Orleans amid whispers of a new dynasty.
"With us players, and those former 49ers, it's a new era," Whitner said. "They were 5-0. We're 0-1. So we have to get back and even it up."
And this was also their second try in the Harbaugh family duel. The Harbaugh family scoreboard now reads: John 2, Jim 0.
The second meeting of the head-coaching brothers and first for the Super Bowl ended just as the Thanksgiving Day "HarBowl" did last season, with disappointment for Jim. After the clock reached zeroes Sunday, the two met on the field for a handshake and a meaningful look, then parted ways. The exchange of words, Jim said, was brief.
"Congratulations," Jim Harbaugh said. "And that I was proud of him. I think (he said) the same thing."
Those who favored the 49ers going in had trumpeted their talent, their punishing defense, their wunderkind quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, with the rocket arm and long strides. But early on, a normally poised team fell victim to mistakes penalties, a costly fumble, an interception, blown coverage.
And the Ravens, experienced and inspired by the impending retirement of their spiritual and defensive anchor Ray Lewis, were happy to take advantage and a 22-point lead in the third quarter. Instead of Kaepernick, the Ravens' stoic Joe Flacco was equaling a mark set by Montana during the 1989 postseason 11 passing touchdowns, no interceptions in the playoffs.
The Superdome, in which the majority of the 71,024 fans seemed to be supporting the Ravens, swayed to chants of "Seven Nation Army," their adopted anthem. And then the lights flickered, and failed. And when the power came back on after a 35-minute delay, it was as though the on-field circuitry had been switched.
The 49ers pulled within a touchdown and, late in the fourth quarter, sent Kaepernick out with a chance to lead a game-winning drive. He drove them to the shadow of the goal line, onto the cusp of comparisons to Montana, but his last-chance pass for Michael Crabtree sailed out of the receiver's reach.
"I think (we were) the better team," 49ers running back Frank Gore said. "Just have to be proud of the way we kept fighting. Some teams probably would've just laid down, probably would've just laid down. And it let people know what type of pride we've got in the locker room, what type of warriors we are. It just didn't happen for us."
Gore, tight end Vernon Davis and linebacker Patrick Willis are the foundation of the current 49ers team, key fixtures in the rise from the irrelevance of the past decade. After the game Davis and Willis dressed slowly, their gazes fixed far away. Gore limped to his locker, where Harbaugh approached him, said a few words under his breath, and put a hand on Gore's back.
Later, Gore entered the interview room, needing to lift his battered body onto his podium and into his chair. He was asked if the 49ers this week had paid attention to talk of the franchise's Super Bowl legacy, now with a "L" in the loss column.
"We heard it," Gore said, "but there wasn't pressure on us. We've got a great group of guys in the locker room. Great warriors. Not making any promises for next year, but we're going to fight to get back."
He sat for nearly seven minutes. He repeated the word "tough" a handful of times. Then he lifted himself off the podium, putting his arm around a media relations staffer to brace himself, and walked slowly into spring and summer.