NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Playing nearly perfectly in his Super Bowl debut, Joe Flacco threw three touchdown passes to help the Baltimore Ravens take a 21-6 halftime lead over the mistake-prone San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
The biggest deficit a team has ever overcome to win a Super Bowl is 10 points. The 49ers showed they were capable of a comeback in their previous game: They trailed by 17 against the Atlanta Falcons before winning the NFC championship game.
But that sort of turnaround wasn't going to be easy if Flacco kept up his terrific performance. He went 13 for 20 for 192 yards and the three scores, becoming only the sixth QB in 47 Super Bowls to throw for that many TDs in a half.
He has 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions this postseason. It's been one impressive game after another for a guy who never has commanded the widespread respect usually accorded a top player — but now will head into an offseason that could land him a a $20 million-per-year contract in free agency.
To get to the Super Bowl, Flacco already led the Ravens past Denver's Peyton Manning and New England's Tom Brady for two of his league-record six career postseason road victories by a quarterback.
The 49ers, meanwhile, struggled early in the first Super Bowl coaching matchup between brothers: Baltimore's John Harbaugh is 15 months older than San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh.
San Francisco turned over over the ball twice in about a 5-minute span of the second quarter: Rookie running back LaMichael James fumbled — leading to a Ravens TD — and safety Ed Reed tied an NFL record with his ninth career postseason interception by picking off Colin Kaepernick.
The Niners had never thrown an interception in their previous five Super Bowls.
San Francisco's first-half points came on field goals of 36 and 27 yards by David Akers. The second came on the half's final play, shortly before Beyonce perform during the intermission, including a Destiny's Child reunion.
Already with a big lead, the Ravens were set to receive the kickoff to start the second half.
There was some testiness on the field right from the get-go, and after Reed stole the ball, a group of players from both teams engaged in a scrum and penalties were called. Both coaching brothers wound up on the field, too, trying to break up the skirmish.
Instead of adding more points after Reed's pick, Baltimore eventually gave the ball back after trying a fake field goal but failing to get a first down. Didn't matter a bit. San Francisco had to punt, and Flacco hit Jacoby Jones on a 56-yard TD pass with under 2 minutes left in the first half.
Jones beat cornerback Chris Culliver — the player who apologized for anti-gay comments during the week — and tumbled onto his back, then got up and cut across the field to reach the end zone. It was Flacco's 70-yard toss to Jones with 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter that allowed the Ravens to tie the Broncos in the second round of the playoffs, before winning in the second overtime period.
Earlier Sunday, Flacco connected with Anquan Boldin from 13 yards out less than 4½ minutes into the game on Baltimore's first possession, then found tight end Dennis Pitta for a 1-yard score midway through the second quarter after James' error.
James fumbled at Baltimore's 25-yard line while straining to gain extra yards. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw punched the ball loose, and defensive lineman Arthur Jones recovered it, and the Ravens headed the other way.
The 49ers also began the game with an illegal formation penalty on the very first play, then needed to punt.
A good return by Jones set up the Ravens near midfield, and they promptly drove 51 yards in six plays. Another 49ers penalty on third down at the 18 came right before Flacco's nice scoring pass over the middle to Boldin with less than 4½ minutes gone in the game.
Kaepernick was making only his 10th start the NFL, having taken over the job after Alex Smith got a concussion during a game.
The NFC champion 49ers (13-4-1) were seeking their record-tying sixth Super Bowl title — but first since 1995 — and brought in a 5-0 record from their previous appearances. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Super Bowls.
The AFC champion Ravens (13-6), a franchise that moved from Cleveland to Baltimore 17 years ago, also came in unbeaten in Super Bowls, albeit only 1-0, thanks to their championship in 2001, when linebacker Ray Lewis was voted the game's MVP.
All eyes were going to be on Lewis this time again, as he played his final game before retirement after a 17-year career that is expected to land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lewis missed 10 games this season with a torn right triceps muscle — and spent two days in the past week dismissing a report that he had used, of all things, deer-antler spray to enhance his performance.
About 45 minutes before the opening kickoff, Lewis gathered his teammates in the end zone painted the Ravens' purple team color. As they encircled him, Lewis — large triangles of eye black covering his entire cheeks — delivered his usual rousing pregame speech, and other players whooped it up, too.
Not long after, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis — who, like Lewis, wears No. 52 — delivered his own fiery words, surrounded by the rest of his team near the red, white and blue NFL shield logo at midfield.
Before the game began, with 100 million or so Americans expected to tune in on TV, a chorus of 26 children from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — where 20 students and six adults were killed in a shooting rampage in December — sang "America the Beautiful," accompanied by "American Idol" alum Jennifer Hudson. Grammy winner Alicia Keys performed the national anthem.
This was the 10th time New Orleans hosted the big game — tying Miami for most in a city — and first since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy in August 2005.
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