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February 4, 2012

The fine line between immortal and underachiever

INDIANAPOLIS — San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk were both here for the same reason. They are two of the three finalists for the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for their public service.

It was the first Super Bowl visit for both. They have something else in common.

They understand the fine line between winning and losing, and to be even more dramatic, playing in the Super Bowl versus not playing in the Super Bowl.

No, I mean they really understand.

Birk, a Harvard grad, has had two excruciating misses.

During his rookie year in 1998, the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings were a 38-yard field goal away from taking a 10-point lead with two minutes to go in the NFC championship. The Vikings kicker, Gary Anderson, was perfect (35 of 35) all year.

Until it mattered most. He missed. The Atlanta Falcons tied the game with a touchdown and won in overtime.

If that wasn't bad enough, how about what happened two weeks ago?

The Ravens were Super Bowl-bound!

At least for a split second.

They would have beaten the Patriots in the AFC championship. Lee Evans had the ball in his hands for the go-ahead touchdown in the final seconds. But then, somehow, it was chopped loose by Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore.

And then, a few seconds later, Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff hooked his game-tying 32-yard chip shot.

"I'm still not too happy," said Birk. "One or two plays. That's the difference. One or two plays in the 160 or 170 plays and I'm playing on Sunday."

At 35, you wonder if that was Birk's last chance.

While River's pain isn't as agonizing, he's reminded about how close he's been to being the talk of the sports world.

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