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.
"We lost to the Patriots, 21-12, four years ago in the AFC championship game in Foxboro," recalled Rivers. "That was their undefeated team. We kicked four field goals. And they were short field goals. We turn two of those into touchdowns, we might have been the team going to Arizona."
And his Giants' experience?
"Us and Giants were both 7-7 with two weeks to go," said Rivers. "We go 1-1. They win them both. We don't make the playoffs. They just get into the playoffs and now they're here. Man, that line is smaller than people realize."
Is there a better representative of that line than the Giants? Head coach Tom Coughlin doesn't seem to think so.
"It's an incredible experience to grasp it once again. We were in the Super Bowl four years ago and we thought we had a heck of a team in '08, and got knocked out of the playoffs right away," said Coughlin. "We spent a couple years out of the playoffs, and our hunger for being back was great. There were times this year when it looked like it wasn't going to happen for us this year and it did again."
Rivers said he doesn't feel any animosity toward the Patriots or Giants. In fact, just being here has made him appreciate the Super Bowl experience even more.
"You see how guys approach the game, how they act," said Rivers. "It really is amazing to see how much press there is and how much the fans are into it on the streets. I feel like my team is going to get here and I have a little understanding of the excitement and how to deal with it now."
Rivers, though, admits he'll be happy when the game is over.
"To be honest, I'm rooting hard for Monday," said the 30-year-old Rivers. "We'll all be 0-0 again. I can't wait for that to happen."
E-mail Bill Burt at email@example.com.