Bryant McKinnie admits that it's a little tough to believe he's in this situation.
The veteran is heading to his first Super Bowl as the Ravens'starting left tackle after spending almost all of the regular season watching from the sidelines.
"It's been up and down," McKinnie said about his season. "But through it all I've just been patient and just tried to wait for my turn. I always thought to myself, that when I'm given the opportunity, just take advantage of it."
The path to Super Bowl XLVII was bumpy for McKinnie, who for the first time of his career had to adjust to life as a backup. The 11-year veteran lost his starting job coming into the year, and didn't start a single game during the regular season.
He finally got an opportunity in the playoffs and he hasn't wasted it. That opportunity came when left guard Jah Reid was lost for the season with a toe injury, and the Ravens put McKinnie back in at left tackle, slid Michael Oher to right tackle and put Kelechi Osemele at left guard.
McKinnie's return to the lineup has solidified the offensive line, and the Ravens offense has burst onto the scene in the playoffs. In three postseason games, the Ravens have averaged 30 points and 424.7 yards per game. The line has given quarterback Joe Flacco plenty of time to throw, allowing just four sacks in the last three games.
McKinnie says that he's playing his best football in years.
"There is no question at all. This is the best I've played since I've been here," McKinnie said. "It makes me feel good that I was able to contribute to make us better. They were doing OK, but the fact that I was able to help and make us that much better just makes it that much better."
McKinnie had an uphill battle dating all the way back to training camp. He came into training camp overweight and had to shed pounds before even getting on the practice field.
The Ravens then re-negotiated his contract just before the start of the season, reportedly cutting his salary by $1 million. When McKinnie finally did get back on the practice field, he had lost his starting job, and he admits that his work ethic suffered.
"There was weeks where I wasn't motivated at all," McKinnie said. "Just because there were weeks where I felt like I wasn't playing and I wasn't going to play. Then there were weeks where I was back motivated, where I was like, 'OK, let me get back into the swing of things.' It was up and down sometimes for me."
McKinnie then suffered a hip flexor injury in Week 6 against Dallas, and strained it further the following week against the Texans. The injury lingered for about a month, McKinnie said.
"I felt like that [Houston game] could have been my opportunity, but then I was injured so I couldn't play," McKinnie said.
As the weeks went by and he still wasn't getting on the field, McKinnie wondered if he would ever get a chance to play. Head Coach John Harbaugh consistently told the media that he had confidence in McKinnie, but the veteran had doubts if his shot was ever going to come.
"They kept telling me all year long that I was [going to get a chance]. But I'm like, 'When? We're getting closer toward the end of the season,'" McKinnie said. "Then we had lost like three games in a row, and it was like, 'Can I get an opportunity now?'"
During that Week 15 loss to the Broncos, the Ravens' third loss in a row, McKinnie recalls a conversation he had with Harbaugh. McKinnie was trotting off the field after a field goal attempt when Harbaugh came up to him and issued a challenge.
"He grabbed me and was like, 'I need you to lead the offensive line,'" McKinnie said. "He said, 'They respect you. I just need your help to motivate them.' 'I'm like, well it's kind of hard when I'm not playing.'"
The two talked again after the game and set up a meeting for the next day. When McKinnie went to the head coach's office, Harbaugh explained that he wanted to see more from McKinnie in practice. He knew that McKinnie had dealt with the injury, but he needed to see that McKinnie was full strength again.
"When I finally spoke to him, he was like, 'Show me that you can move,'" McKinnie said. "I knew when I was back healthy but they didn't because I wasn't pushing off and doing things hard [in practice] because I was just making sure that I didn't re-injure myself. Then once I got confident to show what I could do, practice got tempoed down, so then I couldn't show what I could do."
At Harbaugh's request, McKinnie stepped up his efforts in practice and was finally given a chance to play in Week 17 against the Bengals when both teams rested most of their starters. He graded out well against the Bengals, and Reid's injury put him right back in the starting lineup for the playoffs.
"If I didn't do good in that game I would not be playing right now," McKinnie said. "They liked the way I played and graded out, and I figured they had to get me on the field."
McKinine has shown in the playoffs that he can still neutralize elite pass rushers around the NFL, as he kept Dwight Freeney and Elvis Dumervil at bay in back-to-back weeks. Now he'll have another test in the Super Bowl against a 49ers pass rush led by Aldon Smith, who registered 19.5 sacks during the regular season.
McKinnie expects a "good battle" with the 49ers, but also said that nobody is going to beat him when he's at his best.
"When I have my A-game, nobody. I don't care who it is," he said. "And I know that feeling. It's a feeling I have and I know it when I get to the locker room. It's just a mental state. It's just a mental thing. Then it just takes me one or two series to get a feel for the player.
"Once I get a feel for that player, and I'm on my A-game, they can forget about it. Better luck next week."