NEW ORLEANS - They have tasted bitter. They want something else in their mouths.
For Matt Birk, bitter was limping off the Gillette Stadium field just over a year ago wondering if the loss to the Patriots in last season's AFC championship game would be his final one in the NFL.
For Randy Moss, it was the feeling of confetti sticking to his sweat-drenched face after losing Super Bowl XLII to the Giants.
Both men said those disappointments likely never will fade, no matter what happens Sunday. But for either Moss or Birk, who entered the league together with the Vikings 15 years ago, one will be able to experience Super Bowl bliss for the first time in their storied careers.
Moss, the ballyhooed first-round pick from Marshall in 1998. Matt Birk, the lightly regarded sixth-rounder from Harvard. They entered the NFL together, and they could go out together.
The 1998 Vikings stormed to a 15-1 record and were considered among the greatest offenses in the modern NFL. But a shocking loss to the Falcons in the NFC title game ended their season unexpectedly. Moss was the star rookie receiver who put up unheard-of statistics. Birk played as a little-known reserve in seven games that season.
"I didn't think I was going to be here 15 years later in 1998," Birk said.
After earning a starting job in his third season, Birk became a fixture on the Vikings' line. He and Moss were teammates through the 2004 season, after which Moss was traded to the Raiders, and they became two of the more trusted players in the Vikings' locker room – Moss for his acrobatic catches and Birk for his leadership and grit.
"My story and where I came from, I was just trying to hold on every year. That's how I've always looked at it," Birk said. "This is a heck of a way to make a living and it's a heck of a lot of fun. It will come to an end, and the majority of your life will be spent not playing football."
Many questioned whether Moss felt the same about the game years ago. His attitude, encapsulated in his famous "I play when I want to" quotation, was roundly criticized. The most talented wideout in the franchise's history and one of the most dynamic receivers in the history of the game was dealt away in a transaction that would have been seen as impossible following his early-career heroics.
Moss looks back on that time wishing he would have prepared better. Birk confirmed that Moss was a hard worker, but Moss said he wished he would have known then what he knows now. Having gone from the Vikings to the Raiders, then to the Patriots and Titans and back to the Vikings, hitting the highest of notes along the way in a sometimes brilliant career, Moss also hit bottom - some of it his own doing, some of it out of his control.
But Moss says you can't question his love for football. Sitting out the entire 2011 season forced him to think about what he didn't have.
"I've said it before that I really did cry, I really did," Moss said. "I love this game of football so much. I don't like everything that comes with it, but going out on the field between the white lines and playing football is something I've always done. I've been doing it since I was six years old.
"For me to be able to just walk away from the game, knowing that I wasn't ready, mentally or physically, it really hurt me, man. It really depressed me. It warmed me up to know that I wasn't ready to leave the game. Now that I've made the decision to come back and play, it was something that I was ready to do."
Even if it meant coming to the 49ers in a reserve role. Moss signed with the team this offseason, and many thought it would help alleviate the team's lack of downfield passing from 2011. But Moss has been a part-time player and only has caught 28 passes in 16 games this season. Still, his teammates have revered his presence, and the Ravens know just how dangerous he can be.
"My locker is right beside Randy's. Randy is a great guy. I think that people view him the wrong way," 49ers TE Vernon Davis said. "He's a terrific guy in the locker room. He's funny, he's energetic, he'll always put a smile on your face and a lot of people don't know that about him. I'm very thankful to have him as part of this team. I think that this has been a great year for him. Probably, after it's all said and done, it'll be one of the best years of his career."
"It's Randy Moss, man," Ravens CB Corey Graham said. "He's still got some of that breakaway speed in his legs and he's still doing a good job. You always have to be prepared and ready for a guy like Randy Moss, because you never know. He's able to go over top and go deep all the time."
Moss went so far as to say he was the best receiver in NFL history, pointing to his "overall impact" in the game over any statistics that might say otherwise. Birk isn't likely to consider himself among the game's greatest centers; that's just not his style. But he's still playing at a high level when most linemen his age long ago have faded into retirement. And though Birk won't be the first to roll out his résumé, his teammates gladly will fill that void.
"He's a pro 100 percent of the day, every day," Ravens ORG Marshal Yanda said. "He doesn't take a day off, and when you see him work - and he's been working for 15 years - you think about how great he is. He's had a career that we all would be jealous of."
Birk joined the Ravens four years ago as a free agent after the Vikings let him walk, and he said it was a tough decision at the time that turned out better than he could have imagined.
"Just being here with these guys, this is a special group," Birk said. "That was obvious when I got to Baltimore. Being here for four years, it's just a tight-knit group and we really are a team and that comes from Coach (John) Harbaugh. If you're not about the team, you're not going to play for the Ravens. Obviously we have great players, Hall of Fame players, guys that their impact isn't measured only on the field, but off the field as well. It's just a blessing to able to play with those guys."
Ravens OLT Bryant McKinnie who broke in with the Vikings and has been Birk's teammate twice is amazed at the fact that he's still one of the best at his position.
"I feel like Matt's having a better year this year than last year," McKinnie said. "Physically, he's held up a lot better. People are saying, ‘Let's do it for Ray Lewis,' but I am saying, ‘Let's do it for Matt Birk.'"
According to STATS, LLC, 251 players in NFL history have played their final game in a Super Bowl. Some, like John Elway and Michael Strahan, rode out as heroic winners. Others, such as Buffalo's Scott Norwood or Dallas' Jackie Smith, ended long careers with bitter disappointment in Super Bowl losses. Lewis will make that list grow by one for sure, and there almost certainly others who never will see the field again after Sunday.
Could this be it for Moss or Birk? Both have said they will take time, as they always have, to make the decision. Moss, though, says he has designs on 2013.
"I've thought about it," he said. "I do want to play another year."
Moss left football last season after the tumultuous 2010 season during which he was traded from the Patriots to the Vikings and released a month later after a disastrous stint in Minnesota. The Titans claimed him, but his stay there featured very little impact, catching a mere six passes (and no TDs) in eight games. Moss chose to get away because of concerns within his family, he said, but it was a conversation with his 18-year-old daughter, who is a freshman at University of Florida, that helped convince him to put the pads back on.
"We were at dinner, at my Mom's house," Moss said. "I asked (my daughter) if it was okay for me to get back into football. She said, ‘Dad, I don't even know why you left the game.' For her being older, I had to really sit down and explain to her the importance of family and how much I love them and what I've sacrificed all these years so they're able to have and able to do.
"After I explained it to my mom, I had to explain to her that if I come back to this game, you're not going to see me as much; she didn't earlier in her life. She said, ‘Dad, if you come back to the game, I want you to win a Super Bowl because I'm going to the University of Florida to win a national championship (in basketball).' That really made me smile because I've never heard my daughter talk like that. For her to be able to tell me that face-to-face, well I'm on the verge of trying to win my first Super Bowl. Hopefully, we'll get it and the next thing is to see her get her NCAA championship."
Birk has spent the past few offseasons talking to family and friends about his future, allowing his body to heal properly so as to not cloud his decision-making. As the father of five children, though, he knows that football has a shelf life and that there is a second career with his loved ones that awaits.
"It's one of those things and it's one of those sports that when you're retired, you can't put on your shoulder pads with your friends and you can't play tackle football," Birk said. "When it's over, it's over. I just try to enjoy it every day and every year."
Moss and Birk are not friends. They have spoken openly and warmly about their connection in the NFL, and Birk has had complimentary things to say about Moss (Moss was not asked Tuesday about Birk).
"The thing about Randy was that he was always a great competitor and he worked extremely hard," Birk said. " I haven't kept in touch with him or anything like that, but obviously I'm happy for him and that he's still playing. I think Randy's been through a lot, gone through a lot of different things, but I understand having been his teammate for seven years what a competitor he is and how hard he works."
One will leave Sunday a winner, one a loser. We don't know what to expect from either after that. But what their histories have told us is that they might just keep going, fueled by their love of the game. If there's one common trait these unlikely bedfellows share, it's that.