The Super Bowl looms within view now, monolith rising, and everything about that spectacle is awash in hyperbole and excess, so it seems only fitting that in that spirit we’d take a little license here and call Sunday the greatest single day in the history of professional football.
Not Super Bowl Sunday in general. I mean this Sunday. Right here.
The New England Patriots at the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game and San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks for the NFC crown are simply the perfect semifinal match-ups, for reasons we’ll be delighted to outline shortly.
I mean, NFL execs must be throwing high-fives and fist-bumps at each other.
Officials from the two televising networks should be dancing a jig.
Fans — not just of the final four teams, but all of us — ought to be feeling that kids-on-Christmas-morning feel.
Even my curmudgeonly media brethren, prone to finding fault in puppy dogs and beautiful sunsets, can complain about nothing here but their inability to complain.
The championship Sunday preceding the Super Bowl tends to be the best day to be a fan even under ordinary circumstances. That’s because this day is all about football, about the game, in a way Super Bowl Sunday is not.
The Super Bowl itself has been swallowed whole. Taken over. It’s all about hype and cartoon oversize. The parties, the betting, the halftime show, the massive security, the TV commercials — hey, it’s Betty White sidesaddle on a Clydesdale! — and the absurd media crush all can make the game in the midst of it all seem almost anticlimactic.
This year especially, the first Super Bowl played in the New York/New Jersey area will make it the Super Cold Bowl and mean the weather is more talked about than the match-up. This will be the 48th Super Bowl. That’s XLVIII by Roman numerals, XLBRRR by climate.
First, though, two teams have to get there, and they’ll do so on this Sunday, on a stage uncluttered, with the games themselves the stars. And, individually and as a doubleheader, it doesn’t get any better.
No adorable little Cinderellas have survived. Four heavyweights have. Nobody impartial (and sober) would argue that the best four teams are here and, as evidence, the 55 combined victories are the most ever by an NFL final four. And this is only the second time since 2004 that both No. 1 conference seeds have made it this far.
This is like life, where the stone from David’s slingshot caroms off a grinning Goliath, who then crushes David under his massive sandal.
And, yet, there is an underlying hunger in the fans of the four teams still standing. Whichever team wins it all will reign for the first time in a long time, if ever.
The Patriots last were champions of the 2004 season, the Broncos in 1998 and the 49ers in ’94. The Seahawks seek their first Super Bowl win in 38 franchise years.
That gives all four teams a shade of underdog quality, an element of root-ability, even as all four preen as powers.
Best of all, each match-up might be better than the other.
Patriots at Broncos leads off Sunday and it’s Tom Brady at Peyton Manning atop the marquee. This is the 15th and perhaps last duel (Brady leads 10-4) between the two greatest active quarterbacks and arguably the best ever. Brady’s 6,147 postseason passing yards are the most ever, by anybody, and Manning’s 5,909 rank second.
On a conference call this week on the Brady-Manning match-up, CBS’ lead game announcer, Jim Nantz, said: “I think it transcends the NFL. This is tantamount to Ali-Frazier one more time. This is Palmer-Nicklaus. This is Bird-Magic.”
Nantz is selling his product, yes. But it isn’t hyperbole. He is right, and all the more so because the NFL is bigger than boxing, or golf, or basketball — or anything we Americans watch, in or out of sports.
(I call the NFL “King Sport” for a reason. Last week’s four playoff games averaged 34.3 million viewers, and Sunday’s two will average more. The recent BCS National Championship drew 25.6 million viewers and the Golden Globes drew 20.9 million).
Manning will win his fifth league MVP award for leading Denver’s offense to a record 606 points this season. By contrast, Brady has not had a spectacular season statistically (by his standards) but has led a New England team ravaged by injury and circumstance beyond all expectations.
The Pats are an unaccustomed underdog playing in their first playoff road game since 2006. Their season began with a major player, Aaron Hernandez, indicted on a first-degree murder charge. Nothing has come easily.
“We’ve had our backs to the wall for a while,” Brady noted this week.
The AFC finalists’ wild regular-season meeting adds to Sunday’s intrigue, and to the prevailing notion that more pressure is on Manning here than on Brady.
Denver led 24-0 on Nov. 24 but watched Brady lead a miracle rally for a 34-31 Pats win in overtime.
The rematch is for a Super Bowl ticket, but it is the Brady-Manning match-up that gives the game a historic heft.
Then comes the late game, and we lurch from the mutual admiration society that is Pats-Broncos to an intense, acrimonious division rivalry that might lead the league in hard hits and bad blood.
49ers-Seahawks boils as hot as any rivalry in sports right now.
“There’s no love lost and there’s no love found,” as Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman put it this week. “I don’t know if there’s going to be handshakes after this one. There is dislike. Strong dislike.”
The quarterback duel of the Niners’ Colin Kaepernick against the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson is a good one, a younger, junior version of Brady-Manning. But the passers don’t own the night game’s stage. The defenses do. The hitting and the hatred do.
It starts with two coaches, San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh and Seattle’s Pete Carroll, who don’t like each other. I mean really don’t. Their personal rivalry dates to their college coaching days. Both are aggressive, animated and pretty much likeable only to fans of their teams.
The venue only adds to the intensity. Seattle and its “12th Man” fans produce noise levels that can cause small earthquakes. Literally. It happened last week. You can place a bet on the highest decibel level that will be shown on TV. (The over/under is 135.5 decibels. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says 125 is the level at which “pain begins.”)
The Seahawks and 49ers split regular-season meetings, but the Seahawks have won the past two games played in Seattle by a combined 71-16 score.
“We owe them,” Kaepernick said.
The Sunday prize: the Super Bowl.
Fighting to get there: The two greatest quarterbacks of their time in one game, and the two best, brutal defenses in the other.
Simply, football gets no better.