Come to the rescue, Super Bowl 51. Be compelling and wonderful. Save the season! This is what is dearly needed on this Sunday — one football game that is truly memorable to end a season the league might rather forget.
Through the chaos and rubble of the NFL’s 2016 rises New England Patriots vs. Atlanta Falcons, and it bears all the markings of a potentially classic matchup: good vs. evil, fairy tale vs. soap opera, a pedigreed modern dynasty over here, an interloping Cinderella over there.
More in a moment on the contrasts that make this game ripe for greatness. First, the litany of why it needs to be.
Watching commissioner Roger Goodell’s annual pre-Super Bowl “state of the league” news conference from Houston last week had the feel of President Donald Trump standing before a roomful of Democrats. Antagonism hung in the room.
You almost felt bad for the beleaguered commish. The NFL shield? He needed it against the arrows and shrapnel of media inquiry.
It’s been a tough year for King Sport.
The Rams ditched St. Louis, then the Chargers bolted San Diego, now the Raiders want a divorce from Oakland.
Television ratings were down and so, by broad consensus, was the general quality of play.
Players were kneeling during the national anthem, righteous protest to some — but offputting disrespect to many others.
An increase in penalties and injuries and challenge flags lengthened games and made them plod.
Concussions and threat of brain injuries continued to shadow the sport and imperil its long-range future.
Then, as if we needed punctuation to underline how this season has been going, the postseason to this point has been awful, anticlimactic, lopsided. The 10 playoff games have had an average victory margin of 16 points, only two have been the least bit competitive, and only one (Packers 34, Cowboys 31) has been anything close to memorable.
Fittingly, even this Super Bowl, tasty as a Falcons-Patriots matchup is, has been a constant reminder what a rough season it has been for Goodell. The overarching theme of this SB stares at you from the cover of the current ESPN The Magazine, a near-life-sizedc closeup of an angry, dead-serious quarterback and the words, BRADY’S REVENGE.
The Pats in the Super Bowl resurrected Deflategate as a national topic, an elongated drama that might rank with the Ray Rice mess at the forefront of the biggest headaches in Goodell’s term.
The Patriots were socked hard with penalties over Deflategate, with a record $1 million franchise fine, with forfeited first- and fourth-round draft picks, and Tom Brady suspended for the first four games of this season.
To those who believe the Patriots cheat, Bill Belichick makes a perfect Darth Vader, even without the hoodie. There are no guilty pleas, though. Instead New England plays the victim, Brady feeling wrongly convicted in the minor deflation of footballs used in the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago.
So imagine the melodrama if the Pats win and Goodell, hated by New England fans, is on the field, on the postgame stage, being viscerally booed while the confetti falls as he presents the Vince Lombardi Trophy to owner Robert Kraft or — better still — to Brady.
That would be worth staying up for.
Matter of fact it might be the only good reason to root for the Patriots!
No matter the winning team, though, Sunday needs to deliver a game like Packers-Cowboys was. One that immediately will be elevated into the pantheon whenever “greatest Super Bowls” is the bone we’re chewing. One that will have us talking about the game on Monday — the can-you-believe-it game — not about the parties or Lady Gaga or the commercials.
Patriots-Falcons looks up to that challenge and for reasons so disparate.
New England winning would extend a modern dynasty. This is the Pats’ record ninth Super Bowl appearance and would be a fifth championship together for Brady and Belichick, cementing their stature as the most successful QB/coach combo in NFL history.
Even without the Deflategate chip on their shoulders, the Pats preen with cockiness to a degree it seemed perfectly fitting when it came out this week Kraft had obtained legal trademarks to the phrases “Perfect Season” and “19-0” — even though New England has accomplished neither.
Atlanta? Its only previous SB appearance came in the 1998 season, and the Falcons got blown out. Altanta has the NFL’s highest-scoring offense and the probable league MVP in QB Matt Ryan. But in the contrast of franchise matchups, Atlanta is very much the little boy with the slingshot looking up at the giant.
One team growing its dynasty or the other winning the first championship in its 51-year history is a win-win for a league that needs a great ending.
The matchup just happens to be fronted by one quarterback who might be the greatest of all time and another who was the greatest this season. Brady and Ryan together this year threw 66 touchdown passes against only nine interceptions, for a combined 8,498 yards and a 115.6 rating.
Also, this marks only the sixth time in 51 Super Bowls that the season’s highest-scoring offense (Falcons) faces the defense that allowed the fewest points (Pats).
So everything is in place. The setup is perfect. The NFL needs a home-run Super Bowl to save a season and Falcons vs. Patriots is able.
Now don’t blow it, guys. Do exactly what you’re supposed to do.