Something with the heft of history is going to happen on Super Bowl Sunday, no matter who wins the game — something you cannot say every year, or even most. And you’d have a good argument debating whether the New England Patriots winning or the Philadelphia Eagles winning would be more significant. Bigger. Better for the NFL.
The league wins either way, and this is a league, and a commissioner, Roger Goodell, and a sport, that could use the lift of a special Super Bowl after a particularly beleaguered season of woe.
Ongoing controversies over anthem-kneeling as a symbol of social injustice protests and player health-safety issues won’t be made to disappear by a great championship game. But the NFL has seldom needed more of what a Super Bowl can deliver: The reminder and validation that, even with all of the problems, even with the decline in TV ratings, the NFL remains King Sport in America, its big game able to draw 110 million-plus viewers on our national sports holiday. The American Gaming Association estimates a record $4.8 billion will be wagered on Sunday’s outcome, further evidence that the NFL, even diminished or rocked, remains No. 1 by most every measure.
You can argue which team winning would be best for the league, but which result would be more popular is not open to debate.
You could hardly put any topic to a vote in the United States right now and get a stronger consensus than the fervent hope the Eagles beat the Pats. You could ask in a poll if people would rather eat filet mignon or baloney and I’m not sure the steak would draw a bigger share than the Eagles.
Twitter research indicated fans in 45 states favor a Philadelphia win. The exceptions were Massachusetts and three surrounding northeastern-most New England states and, inexplicably, North Dakota.
A lot of that is the sharply drawn contrast of Overlord vs. Underdog.
New England, the team you love to hate, is appearing in a record 10th Super Bowl and going for what would be a record-tying sixth SB win — all in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. It is the greatest run of sustained excellence in sports, and maybe the closest we have had to a true athletic dynasty since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
The Patriots don’t need Sunday. Their coach’s and quarterback’s legacies are safe, their first-ballot Hall of Fame inductions secure. Brady and Belichick by any impartial consensus are the best to ever ply their craft in the NFL, and one more Vince Lombardi Trophy, one more ring, would be as superfluous as Warren Buffett stumbling upon a bag stuffed with cash. As if to underline the point, Brady, the favorite to win another league MVP award on Saturday, has a chance Sunday to make arcane Super Bowl history. He’d be the first QB to ever reign as champion the same season he led the NFL in passing yards.
Philadelphia, by contrast, needs Sunday. This might be an unlikely underdog, a No. 1-seeded team that is 15-3, yet it is an underdog in every way. It has been that throughout the playoffs, to a degree players have seized on it as an inspiration and inspired fans to wear dog masks. On Sunday, the Eagles are an underdog again. They were written off the moment QB Carson Wentz was injured and Nick Foles came in, written off wrongly.
But Philly is mostly an underdog in a broader, historical context.
Of all of the fan bases of the 123 current teams in the Big Four American sports leagues — NFL football, MLB baseball, NBA basketball and NHL hockey — Eagles fans have had the third-longest wait to cheer another championship. Theirs is a 58-year wait since the city’s last NFL title in 1960. The only longer continuous droughts: Cleveland Indians fans (70 years, since 1948) and Detroit Lions fans (61 years, since 1957).
When Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns fans have had a championship parade more recently than your team, you are officially a starving fan and certifiably due.
Philadelphia sports fans including Eagles backers have gained a notorious reputation that doesn’t make this the easiest fan base to root for as a feelgood story. Still, compared to Patriots fans who (like Yankees fans) sort of see championships as a birthright, an annual assumption, it isn’t so hard after all to wish Eagles fans their watershed moment.
Imagine not having won it all since 1960? A band called the Beatles was just beginning to form in Liverpool. Arnold Palmer ruled golf. Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was the big film, in glorious black and white. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. And the Eagles were led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, The Dutchman, in his final season.
The Eagles have been this close only twice since 1960, in Ron Jaworski’s 1980 and Donovan McNabb’s 2004, but lost both Super Bowls. Third time a charm? Or will the Darth Vader of sports get in the way?
Philadelphia is going to end the third-longest championship drought in all of sports, and do it with a second-year coach and a backup quarterback.
New England is going to feather its reign and leave even haters little choice but to begrudgingly respect a greatness we may not see again for generations.
One of those things is going to happen.
Either would suit the NFL because either would favor a trying season cloaked in controversy with an ending both special … and needed.