Writing about the Super Bowl is a sports columnist's most daunting challenge. We're talking about a game with a two-week buildup during which a benchwarmer's hangnail warrants at least as much attention as the Palestinian elections. Two weeks in which no Bus is left unboarded, in which every note on Big Ben is chimed, and during which every move of Shaun Alexander on the chessboard is scrutinized as if he were Garry Kasparov. Moreover, Motown hasn't received so much attention since Berry Gordy picked up shop and left for L.A.
Really, what else is there for anyone to say?
So I concluded that I could contribute the most by getting personal, by abandoning the perspective of the wise, all-knowing sportswriter and, instead, offering up the view of a fan--one who, as a forever seatholder in Foxboro for the New England Patriots, has more than a little recent Super Bowl experience. And what I can tell you is that win or lose, it doesn't matter all that much. Honestly. It won't change your life.
Now I'm sure you think that's easy for me to say, having experienced just the winning side of that pronouncement and none of the losing in the Patriots' three Super Bowls over the last five seasons. But I am old enough to recall quite vividly their previous two Super Bowl appearances--a record trouncing by the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX in 1986 and a loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997. (Actually, I'm old enough to remember the 1963 AFL championship when my Boston Patriots lost 51-10 to the San Diego Chargers.)
Don't get me wrong. Winning the Super Bowl is definitely better than losing it. You get bragging rights and the right to freeze your butt off at a downtown parade, if that's happens to be your thing. And next September a bunch of big-name rockers will come to your stadium to lip-sync a bunch of songs before your favorite team kicks off the NFL season. But as for the expansive emotions that accompany Sunday night's game, win or lose, they pretty much dissipate soon afterward regardless of the outcome. Fans of both teams will experience an emotional void; the only difference is that one group will discover it amid the champagne celebration, the other while steeped in beer and heartbreak.
Both will realize that it's the playoff ride to the Super Bowl that is the rousing high. It's not the trophy, but the one more game that looms largest. The AFC and NFC championships turn out to be the critical games. Win, and the road goes on forever, the party never ends--or at least not for two more weeks. Lose that championship game and you can hear "Dandy Don" Meredith crooning, "Turn out the lights, the party's over." And worst of all, you must then endure the relentless celebration of some despised conference rival that licked your team.
That rivalry component is critical. And it's almost always lacking in the Super Bowl. No matter how hard Steelers linebacker Joey Porter tries to stir things up, there simply isn't any genuine antipathy in Pittsburgh toward these Seahawks, even though they were actually in the Steelers' conference not that long ago. Still, I'm willing to bet that Pittsburgh fans can't recall a single Steelers-Seahawks moment, let alone a game between the two teams of any real consequence. This isn't like going up against the Patriots, the Broncos or the Raiders, hated teams against which any Steelers fan worth his black shirt has nursed longstanding grudges. When the Patriots went to their first Super Bowl in 1986, I was still giddy, celebrating New England's playoff victories over what back then were our three most hated AFC rivals--the Jets of New York, the thuggish Raiders and our division's longtime gold standard, the Dolphins--as the Bears wiped the field with the Pats. Three wins over bitter enemies remain what I recall today, not the lopsided loss to Chicago.
When I said that winning the Super Bowl will not change your life, I, of course, meant in huge, cosmic ways. It will change your life in small, rather annoying ways that you might not anticipate while you're dancing with a Steelers or Seahawks helmet on your head. I have, in recent seasons, found myself sitting at games played a lot later in the day, which, of course, means both darker and colder--and which several times a year means getting home at the numbing hour of 2 a.m on a work day. I now endure far longer lines at the Guinness stand and even more excruciating waits where we go--at my age more often than ever--to recycle those beverages. And perhaps most distasteful of all, I am now surrounded in the stadium by a whole lot of fair-weather fans that never sat through a foul-weather game in December back in the day when the league's Patsies were playing simply in hope of finishing a 3-13 season on a high note.
I know it is small of me to resent these newcomers to the Patriot cause, to deny them standing as kindred spirits. But then again I am nothing if not small. Back in those olden days before these glory years, our Three Musketeers--me, cousin Jack and pal Billy--would make a preseason pact to attend all games regardless of team record or weather so as to assure that none of us would find ourselves all alone amid rows of empty seats. The only legitimate excuse to skip was serious illness (a doctor's letter was required) or travel (either planned before the season went sour or mandated by a boss, with, once again, some documentation required). We were true blue, or red or silver, depending on the uniform of choice that season. And the uniform changed almost as often as the team changed coaches.
Which leads me to the saddest byproduct of all the Patriots success: the gnawing, existential dread of that inevitable NFL cycle that sends my team spiraling back to the league's bottom rung. It's not that I think Tom Brady's stumble in these playoffs signaled the Patriots' imminent demise. Like most Patriots fans, I can't see the team slipping too far under Bill Belichick's stewardship. But I know a lot about life's treacheries, too. I look across the country at those San Francisco 49ers fans who, once upon a time, must have believed their joyride would go on forever, too. Now, instead of being mentioned in the same breath with the Steelers, the Cowboys, the Colts and the other glamour teams, the 49ers are lumped with the Arizona Cardinals and the Detroit Lions, teams where ineptitude knows no end.
The sad truth is that, for me, there's no turning back. I'm sorry, Jack and Billy. I'm not going to sit out there and freeze my butt ever again--at least not for a loser. Once upon a time I loved the game and the joyful experience of going to the stadium. I still love the game, but I guess now I've learned to love the winning even more. So perhaps winning the Super Bowl does change your life--just not in ways that are all that attractive.
I have written this column for six years and have, on occasion, been wrong. I have even, at times, been idiotic. But I have never--I repeat, never--gone astray on a Super Bowl. That includes being virtually the only sportswriter to pick the Patriots over the heavily favored Rams back in 2002. That might easily be dismissed as just a homer's wishful thinking had I not picked Pittsburgh over New England in the AFC Championship Game just one week earlier. So going with the Pats was not at all reflexive. It was, in fact, reflective. When the Pats beat the Steelers, with Brady sidelined by an early injury, I recognized that kismet was in play. I never bet against kismet.
You can almost always make an argument for kismet on either side, though the Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger's desperate tackle saving the Indy game and Jerome Bettis headed home to Detroit, appear to have the greater claim this time around. Both the Steelers and the Seahawks are appealing teams that clearly established themselves as the cream of their respective conferences. I wrote several weeks ago that any of the four top teams in the AFC could beat whichever team emerged from the NFC. While Seattle has impressed me more than such a dismissive sentiment might have suggested, I see no reason to alter that view.
The Steelers have whipped the wood of the league on the road--winning first in Cincinnati, then in Indy and, finally, in Denver. Seattle, by contrast, bested two teams that have been offensively challenged much of the season. The Seahawks' biggest problems, though, are likely to come on the other side of the ball. Seattle has faced a 3-4 defense only once this year, against the Dallas Cowboys, and was held to a season-low 72 yards on the ground. Pittsburgh's version is far more ferocious, which portends trouble for Alexander the Great. And if Alexander isn't leading the charge, Matt Hasselbeck is far less effective and susceptible to an occasional bad decision. I foresee Pittsburgh controlling the game on both sides of the ball and winning handily.
Pittsburgh 27, Seattle 13.