Ending most football seasons, the Super Bowl is often little more than the NFL championship game. Only on very few occasions is the Super Bowl really the Super Bowl. We're grateful for that.
An NFL championship game matters if you like football. It's a game like last year's championship game, a 29-17 win for the Indianapolis Colts over the Chicago Bears. The game ratified Peyton Manning as a championship quarterback, anointed Tony Dungy as a championship coach and gave Indianapolis its first major sports title.
An NFL championship game is supposed to be a good football game, and it might even be historically important, but it's usually a Super Bowl in name only. We've gone so long without a real Super Bowl that we almost don't know what it looks like. Perhaps we're so numb to the annual hype by now that no new rendition can faze us.
Then again, maybe we just haven't been tested in a while.
The results are in from last weekend's conference championship games. If excessive hype makes your stomach turn, then brace yourself. We've got ourselves a Super Bowl between the 18-0 New England Patriots and the Cinderella New York Giants, a game for which the anticipation will almost certainly exceed the reality.
A Super Bowl is the national version of the city festival that mangles your life no matter how you try to avoid it, filling the air with noise, crowding the streets with traffic and finding its place in everyone's conversation. Super Bowls have been known to drive men mad.
A Super Bowl is high glamour, sparkling and glittery, noxious and blinding in its trumped-up irrelevance, bringing so much attention upon itself that it misses its own point. America sickens of the build-up, then watches in record numbers. A Super Bowl takes over the mass media to degrees that will drive sensible people into seclusion. There's just no need to see and hear all that we're about to see and hear.
Just guessing here, but we're really going to get it now. If you're among the multitudes wishing the media understood that the baseball universe ranges well beyond the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, you might not have seen anything yet.
Now we'll endure two weeks of football teams from Boston and New York before they finally kick off on Feb. 3. Even those who despise presidential politics must admit gratitude for Super Duper Mega Monster Tuesday on Feb. 5, because the media will have to divert itself to the primaries in 22 states, including New York and Massachusetts.
No one will be too surprised, by the way, if the presidency is contested between Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Senator formally from New York, and Mitt Romney, the former Republican Governor of Massachusetts. Clinton and Romney are the top fundraisers in their parties.
Seldom does every worthwhile competition of every persuasion pit contestants from the same two metropolitan areas, but it had to happen sometime between Boston and New York, which constitute America's longest-running urban rivalry. Combine Boston's emergence as America's best pro sports town with the wealthy, mega-mediated cauldron of New York and you've got a regional skirmish blown into a national obsession.
Boston's dominance on the athletic scene has grown almost to the extent of mitigating anti-New York sentiments long held by American sports fans. The Patriots seek their fourth Super Bowl win in seven years, topped off by the first 19-0 performance in pro football history. The Red Sox have won two of the last four World Series with bright prospects for adding more. In the NBA, the Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the last year, making themselves strong contenders for the league championship.
The national media headquartered in New York would indulge any Super Bowl, but especially a Super Bowl anticipating New England's perfect season. The story will go heavy with Tom Brady, the once-unheralded quarterback who dates prestigious actresses and fashion models on his way to joining Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the most prolific champions of the Super Bowl era. The media won't forget about Bill Belichick, the ruthlessly competitive coach busted for stealing information from opponents.
Not only are the major publishers and networks located in New York, but the NFL is located in New York. Like few other Super Bowls, this one is a home game for all the major players, who will play it as such.
ESPN sits in Bristol, Conn., right in the wheelhouse between Boston and New York. While ESPN generally succeeds at covering the national scene, an overwhelming sense that the New York and Boston teams are the home teams permeates the network's broadcasts. It's completely understandable, even if it's also completely tiring to hear of every niggling controversy involving those teams cooked up beyond proportion.
We already know that any time the Yankees and Red Sox are to play on the day of a Fox national broadcast, the Yankees and Red Sox will be the Fox national broadcast. Now Fox has the New York-New England Super Bowl, and advertisers paying $2.6 million for 30 seconds have to be thanking their luck.
The meeting between the Giants and Patriots on Dec. 29 already was such a big deal that Congress pressured the NFL to extend its availability beyond the NFL Network. The game wound up on CBS and NBC simultaneously, the first time the same football game went on two networks since Super Bowl I. The Neilson data showed an average of 34.5 million viewers, the most for an NFL regular season game in more than 12 years, as the Patriots finished a 16-0 regular season with a 38-35 win.
The Patriots are a huge national draw, pulling in at least 30 million viewers in each of five different national appearances. And the Giants are a huge draw in New York, of course. Now, to top it all, they're meeting in a Super Bowl for the highest stakes.
The true test of this game's largeness will show up in the television ratings. Of the 25 top rated television broadcasts since 1964, 12 are Super Bowls. None of those games are from the past 10 years, however, even though the eight highest rated programs of this century are Super Bowls. The reason, of course, is diffusion of viewers around cable, the Internet and the TiVO.
Just about every Super Bowl played gets a 40 rating from the Nielson people, meaning 40 percent of American households tune in to the game. But it takes a 45 rating to reach the top 25. This might be the Super Bowl to do it, because it stands to be a real Super Bowl, with all the hype that entails.
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