We have here a thousand subplots in search of a plot. After two years of folding the Super Bowl into pro football history through the exploits of the New England Patriots, this year's game is about the misplaced here and the forgotten now. It's coming, it's going and it will never be here again.
Like the last World Series and the last Stanley Cup playoffs, two teams have sneaked through the course. They're honored guests of the championship theater now, but for one night only -- unless one of these teams proves itself again next year.
Only a gambler or a fan for one of these teams could love this Super Bowl, because they could love any game involving the Pittsburgh Steelers or Seattle Seahawks. Sunday will be a day for no more than proprietary interests or passions.
All of the above is true ... if the Seahawks win this game. But if Pittsburgh wins, we've got a historic event on our hands. We've got the most glorious renewal and triumph of a football team from the very edge of nothing into the depths of December that has ever occurred on the playoff stage. We've got a single season team for the ages.
Less than two months ago, the Steelers were tattered and torn, losers of three straight, left to lament a lame season after the Bengals lowered them to 7-5 with a shoot-out win in Pittsburgh. Just then, the Steelers embarked on a seven-game winning streak that included victories against four division champions, three of them on the road.
The Steelers have picked up quickly from not even entering the playoffs to proving on the field, week in and week out, that they're the best team in pro football right now. We knew about the Steelers in early December.
We knew they were nowhere.
Today the Steelers are a heavenly miracle, hammering out the most breathtaking stretch drive and playoff run in all the legends of professional football. They've gone into Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver, the top three playoff seeds in the far superior conference, beating them all in an unprecedented performance.
Now the Super Bowl waits to coronate the Steelers and their rugged determination. Yet the run up to this Super Bowl with its dim star power feels like nothing more than the mandatory formality of a championship game.
They have to play one every year, you know, and it happens to involve these two teams so little celebrated. And if the Seahawks win, then all hail the Seahawks. But if the Steelers win, it's history, a story with a moral.
Casual fans, who've heard all year about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, won't care who's in this movie. Until the Steelers win. Which doesn't mean the Super Bowl won't visit 80 million TV sets. But they're doing it from habit. Admit it, Steelers fans, this game is a tough sell.
Blame it on down times in the NFC, which basically played out around the Philadelphia Eagles for the past four years. Implosions in the groin of Donovan McNabb and the brain of Terrell Owens lowered the Eagles beneath the conference rabble this year, allowing a cast of nobodies to fight in the open.
The Seahawks prevailed, playing their soft road through the early portions into a torrent of confidence that's fortified them against truer pretenders since late November. Through Nov. 20, the Seahawks played only three games against teams that ended the year with winning records, losing two of them. Their only victim of any substance was the Dallas Cowboys, who finished 9-7.
On Nov. 27, the Seahawks finally notched sort of a marquee win, 27-24 in overtime at home against the New York Giants, for whom kicker Jay Feely missed three game-winning field goal attempts. On Dec. 24, the Seahawks whipped the Colts, who were rung out from the loss of their unbeaten season a week earlier and overwrought while head coach Tony Dungy dealt with the death of his son.
Winning home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the Seahawks dispatched two wild card hopefuls, Washington and Carolina, for their first ever Super Bowl berth. The events have redecorated head coach Mike Holmgren, who also led Green Bay to the Super Bowl when no one else could.
It can easily be shown, however, that if the Seahawks are clearly the NFC's best team this year -- and they are -- they might not have even entered the playoffs through the AFC. They're absolutely no better than the Steelers, the final AFC team invited to the postseason.
Just in performance terms, the Super Bowl is a toss-up. Looking over the teams, the most interesting element is that each team's strengths are matched with corresponding strengths for the opponent, and each team's weakness plays into the opponent's corresponding weakness.
Both teams made it the tried-and-true way, by running and stopping the run. They're both among the best in the NFL at both. That points to an obvious key. Whoever is better at running and stopping the run wins.
Note these oppositions. The Seahawks were second this year in NFL total offense (369.7 yards per game), but the Steelers were fourth in total defense (284.0). The Steelers were 16th in total offense (321.8), and the Seahawks were 17th in total defense (316.8).
The Seahawks were third in rushing offense (153.6), and the Steelers were third in rushing defense (86.0). The Steelers were fifth in rushing offense (138.9), and the Seahawks were fifth in rushing defense (94.4). The Seahawks were 13th in passing offense (216.1), and the Steelers were 16th in passing defense (198.0), while the Steelers were 24th in passing offense (182.9) and the Seahawks were 25th in passing defense (222.4). Neither team was clearly better than the other regarding turnovers and return yardage.
So two teams are as even as can be. But history favors the Steelers. The state of play in the NFL today favors them. Passion favors the Steelers, who not only are famous for their traveling fans but also have inspired through the years little pockets of adoration in every corner of America. Then there's this shadow brotherhood of Dallas Cowboys haters, Oakland Raiders haters and Miami Dolphins haters who say, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" and remember well how the Steelers back in the day took out the trash.
The human-interest stories favor the Steelers. Holmgren has won a Super Bowl, but Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher has consistently produced contenders without ever going all the way. Seattle running back Shaun Alexander, the Boone County great, is the NFL MVP with 1,880 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns this year, but the sentimental running back in this game is Bettis, who might close out a Hall of Fame career Sunday in his hometown, Detroit, with a championship.
Might. And probably will.
A Steelers win ends an uplifting story happily. A Seattle win merely ends a story soon to be forgotten.
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