What has the National Football League done, after a season marred by scandal and mismanagement, and ever-growing concern about the safety of the game of which it is guardian and emblem, to deserve a Super Bowl like this?
On Sunday the New England Patriots face the Seattle Seahawks in Phoenix, Arizona, in the NFL’s marquee event on the country’s unofficial national sporting holiday. It is one of the most finely poised and historically charged match-ups in recent memory, between the two finest teams of their era.
But the game follows a year of ignominy, when the NFL has stood accused of complacency and cover-up, from the dangers of concussion and brain damage on the field to domestic abuse off it, not to mention that small matter of “Deflategate” whereby, chronic Patriot-haters would have it, New England cheated their way into the Super Bowl by using doctored footballs.
Then there’s the recent poll suggesting half of American parents don’t want their sons to play the game – and, oh yes, the opening this week of the trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez for murder. That, surely, ought to be enough to land any sport in terminal disgrace. But not a bit of it.
On the eve of Super Bowl XLIX, football rules American sport more comprehensively than ever. It, not baseball, is the true national pastime, at least as measured by rear ends on television couches. The most watched TV programmes in America? Football games, almost every one. Against such a juggernaut, no scandal has a chance, even when the Super Bowl itself is less than compelling.
But that’s not the case in 2015. This is the contest neutrals dreamt of when the season started: the Patriots, the dominant team of the first decade of the 21st century, and the last to win back-to-back championships, against Seattle, who are attempting to be the next to do so, and cement their place as team of the century’s second decade.
Even at the coaching level, wheels are coming full circle. Will this be the moment the Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick, gets his comeuppance after a career (albeit stunningly successful) of bending the rules, of which “Deflategate” is but the latest evidence?
Belichick may have the finest post-season win-loss record in football, including six Super Bowl appearances and three victories, but few can love the perennial grouch, surly and uncommunicative, for whom addressing the media is akin to having teeth pulled.
How different Pete Carroll, his opposite number with the Seahawks, broad-smiling and easy-going – who just happens to have been Belichick’s predecessor with the Patriots, fired in 1999 after three undistinguished seasons. But, jokes Carroll, how different things might have been if Tom Brady had been drafted not in 2000, the first year of the Belichick reign, but two years earlier.
Brady is the other half of the Patriots’ magic B&B, the 37-year-old legend seeking to become only the third quarterback to win four Super Bowl rings. First he must see off Seattle’s Russell Wilson, foremost among the young quarterback pretenders, who last year marched the Seahawks to victory over the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning, Brady’s great rival.
But unlike some others, this Super Bowl is more than a tale of two quarterbacks. If the Patriots win, it is likely to be as much thanks to their running game, and the backs Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount operating the “running back by committee” approach perfected by Belichick. Ranged against them is Seattle’s clinically efficient defense, epitomised by cornerback Richard Sherman and defensive end Michael Bennett.
The outcome is anyone’s guess. Seattle started out as marginal favourites, but the smart money is now moving back to the Patriots – maybe on reconsideration of the two conference championship games. The epic, Wilson-inspired comeback against the Packers in the NFC could not obscure Seattle’s dreadful first three quarters, and the battle-hardened Patriots will not throw away an advantage like Green Bay. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ 45-7 demolition of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game brooks no argument.
But it’ll be close – so close that in the end a lucky bounce or disputed call may make the difference. One thing, however, is sure. The game balls will be properly inflated.