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Finally, A Super Bowl That Might Really Be Super

Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse (left) and running back Brandon Jacobs of the New York Giants. Both teams consistently have the strongest games in the league. Getty Images hide caption

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Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse (left) and running back Brandon Jacobs of the New York Giants. Both teams consistently have the strongest games in the league.

Getty Images

For the first time in a long time, the Super Bowl looms as the proving ground for the best two teams in the National Football League.

The New York Giants and the Tennessee Titans, their names near-synonyms, consistently have the strongest games in the league. Both teams recently faced the toughest opponents on their schedules — the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively — and withstood the challenges. The Titans' record is still unblemished, and the Giants aren't far behind at 9-1.

It's notable that the best teams have clearly delineated themselves with a third of the season still left to play. This season's NFL story could have used the gravelly gifts of late voice-over master Don LaFontaine: Two teams ... rival conferences ... one loss between them ... on a collision course.

That, of course, is what the Super Bowl is supposed to be: a matchup between the greats of each conference. But too often — in fact almost always — the Super Bowl is either a one-sided letdown, or it's a contest between teams we're happy enough to watch for a few hours, but a month and a half earlier would hardly have been the most exciting game of week 15.

Some Super Bowls can be explained by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who noted that life can only be understood backward, yet must be lived forward. Indeed, Super Bowl XLII between the Giants and the New England Patriots wasn't anticipated enough beforehand and not appreciated after.

Football experts mostly chalked up New York's victory to the idea that the team played the "perfect game." This implied that the Patriots would have won eight or nine times out of 10, but the Giants' record this season suggests it was no fluke. In any case, if anyone was salivating over last year's Super Bowl, it was Patriot backers looking to go undefeated or fat guys about to devour the 12-foot hero — not legions of fans certain that this was the anticipated showdown between the AFC and NFC's best.

The story of this decade has largely been that of three AFC teams led by great quarterbacks — the Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers — slugging it out over 17 weeks for the right to host a frigid or muddy (or in the Colts' case, dome-enclosed) January game and advance to the Super Bowl. It didn't always work out, but the narrative has been AFC-centric.

In the 1990s, though, aficionados treated the NFC championship game as the de facto Super Bowl. The San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys seemed to meet every year, and whichever team had Deion Sanders seemed to win. The '80s were all about the AFC again, sort of. The AFC and the Super Bowl were sort of like Iceland and the Winter Olympics — you can't really have an Olympics without them, yet it's pretty clear they're not going to win anything.

The '70s, dominated by the Steelers and Cowboys, was a time when the Super Bowl was the most anticipated game of the season.

Let's hope that's the case this season.

Detroit's Lions And Dinosaurs

Before Sunday afternoon football (except on the West Coast), there's a bank of Sunday morning political shows. As the panels of pontificators popped off about a possible bailout of General Motors, I couldn't help but think of the Detroit Lions. While the Lions are owned by the Ford family, not GM, it is the NFL's most poorly run franchise in the past 30 years.

If the Lions were run with the precision and aplomb of the New England Patriots, it would be a different story. But the Lions keep drafting horrid wide receivers, much like Detroit built its business on SUVs and Hummers even as oil prices were soaring. Charles Rogers = Pontiac Aztec? Hm.

Jokers, Chokers And Mediocres

Everybody from ESPN to Fox to CBS has an opinion on what the top NFL teams are, and there are lots of people who even keep an eye on the biggest losers, if only for draft position. But who keeps track of the mediocre teams? The middling morass of middleweights that just sort of leave you saying, "Hey, I guess those guys play football, too. Is there any rodeo on channel 4?"

Here's my list as of this week, starting with the top of the middle and ending with the team barely maintaining a fingerhold on their mediocrity:

Minnesota Vikings: They can stop the run and start the run, but there's also a thing in football called the forward pass. Knute Rockne thought of it while watching the Rockettes, but the details escape me, as do most balls thrown at Vikings receivers. Gus Frerotte is better than Tavares Jackson. But still, mediocre.

Miami Dolphins: I like the Dolphins, I really do. They play a crazy "wildcat offense" that was adapted from the University of Arkansas' "wild hog" offense. QB coach David Lee, who used to coach at Arkansas, brought it to the Dolphins — and taxonomists everywhere thank him for not dubbing it the "wild fish," because Dolphins aren't fish.

San Diego Chargers: Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is injured enough to not be playing like LaDainian Tomlinson, which means the Chargers aren't the Chargers. This means they're reduced to breaking up attempted two-point conversions against the Kansas City Chiefs — the Chiefs! — to survive. Thank God for the AFC West, which gives a participation trophy and a playoff bid to anyone who asks nicely, and sells at least 30 candy bars.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Their depleted offensive line makes them mediocre. Their depleted secondary makes them vulnerable. And in the NFL, depleted equals defeated.

Denver Broncos: A team that throws like Denver can't be half bad. But a team that defends like them can't be half good. Throw in the fact that as I typed these words, four Broncos running backs were lost for the season, and you'd have to say that Denver also seems a bit lost for the season.