- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2009

For the longest time, the Super Bowl was sport’s biggest anticlimax, as disappointing as Whitney Houston’s lip-synced national anthem. Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers launched the event by cuffing the American Football League challenger, the Kansas City Chiefs, by 25 points, and most years it didn’t get a whole lot better than that.

On those rare occasions when the final spread was under 10 - Jets 16, Colts 7, and Colts 16, Cowboys 13, immediately come to mind - we usually had to suffer through a reel of bloopers on one or both sides. If, as the decades went by, Super Bowl commercials became something to look forward to, it’s because the game so often wasn’t.

The period from the mid-‘80s to the early ‘90s was the nadir. If the Raiders weren’t whaling on the Redskins 38-9, the Bears were bludgeoning the Patriots 46-10. If the 49ers weren’t hammering the Broncos 55-10, the Cowboys were killing the Bills 52-17 (and it would have been 59-17 if Leon Lett hadn’t goofed around as he neared the goal line on a fumble return). It was the one area where the World’s Most Successful League came up short, and it was a rather important area: Its biggest game was generally a bust, overinflated with hype and, frequently, over by halftime.

What a welcome development for the NFL then that, as its product has gotten thinner because of the expansion to 32 teams, the Super Bowl has begun producing Emmy-quality games on an almost annual basis. The new millennium has given us classics - or at the very least, classic finishes - between the Rams and Titans, the Patriots and Rams, the Pats and Panthers, the Giants and Pats and, Sunday night, the Steelers and Cardinals. Only once in the last decade has there been a bona fide blowout (Bucs 48, Raiders 21), and that one was still fun because the Tampa Bay defense kept scoring touchdowns.

The Super Bowl has changed in another way, too. It just seems to have more of a game-show quality about it these days. Someone is randomly summoned from the studio audience and gets to spin the Big Wheel or bid on the showcase. Last year it was the Giants, a 10-6 club in the regular season but a steamroller in the playoffs. This year it was the two-left-cleats Cardinals, who improbably won the NFC championship and came within seconds of stunning the Steelers.

In 2004, it was the Panthers who were told to “Come on down!” Two seasons before that it was the Patriots. Sometimes the regular season foretells the future, but just as frequently it doesn’t. The Cards, for instance, were flattened by Philadelphia in late November - but beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl qualifier.

Mike Tomlin, the Steelers’ thoughtful young coach, put it best Monday morning, just hours after his club’s 27-23 victory. “When I walk down the hallway [in the club’s offices] and see the pictures from those Steelers teams from the ‘70s, it’s the same faces at the same positions. That’s not the reality of today’s NFL.”

No, it isn’t. The reality in today’s NFL is… somewhat surreal. With free agency (not just for players, but for coaches) and realignment, which has created a fourth automatic playoff berth in each conference, the league is more unpredictable than ever. No palm reader or crystal ball gazer could ever have imagined the Giants, without the benefit of a home game, running the table last season - or the Steelers doing it three years ago.

And consider everything that had to happen for the Cardinals to be in the Super Bowl. For starters, they had to play in a division that wasn’t just bad but historically bad, arguably the worst in NFL history. Anything less and they might not even have reached the postseason. Then, because of the league’s playoff seeding system, they got to host games against clubs (Atlanta, Philly) with better records than theirs (11-5 and 9-6-1 to Arizona’s 9-7). Is this a great country or what?

But it’s hard to grouse much about it because the result has been - at long last - a series of Super Bowls that are worthy of their name. You don’t get the sense this is an aberration, either. You get the sense that, as Tomlin says, this is “the reality” now.

Even the best teams are more fallible than they used to be, what with the salary cap making talent harder to stockpile. Have you noticed in recent years how many clubs - including the Steelers, the NFL’s top defense - have had trouble holding leads in the Super Bowl in the fourth quarter?

But again, how can that be a bad thing when we’re treated to games like we’ve had the past decade - beginning with the Titans’ Kevin Dyson stretching out his arm on the last play but not quite reaching the end zone? It has taken 43 years, but the NFL has finally gotten there: When the ball is kicked off on Super Sunday, anything can happen.

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