PHOENIX, Ariz. – Super Bowl: Episode XLIX is finally here.
In Star Wars terms we have the bad guys, the New England Patriots. The galactic empire, led by the mysterious, hooded evil emperor himself, Bill Belichick.
Their opponent? The cocky young rebels — the Seattle Seahawks, led by their “crazy old man” of a leader, the Obi-Wan like Pete Carroll.
How long can we keep this Lucasfilms analogy going?
Let’s see, Seattle has two players from Ice Planet Hoth — Canadian tight end Luke Willson (of La Salle, Ont.) and Canadian punter Jon Ryan (of Regina).
Then there’s Darth Brady and his Stormtroopers, clashing with Russell Skywalker and Marshawn Lynch, and . . .
Yeah, that’s about as far as it goes.
No matter, the NFL’s 2014 season climaxes Sunday night at University of Phoenix Stadium in suburban Glendale with Super Bowl XLIX. For those of you tired of figuring out the Roman numerals, it’s Super Bowl 49.
Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. EST on CTV/NBC.
If the NFC champion Seahawks win, they’ll become the ninth team to repeat as champion. Quarterback Russell Wilson will have begun his career with two Super Bowl wins in three years — a feat last accomplished 11 years ago by Tom Brady.
Speaking of whom, if the AFC champion New England Patriots are victorious it would mark the fourth Super Bowl win in seven appearances this century for the most successful coach/quarterback combo the NFL has known.
Belichick and Brady won it all in the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons and lost the title game in 2007 and 2011. Since 2001 they have led the Patriots to 20 playoff victories. Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw are next with 14, followed by Dallas’ Tom Landry and Roger Staubach with 11.
But even if Belichick/Brady win Super Bowl No. 4, and playoff game No. 21, for at least he time being it would come with an asterisk the size of a, well, Death Star.
That’s because the NFL, inexplicably and voluntarily, chose to tarnish this Super Bowl with a bungled, clumsy launch of an investigation into what now has all the appearances of a dubious — probably impossible-to-prove — charge of illegal, purposeful football deflation on the part of Patriots in the AFC title game.
The NFL says most or all of the 12 footballs the Patriots used on offence against Indianapolis were found at halftime to have dropped in pressure below the allowable range of 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch, by as much as 2 PSI.
The referee had found New England’s footballs to be properly inflated during his requisite pregame testing. Somehow, though, the pressure in those balls deflated slightly after two quarters; the Colts’ balls did not.
Belichick, Brady and Pats owner Robert Kraft have all emphatically insisted neither they nor anyone on their team deliberately let any air out of those footballs, presumably to provide Brady with better grip on a cool, rainy night in New England.
Some scientists and electric-pump experts have reached out to me to suggest entirely plausible scenarios whereby 2 PSI could have deflated naturally, given various conditions, and without anyone from the Pats surreptitiously inserting a pin to release air, as is suspected.
The scandal has overshadowed one of the most compelling Super Bowl matches in recent memory, with all its compelling storylines:
THE BEST vs. THE BEST
New England and Seattle shared the league’s best record in 2014 with three other teams, at 12-4.
But by season’s end, each clearly was the best team in its conference. The Patriots have lost one meaningful game since September (at Green Bay), the Seahawks one since mid-October.
Rarely have two teams burst onto a Super Bowl field on such rolls.
BRADY & CO. vs. BOOM & CO.
New England’s under-appreciated rushing offence and high-precision passing attack, piloted by Brady, faces one of the greatest defences in NFL history.
Spicing up this matchup is that the last time the two teams met, in October 2012, Brady got into it verbally with some of the Seahawks defenders, who still haven’t forgotten the slights despite winning 24-23.
“He was pretty much saying that we were nobodies,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said last week, “and we should come up to him after they got the win. He said stuff like that throughout the game.”
No stat speaks to the historical greatness of Seattle’s defence more than this: five of their last six regular-season opponents failed to score more than seven points. In this era? With virtually every rule jerry-rigged to aid the offence? Incredible.
The unit is anchored by a fast and ferocious line, perhaps the league’s best linebacker corps — led by someone who should be a household name, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner — and the most feared secondary in the game, the “Legion of Boom,” that boasts (oh, does it boast) the game’s best safeties and league-best cornerback in Sherman.
“We go into every game thinking we are going to dominate on defence, and limit you on everything,” all-pro safety Kam Chancellor said. “That’s what No. 1 defences do. That’s our mentality. That’s how we approach every single game.”
COACH vs. COACH
Belichick vs Carroll, probably the best two coaches who have worked a sideline anywhere this century.
Both came up through the defensive ranks, and both keep their game-day plans of attack on that side of the ball as basic as it gets: take away what opposing offences like to do most.
Yet their means to that simplistic end are so dissimilar in so many ways: Belichick with his calm, cunning, calculated approach to everything, and Carroll with his universally applied Up With People mantra, with energy and compete knobs cranked always to 11.
But after taking their lumps in the ’90s, both men have figured out brilliantly this century how to win, their way, at equally impressive rates.
At the traditional Friday morning Super Bowl news conference pairing both head coaches, Carroll and Belichick predictably chatted up the other. But their mutual respect seemed to strike so much deeper.
“I think that Pete’s one of the great coaches in my time,” Belichick said. “What he’s done at USC and now in his five years with Seattle is beyond impressive. I tried to study him closely and learn from many of the things that he and his organization have done.
“They play extremely hard, down after down after down, week after week, year after year. They compete as relentlessly as well as any team or any organization I’ve ever observed.”
Said Carroll of Belichick: “Having the first-round bye 10 times … all the championship opportunities, all of the Super Bowls, and the ability to show –regardless of the personnel, regardless of the coaching staff — championship-level play, that’s Bill. That’s Bill’s direction and leadership.”
It’s hard to remember the last time we saw an NFL running back the likes of “Beastmode” Lynch. Earl Campbell in the late ’70s? Maybe.
Lynch is about to conclude his eighth year in the NFL. Yet his formidability still seems to grow with each victim conquered, like (mixed sci-fi metaphor alert!) the Alien. Seriously, it’s as though Lynch becomes even harder to haul down with every handoff, every game, every tackler he trucks over, bounces off or screeches around.
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia summed up the wonder that is Beastmode.
“He always has his feet in good position to be able to break, or move,” Patricia said. “His jump-cut ability, and his ability to slide from side to side, is just phenomenal. And the ability to explode and burst out of that, and through tackles.
“He’s really the full package. We got to see him quite a bit when he was in Buffalo (2007-10), and I was pretty happy when he left to go to Seattle.”
Finally, there’s Wilson, this century’s version of Doug Flutie.
He’s too short. Too unconventional. Too scrambly. And too young to have figured it all out so completely already.
The counters to each of those? But he plays above it. But it doesn’t matter. But he makes it work as few other scramblers ever have. But it’s true; he has.
Unlike Flutie in his stints south of the Canadian border, however, Wilson not only has a coach and owner who believe in him fully, but who empower his sometimes unorthodox yet highly effective approaches to NFL quarterbacking.
“He can pass inside the pocket, he can pass on the move and all the structured stuff,” Carroll said. “But then he has the dynamic ability to get out of the pocket and create with his legs, running as well as passing. (He can) run the full gamut of what you would hope a quarterback could do.
“That’s not even to mention the leadership qualities, the character he brings, the tremendous competitiveness. He’s a perfect fit for us.”
* * *
So either way, history will be made Sunday night in this sprawling desert metropolis.
Seattle can join Green Bay (1966-67), Miami (1972-73), Pittsburgh (1974-75), Pittsburgh again (1978-79), San Francisco (1988-89), Dallas (1992-93), Denver (1997-98) and New England (2003-04) as the only back-to-back Super Bowl champions since the high holy holiday of Americana kicked off on January 15, 1967.
For New England, Belichick can join Pittsburgh’s Noll as the only four-time Super Bowl winning coach, while Brady can join Pittsburgh’s Bradshaw and his own childhood Bay Area idol — San Francisco’s Joe Montana — as a four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback.
Canadians even have a greater interest than usual in the Super Bowl’s outcome. According to NFL Canada, north of the border the most popular NFL team is the Seahawks, while the top-selling player jersey is Brady’s.
Perhaps the only life-forms who aren’t interested in this game’s outcome lived a long time ago — in a galaxy far, far away.