The New England Patriots won the 51st Super Bowl yesterday.
Big whoopee. They were supposed to win, weren’t they?
Yes, they were. They were favored by a small margin before the start of the game, but right after Lady Gaga had done a starry, lights-out circumnavigation of the planet, complete with fireworks, “God Bless America” and songs that touted togetherness and tolerance, the Patriots started the second half as decided underdogs, behind 21 to 3 and, not much later, 28 to 3.
No NFL team, it should be noted, had ever overcome a deficit larger than 10 points to win in the history of the Super Bowl.
At that point, the upstart Atlanta Falcons and their flying, acrobatic defense and their smooth quarterback Matt Ryan were ahead by 25 points, a margin so large and so late that one announcer, probably not without reason, said that the Falcons had won the Super Bowl.
As it turned out, that was something of an alternative fact, on the order of the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in 1948. The Patriots restored order to the universe, the very exhausted Atlanta team collapsed and Tom Brady and his team won a fifth Super Bowl, a record made while Terry Bradshaw, the great Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback who had notched up four Super Bowls, watched. (Bradshaw was also present as the star of one of those fabled and fascinating Super Bowl commercials, going to great and not-so-great lengths to get rid of a stain on his shirt.) Brady and company roared back like a parade of efficiency and, helped by a little bit of luck, tied the game with about nothing left on the clock, then made short work of the overtime period and won 34-28.
For the record, Brady wept and his supermodel wife took selfies of herself going crazy in the celebrity box. President Donald Trump, a friend of the Kraft family that owns the Patriots, smiled at a table in Mar-a-Lago, flanked by his wife Melania. The president had tweeted earlier that he was predicting an eight-point Patriot victory because that’s what friends do.
It’s worth mentioning some of this football lore and data, because it bleeds right into the notion that the Super Bowl and American sports in general provide yearly doses of surrealism that would either inspire Salvador Dalí, the Spanish painter who was one of the inventors of the Surrealism movement, or make him weep.
The Super Bowl, of course, has now become a kind of national holiday, for which people prepare by buying ever bigger television screens, hosting barbecues and parties, gathering in homes and bars. It has become one of those wretchedly excessive American events embraced in some mysterious way with fervor worldwide.
Nobody knows for sure what the original intent of creating the Super Bowl was, or why it became so super. Originally, it came about as the result of a merger between the National Football League and the American Football League, the latter an upstart rival that had started to become a nagging competitor to the old-line and old-time NFL.
You have to wonder at my age where the time has gone. I can remember watching then-powerhouse Green Bay smother two AFC challengers without working up a sweat in the first two games. Packers coach Vince Lombardi would eventually become coach of the Washington Redskins for a short time, than pass away into legendhood. The Redskins under Joe Gibbs would much later win three Super Bowls. Joe Namath then proceeded to lead the New York Jets to what was the biggest upset ever — football-wise — with a win over the Baltimore Colts.
The rest is a spotty, crazy, history that evolved into a money machine for the NFL, the art of super hype on a level never seen before, the emergence of half-time shows that combined aspects of ancient Rome (because NFL players are often referred to as gladiators), vaudeville (the nipple slip) and music you watched (because you couldn’t hear the lyrics). Politicians would show up, as well as former presidents — the elder Bushes, president and first lady, were gamely present in Houston — and pop singers vied to sing the Star Spangled Banner, often to their remorse.
There have been great games, but not as many as you think, and upsets. Whether this one qualified as the greatest ever (as claimed in a number of headlines) or makes Brady the best-ever quarterback, I will leave to others. While I make room for the Super Bowl, sports in general have become something I follow by reading about it; every college I’ve gone to, every city I’ve lived in or near are on my radar in the fine print of overnight scores.
But sports — and especially football — have become not a little lurid and troubling, much as politics have evolved. And sports coverage is starting to drown in an obsession with the gathering of data and metrics, which are boring.
This game was many things, but boring was not one of the things it was. It was really a story of two upsets, games within games. The Falcons, it’s fair to say, made the Patriots look vincible and vulnerable in the first half. As was noted by the announcers, their inexperienced but athletic defense flew all over the field, plainly bothering superstar Brady and knocking him down a lot. Ryan’s offense was speedy and effective, and Brady made what should have been a gigantic mistake by throwing what announcers like to call a pick and six: an interception run back for a touchdown.
But even as the announcers were talking about Atlanta and how they flew around the field with abandon, you could see that they were starting to lose a step or two, just as Brady, described as being off his game, got on his game, by getting the Pats into the end zone.
It was the start of a splurge that led to 31 unanswered points and the game and the whole damn thing. Resistance on the part of the Falcons became more and more futile and feeble, probably from all that flying around which had taken its toll and the return of the famous Brady flair for execution and piling up yards, a Super Bowl record 466 yards.
Once the onslaught started, there was something inevitable about it (although a miraculous catch of a pass that should have been an interception certainly helped). It reminded many people who had adopted the Falcons with affection, as if they were the football version of a puppy or Hillary Clinton, of another great and unexpected recent result. Given Trump’s connection with and fan-love for the Patriots, the result was almost Nov. 6 all over again.
Now the same people have to get over it, all over again.