Sunday, at least
Greatness awaits one team after championship game
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Super Bowl Sunday is the great American football celebration. It's John Elway windmilling through the air, Vince Lombardi coaxing the Packers to victory and the Doomsday Defense chasing quarterbacks into the next county.
It's a day on which a player can transcend mere greatness and earn a spot in history. It can also be a day of great disappointment, not only for the losers, but among fans who are often denied a game worthy of all the hype.
They came in as two defensive-minded, plodding participants, whose most notable players were a recovering alcoholic and a linebacker who stood trial for murder.
They spent the week before the game defending their styles and their flaws. It was as if everyone was convinced there could be no sentimental favorite among these rough-edged teams, and no repeat of the thrills of recent Super Bowls.
"I'm not a huge baseball fan, but a 2-1 game is, I guess, an exciting game," Ravens head coach Brian Billick said. "The No. 1 criticism that you hear of this game is it tends to be a blowout."
After year upon year of lopsided results, the Super Bowl got good all of a sudden. Last season, the St. Louis Rams made a tackle on the 1-yard line on the final play to preserve a 23-16 win over the Tennessee Titans. In 1998, Elway and the Denver Broncos got their first title with a heartstopping 31-24 victory against Green Bay.
Woven through this week of buildup have been tales of retribution and atonement, bold statements and second chances -- in short, it has been the NFL at its best and worst.
Headlining the drama was the story of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who was outside an Atlanta night club after last year's Super Bowl when two people were stabbed to death.
Lewis was charged with murder, but eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstructing justice. He has dealt with these questions all season and this was his chance, on the grand stage, to apologize to the victims' families or show some remorse for what happened.
He didn't, and remained as much of an enigma as he was before he arrived in Tampa.
"I'm not here to try to justify anything that went on, because that's a story in my book that's closed," said Lewis, the NFL defensive player of the year.
More willing to talk was Giants quarterback Kerry Collins, a recovering alcoholic who has overcome his problems to play in the Super Bowl.
"I think I'm a better success story off the field because the things I've done off the field have transcended into my professional life," Collins said.
His counterpart, Trent Dilfer, once played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the same stadium where the Super Bowl was played. He was a disappointment in Tampa -- stories abound of him being booed walking into movie theaters, into restaurants -- and returns in a much different light.
"I think you get beat down enough that you pick yourself back up and realize you really don't have anything to fear," Dilfer said.
Adding more spice were Giants head coach Jim Fassel's ballyhooed playoff guarantee in November and Baltimore's appearance in this game despite an amazing midseason stretch of five consecutive games without scoring a touchdown.
The Super Bowl returned to Tampa for the first time since the Giants beat the Buffalo Bills in 1991, when the Gulf War was raging and security was high.
This year, it was a festive atmosphere: Tampa's famous Gasparilla festival overtook the city during the weekend, with pirate ships trolling the bay in fanciful reenactments of swashbuckler raids of yore.
Around the country, the Super Bowl took on different meaning.
In California, fans were urged to watch in large groups to prevent power outages in a state dealing with an energy crisis.
At casinos in Nevada, where some $70 million will be legally wagered, the most intriguing bet was on whether the teams would combine to score more or less than 33 points. The "over-under" point total set by oddsmakers was the lowest in Super Bowl history, a sign of the expected defensive nature of the game.
In St. Louis, Rams fans watched to see who would officially supplant their team as the next Super Bowl champion. The Rams won the title last year by averaging 33 points per game, but NFL defenses caught up.
Of course, nowhere was the game more riveting than along the I-95 corridor between Baltimore and New York, a pair of cities connected by a rich, shared sports history.
In 1958, the Baltimore Colts beat the Giants 23-17 in overtime for the NFL championship in what is still dubbed 'The Greatest Game Ever Played.' The Colts have since moved to Indianapolis, to be replaced by the Ravens, who were once the Cleveland Browns.
Still, the connection between present and past was hard to miss in the buildup to a game in which the contestants recalled days when defense dominated, and the NFL offered more grit than glamour, and more hardscrabble than polish.