The key to enjoying the Super Bowl, if you’re a 49er fan — or a fan of any team not in the Super Bowl — is to understand one thing: The NFL season ended two Sundays ago. Sure, there was a game last week — if you enjoy half-hearted offense, quarter-hearted defense, and the ugliest uniforms this side of the Oregon Ducks. And sure, there will be a game this Sunday — perhaps you heard. But it’s not what we’ve been watching in the playoffs, or for 17 weeks of the regular season. In short, it’s not real football. At least, not unless your team is playing in it.
That’s not to say it’s not entertaining. I’ve been enthralled by the playoffs, just as I am every year. But those look, act and feel like actual games. Even more so -- real games on steroids. That doesn’t describe the Super Bowl, which is less a game than an event. A spectacle. The game itself takes a backseat to the hype, and rarely lives up to it.
Most people watch real football games alone, with a few friends, or at a bar filled with fans. Most people watch the Super Bowl at a party filled with many people who only casually follow football. Someone’s rooting for the Patriots because she thinks Tom Brady is cute. Someone else is rooting against the Patriots because Tom Brady is friends with Trump. There’s someone who claims to be a “big fan” of the Eagles, but can’t name the kicker. And don’t forget the drunk guy who keeps shouting “Dilly Dilly!” There’s a pool, often featuring a bunch of squares, which leads to people rooting for weird stuff (“All I need is for Philly to get two safeties before halftime!”)
This is all fine. The food is good, the drinks are free, and non-football addicts are people too, I guess. It’s just not like a real game. Neither is an 8 1/2 hour pre-game show, getting ‘Shhh”-ed during a Doritos commercial, or a halftime show so long you forget the score, and who’s playing. That describes almost every Super Bowl Sunday I’ve experienced since I was a kid. The exceptions? The six times the 49ers played. Those were real games, with concerns about game plans, matchups, and injuries. When the 49ers don’t play? It’s a wrap party for the season — lots of snacks and hugs, and being sad it’s over.
That being said, I find the games fascinating -- largely because the players perform under such different conditions than they usually do. The spotlight, the build-up, the rest/rust issue, etc. Over the years, I’ve found the games usually fall into one (and occasionally more than one) of the following categories, so I took a look at how these scenarios might play out this year -- with a 49er spin added because, frankly, I need it.
What we saw all throughout the 80s, with the NFC annually crushing the AFC. More recently, what the Seahawks did to the Broncos. A mismatch from start to finish. Zero drama. Total domination. Often, a coronation -- the crowning of a champion many had presumed would win it all for most or all of the season.
This year: It would mean New England winning in easy fashion, Bill Belichick again taking his seat on the Iron Throne, and the rest of the football world being plunged into darkness for The Long Night.
49ers spin: Super Bowl XXIV -- 49ers 55, Broncos 10. It wasn’t as close as the score indicates. The Niners opened up a can of historic whoop-ass, raining touchdowns down on what was the AFC’s No. 1 defense that year. Backup Steve Young took a knee in the red zone to end the game or they could’ve scored 60. It wasn’t just a coronation for 49ers as the best team in 1989, but as the Team of the 80s. I watched it alone, as I usually do with any big 49ers game, as I’m too nervous to make polite conversation. But by halftime, it was 27-3 and I was calling friends and celebrating. After the game, John Madden posited that the 1989 49ers were the greatest football team of all time.
The Boat Race
It might be competitive early, a slow-motion blowout. Or it might just be a watered-down version of The Beatdown. A non-competitive game that only falls short of a full-blown shellacking due to the losing team being pesky and putting up points now and then or the winning team being content to sit on the their lead.
This year: Again, probably an easy Pats victory only made slightly watchable by Nick Foles and the Eagles keeping it from getting completely out of hand. But in the end, it’s the same result. Winter is coming.
49ers spin: Super Bowl XXIX — 49ers 49, Chargers 26 and Super Bowl XIX -- 49ers 38, Dolphins 16. I was lucky enough to attend the Dolphins game as a kid, and was able to walk to it from my house -- it was at Stanford Stadium, and I grew up on campus. The game was supposed to be about Joe Montana and Dan Marino lighting up the scoreboard, but while Montana kept up his end of the bargain, Marino threw three picks and only threw one touchdown. Montana even out-acted Marino in their Super Bowl commercial. My ticket was courtesy of relatives who were huge Dolphins fans, and after the game we all went to Chili’s where I gobbled up mozzarella sticks and tears of unfathomable sadness. Yummy!
Much like last year’s game -- a blowout that turns competitive as the trailing team stages a comeback. It doesn’t have to be as miraculous as what New England did to Atlanta, and the trailing team doesn’t need to actually win -- just make fans of the leading team sweat and announcers say things like “Whoa, don’t change that channel just yet, folks!”
This year: It’s hard to see the Eagles getting a big lead on the Patriots, but if they did, it’s easy to see Brady bring the Pats back. It’s easier to see New England getting a big lead, but harder to see Nick Foles staging a dramatic comeback.
49ers spin: Super Bowl XVI -- 49ers 26, Bengals 20. The Niners led 20-0 at halftime and it appeared the rout was on. But even after San Francisco’s memorable goal-line stand in the 3rd quarter, Cincinnati trimmed the lead to 20-14 with more than 10 minutes remaining, and the Niners didn’t wrap it up until Dwight Clark recovered an onside kick with just a few seconds left. (I could also mention a certain Super Bowl where the Niners trailed 28-6 before staging a massive comeback, but I’d prefer not to think about that -- or about the defensive hold... Nevermind.)
A nip-and-tuck affair. Low-scoring. Dominant defenses and/or ineffective offenses. The score is close, the tension palpable. Any one mistake or big play could be the difference. Ripe for an upset. Think both Giants-Patriots Super Bowls.
This year: It’s no coincidence I mentioned the two Giants upsets above -- this is the sort of game it usually takes to beat New England. It’s what Jacksonville hoped to do in the AFC Championship Game, and did for 3+ quarters. If Philadelphia is to win on Sunday, this is what they want -- their defense stifles Brady, they stay close, and get one big play in the 4th quarter to make the difference.
49ers spin: Super Bowl XXIII -- 49ers 20, Bengals 16. The most nerve-wracking of all the 49ers Super Bowls, and it isn’t close. The Niners had Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Roger Craig (who set the franchise single-season rushing record that season), all performing admirably, and still only had 13 points with less than a minute to play. Luckily, Cincinnati’s high-powered offense was also shut down by the Niners underrated D. Until the final drive, the teams combined for five field goals and one offensive TD. Then came John Candy and John Taylor, and the rest is history. Glorious history.
The rare gem. I went most of my life not seeing a truly great football game in the Super Bowl, but we’ve seen a few in the last 10 years. Patriots-Seahawks would’ve been the game of the week any week of the season, it just happened to be for the world championship with half the world watching. The same goes for Steelers-Cardinals.
This year: There’s only one real shot at this -- NFC Championship Game Nick Foles shows up instead of Regular Old Nick Foles, and he and Brady hook up in an old-fashioned shoot-out. I don’t see that happening, but a fan can dream.
49ers spin: Super Bowls XXIII and XXXVIII featured exciting endings, but as mentioned above, the Ravens game was a blowout for most of the game, and the second Bengals game had just 29 total combined points in the first 59 minutes. So the Niners have never played in a true classic in the Super Bowl. But there’s always next year.
So the question is, what will we get this year? I don’t see the Eagles defense allowing themselves to be blown out, and I see the Eagles offense bringing them back if it does get out of hand. So that leaves either a nail-biter (advantage: Eagles), or a boat race (advantage: Patriots). I’ll go with a tight one, but I think New England wins. Again.