Sunday, February 03, 2013

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Super Bowl matchup providing all the hype

The past week has been a wonderful example of what happens when the hype goes wrong.

The days leading up to the Super Bowl typically serve as a celebration of America's favorite game. Everyone's profiled in the media, from stars to scrubs to their extended families. Old heroes reminisce on radio row. Each angle of the game is dissected.

The oft-mocked routine can get tedious, but at least it's comfortable. We all understand that this is just what our country does.

The past seven days have been different, though. Consider the cannonade of negative stories the NFL has faced during the leadup to the big game:

-- On Sunday, they played a Pro Bowl before the backdrop of the possibility that it could be the last one ever staged, given the sorry effort players expend in the showcase.

-- With Junior Seau's suicide still lingering in the news, the President of the United States questioned whether he would let his son (if he had one) play football given the inherent dangers.

-- Media day was dominated by Ray Lewis - supposedly the darling of this game as he prepares for retirement after 17 seasons - denying a Sports Illustrated report that he used products that included banned performance enhancers. Good-bye, "red-dog blitz." Hello, "deer antler spray."

-- Commissioner Roger Goodell has been persona non grata in the host city of New Orleans, where residents still stew over his handling of the Saints' bounty scandal.

-- Midweek, 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver unleashed this diatribe about the potential of homosexuals in the league: "I don't do the gay guys, man. I don't do that. No, we don't got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff. Nah ... can't be ... in the locker room man. Nah."

Culliver apologized the next day, but ... wow.

Given all this grime, are you ready for some football?

I am. And the reason I am is simple: Of all the Super Bowl traditions that have changed, the best has been the quality of the games themselves. Think about it. From 1980-97, a whopping 15 of the 18 Super Bowls were decided by double digits. Outcomes crystalized by halftime. Scores such as 52-17 and 42-10 became expected.

Does anybody expect that tonight? Probably not, given that four of the past five Super Bowls have been decided by six points or fewer. The Vegas spread tonight is San Francisco by 3.5, and to lay those points, you have to believe that a rookie quarterback is going to have a big night.

At long last, the game itself becomes the story.

It's hard to remember a year when the experts were so split on the Super Bowl outcome. posted predictions from 25 of its analysts this week - 13 chose the 49ers, 12 picked the Ravens.

In one of the more worthwhile exercises this week, a Tecmo Super Bowl simulation (using emulators of the old Nintendo game with updated rosters) had the Niners winning. The Madden sim? Ravens, of course.

I'm no less conflicted. I've spent the past two months believing San Francisco was the most rugged, complete team in the NFL. My Maryland roots might be a factor here, but in the end, it's hard to bet against a team that beat Tom Brady and Peyton Manning on the road, particularly in a game that seems to have "dramatic game-winning field goal" written all over it.

Ravens 23, Niners 21 -- an exciting end to an exhausting week. Enjoy.

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