NFL column: Subdued Super Bowl still worthy of celebration

Associated PressTampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) holds the championship trophy after winning the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I still have some vivid memories of Super Bowl 46, hosted in downtown Indianapolis nine years ago.

It was a crazy week in the Circle City. Bill Belichick smiled and cracked jokes about being more popular in the city after a failed fourth-down call three years earlier led the hometown Colts to a come-from-behind victory against his New England Patriots. The local franchise’s divorce from Peyton Manning was brewing, and there were near daily updates on his recovery from neck surgery. On game day, Eli Manning and the New York Giants upset Tom Brady and the Pats for the second time and claimed the team’s fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy.

That was the first — and only — Super Bowl I’ve covered, and I still remember hurrying to file a sidebar from a stairwell deep inside Lucas Oil Stadium while a radio crew finished up its postgame show on the other side of the wall.

But my most lasting memories surround the atmosphere downtown that week. There was a zip line towering above the street outside the Indiana Convention Center, and it proved to be the week’s most popular attraction. I remember squeezing in with thousands of people, shoulder-to-shoulder, packing a street outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse — home of the Indiana Pacers — for a concert featuring Darius Rucker.

And I recall a rare moment of downtime when my wife and I were wandering downtown searching for a restaurant without a 100-year wait. A man frantically approached us, running at full speed with obvious excitement. Halle Berry was at a local eatery, and he was shouting the news to the masses with the urgency of a national emergency.

Tampa’s going to miss that this year. There will be no celebrity-soaked parties hosted by billion-dollar sponsors, no throngs of people gathered together for weeknight concerts, no end-of-season football party.

It should come as no surprise a season like no other has produced a Super Bowl like none that has come before.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be the first team to play the Super Bowl on their home field Feb. 7, and the game is the first to pit the previous two winning quarterbacks against one another. Brady — now quarterbacking the Bucs — beat the Los Angeles Rams with the Patriots after the 2018 season, and Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are trying to replicate last year’s victory against the San Francisco 49ers.

It’s a historic matchup, and there’s plenty for the NFL to celebrate. There was no guarantee this season would be played without interruption when training camps finally opened in late July. And there was no shortage of skepticism over whether the league could even pull off the season safely without the kind of “bubble” the NBA and NHL used to complete their pandemic-delayed seasons.

But the NFL pulled it off.

There were roadblocks, to be sure. The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens suffered significant coronavirus outbreaks, and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ schedule was in nearly constant flux as the league struggled to find solutions that didn’t involve canceling games.

Somehow, that’s exactly what happened. The NFL was the only major sport in America to play its entire regular season during its normal window on the calendar amidst the pandemic. Now it’s less than two weeks away from crowning a champion and taking a well-deserved bow.

But the lead-up to Super Bowl 55 is going to look nothing close to normal.

The Chiefs aren’t planning on traveling to Tampa until Feb. 6, so it will be no different than a regular season road trip coming off a bye week. There will be no Opening Night – the made-for-television evolution of media day that introduces both teams during massive news conferences the Monday before the game.

All the media availability will be done virtually, as it has since last March when the free agency period began and this wild adventure got underway.

Much of the off-field pomp and circumstance will be missing. But that might not be all bad.

It puts the focus on what matters most – the game. And this should be a good one.

Brady is chasing his seventh championship in his 10th Super Bowl appearance. Mahomes is trying to win his second straight title in just his third season as a full-time starter.

The past versus the present. A legend in a new uniform trying to hold off the league’s current most dominant force for one more year. Brady’s cemented legacy as the greatest of all time against Mahomes’ upstart challenge to the mantle.

There will be no shortage of storylines, even as the atmosphere is different than ever before.

Among the thousands in attendance will be healthcare workers from all 32 NFL cities as the league celebrates the year’s true heroes, and another massive audience is certain to take in the show on TV.

The NFL’s biggest stage will be subdued this year, but it deserves plenty of credit for making it here at all.

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