By Jason Keidel
All Super Bowls have their own stories, plots and subplots.
The more — or the more intense — the merrier. From the tete-a-tete between Ray Buchanan and Shannon Sharpe to the worldwide ankle watch on Terrell Owens to Hollywood Henderson questioning Terry Bradshaw’s IQ, we like our sporting events distilled to storylines, to good vs evil.
In the absence of that this year — unless you find some vicarious thrill in Roger Goodell’s quite conspicuous absence from Gillette Stadium all season — we simply have a contrast in quarterbacks.
In the era of the quarterback, it was quite fitting that the final four teams featured this season’s four best quarterbacks. And they played for the hottest teams. Entering the conference championships, the Falcons, Packers, Patriots and Steelers were a combined 29-1 in their last 30 games, the best such mark in NFL history (dating back to Super Bowl I). This is also the first time in NFL history that the four teams pining for a place in the Super Bowl had at least five-game winning streaks.
The presumed league MVP in Matt Ryan will face the most accomplished QB ever in Tom Brady. While both are playing at extraordinarily high levels, the two QBs are on opposite sides of history.
Brady, with four Super Bowl rings, has been here many times, while Ryan played in just his second NFC title game before finally reaching his first Super Bowl.
To paraphrase Floyd Mayweather Jr, the Patriots are the A-Side of this record, while Atlanta is clearly the B-Side, the Ricky Hatton of this album. And, as with most Super Bowls, this one features strength-on-strength, with Atlanta’s pyrotechnic passing game against the Patriots’ stingy defense, which surrendered the fewest points all season. Atlanta scored 33.8 points per game, while the Pats allowed 15.6.
But the story, as always, will be the leading men. Despite all the producers and cameramen and stuntmen, and even the gophers who get the coffee, the stars always beam from the movie marquee. Likewise, no matter who blocks or runs or coaches or catches the ball, the next two weeks will be about Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. As if each man plays in a vacuum. If you first watched football starting today, and hear the next two weeks of hyperbole, you’d think Ryan and Brady are playing half-court one-on-one.
Such is today’s NFL tableau. To borrow from baseball, chicks dig the long ball. And the NFL equivalent is the QB, the bomb, the long, arching pass that ends in the end zone, replete with TD dances and grinning, chiseled, high-cheekboned quarterbacks fist-pumping into the night. The quarterback is the only player who regularly speaks to the media, who appears on camera sans his helmet, his face splashed across your flatscreen.
And the quarterback, while never a small man, looks more like you than the hulking. 265-point tight end or linebacker who prowls pre-snap up and down the line of scrimmage. Forget that Ryan and Brady are both over 6’4″ and weigh well over 200 pounds. What we so fondly recall is his glacial 40-yard dash, which could be timed with a sundial. Somehow that makes him more relatable.
Forget that Ryan and Brady live in an orbit that we will never enter. They see the world from LearJets while the rest of us live in it. But not even Ryan knows the world Brady inhabits. Six trips to the Super Bowl puts Brady in the thinnest air, even by the distorted standards of sports and celebrity.
We will parse the particulars, about who does what, when, and why. How will they react to a given climate or coverage? And the media and masses will largely concede that Ryan and the Falcons have a more potent offense, based on both their PlayStation point totals and their personnel from sideline to sideline.
Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel would easily be the starting three for the Patriots. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman easily stack favorably to LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. And Kyle Shanahan, the presumed head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, is every bit the play-caller of his counterpart, Josh McDaniels.
So with all that Falcons firepower, what will make the difference in Houston in two weeks? Like always, keeping the turnovers to a minimum. But that’s simply an extension of the larger narrative — quarterback prowess. And since Ryan has proved he can play with anyone right now, having just doused Aaron Rodgers, the hottest QB in history, it comes down to how big Ryan plays in the biggest game of his life.
With all the media attention, all the fawning family members, those distant cousins who didn’t exist until Sunday, all the obscene interview and ticket requests. The tougher test may come away from the field. How will Ryan navigate the rampant and inherent hurdles of the Super Bowl experience? In boxing — in say, Mike Tyson’s career — you could see that a fighter was finished before the opening bell rung.
Brady is making his 7th — yes, seventh — Super Bowl appearance. Other than an act of God, there’s nothing that will happen this week or next that will stun, startle or remotely move Brady from his spiritual spot. But if Matty Ice lives true to his handle, he may just keep Brady from hoisting his fifth Lombardi Trophy.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.