One of the hidden truths in professional football will make its annual appearance Sunday, bitten by frost, pelted by rain, awash in beauty.
Advertisers don’t want you to know it. Party planners don’t want you to feel it. The NFL itself would rather you not recognize it. But with the intensity of a John Elway scramble and the passion of a Dwight Clark leap, it is a truth that cannot be denied.
Sunday is the greatest single day of the NFL season. Sunday is the real Super Bowl, only twice as much and twice as good.
The two conference championship games played Sunday will be more compelling than the one game played two weeks later, and it won’t even be close.
Sunday is the Super Bowl minus the capital letters, Roman numerals and incessant glitz. Sunday is real football, played in real weather, in front of real fans, for real stakes.
I’ve never seen a Super Bowl winner cry. I’ve seen New Orleans Saints players weeping when they beat the Minnesota Vikings to qualify for their first Super Bowl.
I’ve never seen a Super Bowl quarterback quiver. I’ve seen Peyton Manning nearly faint from emotion as he staggered off the field after finally beating Tom Brady and qualifying for his first Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl has become so big, both teams feel as if they’ve won by simply being there, and often act and play like it. The conference championships are very different, very down, very dirty. Heroes are made, chokers are discovered, every victory is much sweeter, each defeat more devastating.
The conference championship games create so many great moments, those moments have been given enduring names. The Catch. The Drive. The Fumble. Even perhaps the most legendary postseason game of the modern was a Super Bowl semifinal game, the 1967 Ice Bowl in Green Bay.
When as the last time the Super Bowl produced something so memorable that it was given a name? The Wardrobe Malfunction?
This Sunday’s conference title clashes will be more of the same, a Super Bowl without some highbrow casual fan staring at the TV shouting “Super!” while other fans spend time grazing in appetizer bowls.
Sunday will not be about parties, it will be about crashers, the great tacklers of the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens. Sunday will not be about red carpets, it will be about red zones, the one infiltrated by the great quarterbacks like New England’s Tom Brady and New York’s Eli Manning.
Sunday will not be about funny commercials, it will be about the somber realities of four teams with much to win and plenty to lose.
The upstart 49ers can become football’s best story, or football’s biggest fluke, The braggadocios Giants can become a team of Broadway Joes, or Bowery Boys.
Can the Patriots win at least one more with an aging Brady? Can the Ravens win one more with an aging defense?
America will sit in front of its television sets for more than seven hours Sunday to discover the answers to those questions, and barely a moment of that time will be spent watching anything other than tackle football. Quick, name someone who has ever sung a national anthem at a conference championship game. Do conference championship games even have halftime shows?
The only thing super about Sunday will be the drama.
I was in a press box in New Orleans a couple of years ago when grown men started screaming at the sight of the Vikings’ Brett Favre throwing that horrible interception at the end of regulation. I was there in Indianapolis a couple of years earlier when all of Middle America seem to rock at the sight of the Colts overcoming an 18-point deficit with Peyton Manning using a last-minute drive to pound the final nail into the omnipotence of Brady. The first truly breathtaking moment of my sportswriting career occurred while I stood on the Cleveland sidelines and watched John Elway’s drive to give the Denver Broncos the 1986 AFC championship.
Those three games, like all conference championship battles, had at least one of three things that Super Bowls lack.
They had the roar of a home crowd. By playing at a neutral site, the Super Bowl loses that energy. Instead of gladiators trying to protect their home turf, the Super Bowl players become actors trying to sell a Broadway show. By comparison, conference championship games are sometimes seemingly won by the home crowd, nutty fans loudly willing their team to a shared victory. You don’t believe me, check out Sunday’s scene in San Francisco.
They had an unmatched desperation. Super Bowls don’t have that atmosphere because, seriously, even the losers usually get a ring and a week’s worth of memories. Conference championship losers get nothing but grief that can last for years. One of last season’s conference championship losing quarterbacks, the Chicago Bears’ Jay Cutler, had his manhood questioned by his teammates. The football reputation of last year’s other losing quarterback, the New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez, might never fully recover.
Finally, the conference championships usually have the poignancy of weather. While the Super Bowls are usually played amid the perfect atmosphere of domed stadiums or southern climates, the conference championships can be messy, and isn’t that how football titles should be settled?
Folks will turn on their televisions Sunday to watch athletes breathing steam, fighting mud, laying out, the day of truth for the truest of football fans, more super than Super.