It’s a weird thing to try to introduce the Super Bowl: How could anyone not know what it is? This isn’t a boutique curiosity — oh hell no. Every TV station you watch, website you visit, bar you pass by, and Uber driver you hail will remind you in some way that the Big Game is coming, imploring you to make plans for America’s annual collective binge. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re well aware how big and exhausting the Super Bowl can be.
There is a point to the commercials and the fireworks and the barrage of media coverage, however. Over the last 51 years (that’s LI for you Romans), football has become America’s favorite sport, and on Sunday the spectacle will be in service of the world’s two best teams: The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.
We got here through fits and starts. 2016 was a rough year for the NFL. The league has dealt with even more criticism of its efforts to address concussions, and faced new criticisms about its use of painkillers including a lawsuit by more than 1,500 former players. On the field, ratings dipped because of poor primetime games and a presidential election that diverted viewers’ attention. And though ratings improved once the election ended, the quality of play didn’t. Case in point: The playoffs. This season’s 10 postseason games have been decided by an average margin of 17.5 points.
But with one game left, the past doesn’t matter much now, and out of the morass emerged two magnificent teams. The underdog is the team with one of the best NFL offenses of all time. At 33.8 points per game, the Falcons scored the eighth-most points in NFL history during the regular season. Quarterback Matt Ryan is sure to be named NFL MVP after the fifth-best season ever by passer rating. He completed touchdown passes to an NFL record 13 different players, but no one as good as Julio Jones, who even on a bum toe ran all over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship.
As you might have guessed, defense was a weak spot for the Falcons all year long, but as long as we’re ignoring the past, it should be noted that something clicked for the Falcons in the playoffs. Led by second-year pass rusher Vic Beasley, they made two of the NFL’s savviest quarterbacks, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, uncomfortable in the pocket. And if there’s one way to stop the Patriots, it’s to hit Tom Brady.
That’s not easy. The Patriots quarterback came back from his four-game Deflategate suspension and gave an MVP-worthy performance of his own. The Patriots have lost just one game with Brady under center engineering the third-best scoring offense in the NFL. At 39 years old, Brady subsists purely on kale and cuss, and there’s no question that he powers the Patriots.
Just look up and down the Patriots roster: Head coach Bill Belichick has assembled a relentless machine out of cast-offs and misfit parts. In the AFC Championship, former Penn State lacrosse player Chris Hogan had 180 yards and two touchdowns. Kyle Van Noy, a disappointing linebacker in Detroit for two and a half seasons, forced a fumble. Former second-rounder Eric Rowe couldn’t crack the Eagles’ top- our cornerbacks, but he is starting for the Patriots and had an interception against Ben Roethlisberger. The Bears were content to let linebacker Shea McClellin go in free agency, and now he’s starting for the league’s No. 1 scoring defense.
The Patriots don’t have anyone with the Lamborghini force and speed of Jones and Beasley. They’re simply great in every phase of football, as they have been for going on two decades. They will be going to their NFL record ninth Super Bowl — their seventh in the 16 seasons since Brady took over as the starting quarterback under Belichick.
This is a matchup that can make the Super Bowl’s bloat worthwhile. This is the century’s best franchise and its massive, chronically aggrieved fan base going up against one of the littlest guys in all of American sports — Atlanta’s professional sports teams have won just one championship in a combined 168 seasons. It has a hint of David vs. Goliath, a generation of new, riveting players, and one old stalwart who has come to define the Super Bowl as much as anyone alive.
You’re going to watch the Super Bowl, even if you would rather be doing something else. It is America’s biggest cultural touchstone, a festival of marketing, stimuli, exploitation, and excess. Every incidental moment will be elevated, and every major moment is capable of taking residence in our individual and collective consciousness for the rest of time.
The Super Bowl is a spectacle of a spectacle, a production so big that it almost overshadows its purpose. There’s a good chance that, come Monday, we’ll be talking about a backup halftime dancer who goofed up just as much as a thrilling ending. The Super Bowl has a way of worming its way into your life whether you like it or not. It is pure, inescapable nonsense, and by God we’ve made it our mission to tell you all about it.
Up ahead are a few things we think will help you enjoy the game even more. They are the product of people who have watched and hustled through hundreds of hours of games, good and bad, leading up to what feels like a long year’s last gasp. There will be a winner, a loser, and no doubt some controversy. Then nothing. This is all there is: One good football game before we face the longest half of winter.
We should be grateful, though it’s not like we have a choice.