Every professional sport has a way of determining a champion. Only the NFL has something as quite as expensive, overstated, and widely watched as the Super Bowl.
Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
This feature is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.
The Super Bowl is a unique event: a single game that decides, retroactively, what level of success will be attributed to the extraordinarily arduous months-long efforts of hundreds of individuals at every single level of 32 codependent organizations. The fact that the game exists as a final coda is not all that curious—after all, most professional sports have some mechanism for determining their champions at the end of a season. The difference, this being the NFL, is that this championship game is bigger, louder, and dumber than any other.
Fifty consecutive years with a Super Bowl, through strikes and lockouts, is nothing to sneeze at. Granted, the NCAA put on a shade over 40 bowls in the 24 days bookending 2015-16, but just one of those crowned a champion, and hardly anyone watched it. The NBA and MLB have been doing this for longer than the NFL and, by virtue of their seven-game series formats, more rigorously to boot.
Yet football continues to grow—or depending on your perspective, metastasize—into an omnipresent influence on global culture. The NFL is a billion-dollar behemoth that just this week announced another new cash flow by spinning off $450 million worth of Thursday Night Football games to CBS and NBC. Growing concerns about players' health seem to have had no tangible effect on NFL operations or people's appetite for football. Even Concussion, Sony's big-budget, A-list film chronicling the league's less than stellar response to its brain injury epidemic, disappeared quietly at the box office; Dr. Bennet Omalu has yet to convince the league to finally "tell the truth."
All of which is to say that the NFL is unstoppable. Demand for its product is at an all-time high, to the point where even strenuous moral objections pale in comparison to stark financial realities. The nastiest garbage tickets in a windswept obstructed-view belfry of San Francisco's Levi's Stadium, the Super Bowl 50 host, are priced at nearly $4,000, meaning most humans alive cannot afford to watch Peyton Manning wince and hobble around in person on Sunday. What is left for us to see, though, is whether the game, between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers, will be any good.
The Panthers are the moderate favorite to take home the Lombardi Trophy, according to oddsmakers, and if Head Coach "Riverboat" Ron Rivera is to continue his astounding reversal of fortune, it will likely be the result of a run-heavy offense and a cautious, conservative game plan. The Broncos, too, are primed to play things close to the vest and let their staunch defense control the pace. But in this Super Bowl, as ever, fans can expect to be treated to a quarterback-heavy narrative.
The Broncos are led by Peyton Manning, American Dad. Known for having nearly as many winning seasons as pizza franchises (he owns a very large number of pizza franchises), Peyton will lug his train-like legacy as the consummate record holder and perpetual second-place finisher into Levi's Stadium a broken man. After 17 punishing seasons on the field, a handful of neck surgeries, and a bizarre fast-fizzling HGH scandal, even Manning admits that this game could be his "last rodeo," which is an amusing choice of words for someone who was basically born in a golf shirt. If he does indeed retire after Super Bowl 50, he will leave the game having accrued more passing touchdowns and more passing yards than anyone in the course of a career or a single season. His lifetime win total, 186 games, is matched only by Brett Favre. For such a decorated player, a second Super Bowl ring just might be gilding the lily.
But that Peyton no longer exists. Even though the corporeal manifestation of Peyton Manning is returning to the Super Bowl, there's no reason to believe any of that old Manning excellence will make an appearance—or maybe I should say, the former Manning excellence. Old Manning is not only coming to the game; he's already there, and he's drinking black coffee in a mug he brought from the car (a Buick, most likely).
Manning is a shell of his former football self, and Denver's passing game had not just been left for dead this season; it was scavenged, disdainfully excreted, and buried unlovingly in a shallow grave by October. It was the defense that made many of the team's 14 wins this season look rather simple. Even so, that the Broncos were able to sneak by the New England Patriots last month for the divisional championship and a trip to the Super Bowl is something of a miracle. Denver's offense somehow managed to wheeze and hiccup its way to two early touchdowns, an output that would surely have been hilariously inadequate against New England's in any scenario that did not also involve the Broncos' marauding defense. DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, and the rest of the pass rush creamed, smooshed, and otherwise made contact with Tom Brady some 20 times, which the Boston Globe reported was the most any QB had been hit by any team the entire season.
In that sense, the narrative we have grown so fond of assigning to Manning's triumphs has been turned on its head. If the Broncos do in fact win the Super Bowl, it will be because of their ferocious defense, an opportunistic special teams play, or a giant predatory bird carrying Cam Newton off into the clouds during Coldplay's halftime performance—that is, by anything but their uninspiring and inept passing offense.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, so far as we know, was born the normal way. Staring at this matchup, though, it's easy enough to imagine that he and this Panthers team were distilled in a laboratory by scientists dedicated to countering the Broncos' strengths. To call Newton "dangerously mobile" is to do him a great disservice. To call him "hilariously, absurdly dominant" is also probably an understatement. The runaway MVP did have a yearlong rushing performance for the ages, but as the preeminent dual-threat QB in football, Newton authored a season that defied one-dimensional description.
Newton's passing alone would grade him as the eighth-best QB in the NFL this season, according to Football Outsiders, and his touchdown-interception ratio of 3.5 is a career-best by far. Those numbers do not take into account his postseason play, which has been extraordinary—the 70 percent completion rate and 113.4 passer rating he's accumulated in January would practically have lapped the league in the regular season. In just a few years, Newton has gone from a player who needed a custom offense to succeed to one that may just get his coordinator a head-coaching job; that he led his team to a 17-1 record may be surprising, but it is not hard to believe.
This will be the second straight grueling test for the Denver defense, and Newton's unparalleled athleticism makes the totally capable Brady look like he's wearing carbonite pants. The Patriots' running backs spent more time sprinting to the team bus than they did on the field; by contrast, the Panthers led the league in rushing all year long. On paper, Carolina looks sure to add another shellacking to its staggering season tally and end the year as one of the best teams of all time, as well as one of the more surprising: the Panthers offensive roster is so thin that a single WR injury could realistically have ended their playoff hopes before the season began. To be playing in February against any defense must seem like a dream.
Football ain't tic-tac-toe, though, and now that the coaches have got third-rate branded tablets to wheel around in their A/V carts, there's probably less paper on NFL sidelines than in a Bear Stearns filing cabinet. Upsets, curiosities, and statistical impossibilities abound in the game logs of history; sometimes a helmet catches a ball, other times a kick sails wide right and you lose four games all at once. Anything can happen in the Super Bowl, and generally does.
So will this matchup result in an entertaining game? It's unclear whether that even matters. The powers that be are not especially focused on giving attendant fans anything but a hangover and a large credit card bill; a medley of milquetoast musical snippets will be sandwiched by a game of totally unpredictable quality for those of us who can't afford to attend, or are too wise to. If the trend holds, there will be more of us than ever before, over 100 million strong. There have been good Super Bowls and nearly unwatchable Super Bowls, and while the TV ratings do almost always go up, their relation to any predictable metric of game quality is tenuous at best.
The Super Bowl will be aired on CBS, and all of the devices on which CBS Sports has made its app available, but for millions of younger viewers, February 7 will mark the first time they've tuned in to a terrestrial broadcast station since last year's Big Game. What they see will be largely unrecognizable to them: iPads that are, contractually speaking, not iPads; commercials for Tom Selleck vehicles; Coldplay, for the love of God. For all of the ways in which the Super Bowl is reflected in the culture at large, though, very little energy ever flows in the other direction. For the better part of the 2000s, the halftime show seemed to be a stopover for your dad's favorite act on its way to headlining the Old Folks County Fair. This is the corporate, capitalized version of America, the version their parents might want to take home to their parents. It will be unfamiliar to this generation of casual fans, the feeling of being so clumsily sold an idea; if we are lucky, they will reject it, and in 25 years we'll get something good on TV instead.
But why? Why do we do it? Why do we continuously subject ourselves to a game we may not like and music we probably won't? It can't be the commercials, whose welcomes were worn out about three Clydesdale-lifetimes ago. God help us if it's the food. No, the real reason we'll keep glued to the couch on Sunday afternoon is that the Super Bowl has become a secular holiday. For better worse, it's one of the big ones—the kind it's really hard to get out of. We watch because of inertia, mostly. We won't be alone. Along with 100,000,000 of our closest friends, we'll form what is perhaps the largest and most profitable audience of all time.
Indeed, the only good bet here is that no matter which team loses on Sunday, the NFL walks away a winner, having wooed us with every tackle and every soundbite. The Super Bowl may be famous for its commercials, but the game itself is the biggest and longest ad of them all. Every time announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms spend 10 seconds on a critically injured player, then a full minute on the roaring capacity crowd, it's an ad for the fun and safe family sport of football. When the camera pans around the massive, new stadium, just 20 percent of which was actually paid for by the 49ers organization (leaving 80 percent for the taxpayers), and which has room for some 1,000 fewer fans than its predecessor, that, too, is an ad. That ad is meant to remind you that everyone pays his or her fair share for the game we all love. The stadium, branded by Levi's, will host a halftime show sponsored by Pepsi, and the game itself—every bone-crunching tackle and mind-altering hit of it—sadly, that is sponsored by us. Super Bowl 50: brought to you by every ticket, parking pass, hotel tax, jersey, hat, cable package, Sunday Ticket, useless stock, and odious tax loophole, with special thanks to the fans.
I wonder if we'll make the top 10.