By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The first Super Bowl in the New York metropolitan area is days away and now everybody wants in on the action. Even Mother Nature has come to the Big Apple’s party.
The National Football League (NFL) took a gamble when it went against convention and decided to stage the game at an outdoor stadium in nearby New Jersey during the winter.
Naysayers warned that the biggest sports event in the United States would be ruined by a snowstorm. But with weather forecasts for the game getting better by the day, America’s biggest city is warming to the prospect of a classic encounter between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.
As Peyton Manning, the Broncos quarterback whose deadpan delivery can be as sharp as his passes, dryly noted: “The Super Bowl is a big deal.”
No player has been under more scrutiny in the build-up to Sunday’s title game than Manning. Despite being one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time with one Super Bowl ring already on his hand from his time with the Indianapolis Colts, he is still under enormous pressure to win.
With a win, he would become the first starting quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different franchises. But a loss would raise more questions about his unflattering postseason record, with one title from 13 trips to the playoffs.
John Elway, the starting quarterback when the Broncos won their two previous Super Bowls, in the 1997 and 1998 seasons, thinks it is a mute point.
“I don’t think this game, one way or the other, affects his legacy,” argued Elway. “He’s going to be one of the all-time greats no matter what.”
BEATING THE ODDS
Manning has already beaten the odds just by getting back to the Super Bowl after missing the entire 2011 season to undergo neck surgery.
At 37, and in just his second season with the Broncos after he was released by the Colts, he is playing the best football of his career, setting a string of passing records, including the most touchdowns in a single season.
In the AFC Championship, he threw for 400 yards, leading his team to a win over the New England Patriots and his old rival Tom Brady.
Manning’s combination with Denver’s wide receivers, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, has helped make the Broncos the best offensive team in the NFL and compulsive viewing for fans of high-risk, high-energy football.
Part of the intrigue of Sunday’s game is that the Seahawks boast the best defense in the league, offering a delicious contrast in styles.
Led by their trash-talking cornerback Richard Sherman, Seattle have labeled their almost impenetrable secondary defense the “Legion of Boom”.
“L-O-B, it’s a group, it’s a legion,” shrieked Sherman.
“It’s a vast army of individuals and we have countless bodies behind us that are more than capable of doing the job.”
Sherman has been cast in the role of the villain after he publicly taunted his opponents after Seattle’s win over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship.
An articulate Stanford graduate, Sherman has also become a source of inspiration, emerging from his upbringing in a violent Los Angeles neighborhood to get within reach of grasping the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
For others, Sunday’s Super Bowl is their chance to live the great American dream. Denver’s portly defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, affectionately known as ‘pot roast’, joked that it was his ticket into corporate America.
“Maybe I’ll get a Chunky Soup commercial or something like that,” he said. “If I get a sack this game, I’ve got a little special sack dance and hopefully that gives some people some ideas.”
The Seahawks are making just their second appearance in the Super Bowl and bidding for their first win with a youthful team brimming with bright-eyed optimism.
Despite their focus on defense, their hopes could well depend on the performance of their young quarterback Russell Wilson, who is in just his second season in the NFL.
Twelve years younger than Manning, Wilson has been a model of composure and consistency since breaking into the NFL and Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said he has no doubts he will handle the occasion.
“He’s the epitome of what you want in your competitor,” Carroll said.
“He’s got tremendous work habits. He’s got extraordinary athleticism. He’s got a general all-around savvy that allows him to make great decisions under pressure.
“He’s extremely confident too, so no matter what is going on, he’s not going to waver in his focus and ability to handle things. He’s just been a blast to coach and been a great team member.”
Las Vegas bookmakers have installed Denver as slight favorites, although the odds makers do not have a great record of picking the winner, with the underdogs capturing five of the last six Super Bowls.
The only sure winner is the New York/New Jersey region. Officials estimate the Super Bowl will inject between $550 million to $600 million into the area at a time when tourism is normally down because of the chilly weather.
While the game will be played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the 80,000 capacity home ground for both the New York Giants and the New York Jets, Manhattan has been the Super Bowl’s spiritual and commercial hub during the build up.
More than a dozen blocks around Times Square have been closed to traffic, transforming Broadway into a carnival of Super Bowl related attractions, including a concert stage and a 60-foot-high (18-meter-high) toboggan run.
Local officials expect a million people will visit the site, flocking to the city’s bars and restaurants and watching the game on the giant screens while an estimated worldwide audience of more than 160 million people will tune in to watch the extravaganza unfold.
“It’s a very hard game to get to,” said Denver’s head coach John Fox. “But at the end of the game the object is to win.”
(Reporting by Julian Linden, Editing by Gene Cherry)