Tonight's Super Bowl will, as always, be one of the great sporting occasions of the year. But it will also be one of those rare contests that should gladden the hearts of neutrals no matter who wins.
If the Denver Broncos come through, it will complete the fairytale story of Peyton Manning who has produced the most remarkable comeback since the 1968 Elvis TV Special. But if the Seattle Seahawks prevail, it will be a first ever win not just for the football team but for a city which has been a by-word for sporting underachievement.
Last year Forbes magazine named Seattle America's 'most miserable sports city.' In 38 years the Seahawks have never won the Super Bowl, in 37 years the Seattle Mariners have never won the World Series and while the Seattle Sonics did win an NBA crown in 1979, their general fortunes were so miserable that the team folded in 2008.
Seattle are a kind of American Mayo in that all this failure has not dented the fanaticism of the supporters one bit. In fact, the Seahawks can lay claim to being not only the most ardent supporters in the NFL or in America but in the world. On December 2 of last year in a home game against the New Orleans Saints, Seahawks fans broke the world record for noise at a sporting event with a staggering 137.6 decibels. It's not for nothing that their CenturyLink Field is known as the 'home of the 12th man'.
It's pretty hard to begrudge fans who've kept the faith to this extent while following one of football's least successful teams. Yet it's equally hard not to feel that Peyton Manning deserves to cap off one of the game's great individual seasons with the ultimate honour.
Manning is undoubtedly one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. He holds the record for most passing yards in a career, has won the league's Most Valuable Player award more times than anyone else and is second only to the legendary Brett Favre for career touchdown passes. But when the Indianapolis Colts let him go in March 2012, the game looked to be up for the man from New Orleans. Three surgical operations on his neck in 19 months had rendered him unable to play a single game in 2011.
"I was pretty much convinced he was done," recalled his brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli. "There was no way he could come back and play football. That first time he went and we were just throwing it in the backyard of our house. We're throwing 15 yards away and it was a lob. He couldn't throw 15 yards on a line."
That Manning played a full season in 2012 was remarkable enough, that he steered the Broncos into the play-offs seemed miraculous. His performances this season almost require the invention of some new word to describe the utter unlikeliness of it all. Because Manning, at 37 years old, has just had not only the best season of his career but the best season any quarterback has ever put in, breaking the record for both most passing yards and most touchdown passes in a regular season. Given the circumstances, those are probably the most impressive statistics in a career full of impressive statistics.
There is, however, one statistic in Manning's career which isn't quite so impressive. For all his record breaking he has only won one Super Bowl, in 2007 when the Colts defeated the Chicago Bears 29-17. Terry Bradshaw of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers and Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers lead the way with four, while Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, Manning's great present-day rival, has three. And even Peyton's brother Eli, Tom Spillane to his brother's Pat in that he's very good but not in the same class as his legendary brother, has two.
Fail to add to that total tonight and Manning's extraordinary season and even perhaps his overall legacy will be tarnished. The whispers, heard when the Colts repeatedly came up short in the play-offs between 2002 and 2006, that the great man isn't at his best in the really big games will start up again.
One contention of the Manning sceptics is that he doesn't play well in cold weather and it's true that his pass completion percentage dips dramatically when the temperature does. Which must surely worry Broncos' fans given that conditions tonight in East Rutherford, New Jersey, home of the New York Giants, are predicted to be on the Arctic side with below-zero temperatures and even the possibility of snow. Manning is going to have to do this the hard way.
Should he do so he will become the second oldest winning quarterback in history. The oldest was John Elway who was 38 when the Broncos beat the Atlanta Falcons in 1999. Elway's career is a prime example of how Super Bowl performances can define a career. When the Broncos went into the 1998 game against the Green Bay Packers as outsiders, Elway was looked on as one of the ultimate Super Bowl chokers. His record was played three, lost three and in two of those losses he had been terrible. Yet the shock win in 1998 and the follow-up in 1999 saw his reputation change to that of one of the game's ultimate winners.
Though he won't be playing tonight, that reputation will be burnished further should the Broncos triumph. For Elway is now the executive vice president of the Broncos and the man who has the final say on footballing matters within the club. It's in that capacity that he took the decision to go with the banged-up veteran in preference to young Tim Tebow, at the time one of the most popular sportsmen in America.
Tebow was a former college star who seemed to compensate for dubious technique with a cool nerve in tight situations and an ability to make big plays. But it wasn't enough for Elway. Choosing Manning over Tebow was a brave decision, not least because Tebow's outspoken Evangelical Christianity had made him as much a religious as a sporting hero Stateside, but, as often happened in Elway's career, he's been rewarded for taking a risk.
The exact magnitude of that reward will be revealed in the early hours of this morning as we dose ourselves with coffee to stay awake and try to figure out precisely how loud the volume can be turned up without waking kids and spouses. Chances are we won't get the chance to duck out early given that seven of the last ten Super Bowls have ended with just a single score between the teams.
The Broncos will start as slight favourites but right now the game between the man who's done everything and the team that's won nothing looks too close to call.
Whoever wins it, they'll be among the most memorable Super Bowl champions of all. This is going to be one special night.
Elite corps meets Legion of Boom
They might be the best two teams in American Football this season but neither the Denver Broncos or the Seattle Seahawks are perfect. The Broncos are very ropey defensively, ranking 22nd out of 32 teams in regular season points conceded. And while the Seahawks ranked joint eighth in points scored, their offence is functional rather than inspired.
The Broncos offence and the Seahawks defence, on the other hand, are the best in the league. In fact, the Denver total of 606 regular-season points, a staggering 37 points a game, is the highest ever recorded in the NFL. And the Seahawks' league-leading 231 points conceded, which comes in at just over 14 points a game, isn't much less impressive.
Tonight's game will probably be decided by the battle between Peyton Manning's elite receiving corps of Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Eric Decker, the first such quartet to each have 10 or more touchdowns in a season, and the Seahawks secondary of Richard Sherman, Bryon Maxwell, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, collectively known as the Legion of Boom.
Welker has always been something of an anomaly as a wide receiver. The game's best performer in this position Calvin Johnson is typical of the breed, he's six foot five tall and runs 40 yards in 4.32. Welker is five foot nine and covers the same distance in 4.65. Most elite wide receivers are like Olympic sprinters when in full flight. Welker has more of the knacky corner-forward about him.
In a position dominated by African-American athletic prodigies, he's a white boy who got just one offer of a college scholarship, and that only after someone had dropped out at the last minute, and went undrafted out of college before entering the league as a Special Teams player at Miami.
Yet he is one of the game's great receivers; no player in history has as many seasons with more than a hundred receptions or as many games with more than 11 receptions. In 2009, his 123 receptions were the second highest in an NFL season ever. He credits some of his success to having played a lot of soccer as a kid, growing up in Oklahoma he once scored 16 goals in an underage game. It's something else which sets him apart from his peers.
Perhaps Welker's secret is that he hardly ever makes mistakes. But the one notable occasion on which he did must haunt him. Two years ago when the New England Patriots were shocked by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, he dropped a fourth-quarter pass from Tom Brady which might have turned the game their way. Brady's supermodel wife Gisele Bundchen commented, "My husband cannot fucking throw the ball and catch it at the same time." Welker, who's married to Miss Hooters International 2005 Anna Burns, left the Patriots last year to link up with Peyton Manning and search for redemption.
Chances are that at some stage tonight Welker will go head to head with Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman is more in the mould of your typical NFL star, an outstanding college athlete who triple-jumped 15.44 metres, long-jumped over seven metres and ran the 110m hurdles in under 14 seconds. He is probably the best cornerback in the game but has really hit the headlines following his infamous interview after the Seahawks beat the 49ers in the NFC title game, with Sherman deflecting a potential match-winning pass by Colin Kaepernick into the arms of Chancellor in the final seconds.
Sherman's bravura performance included a description of his opponent Michael Crabtree as "A sorry receiver," and shouts of "Don't you ever talk about me," and "Don't you ever open your mouth about me or I'm going to shut it for you real quick." It bore a spooky resemblance to your man doing Big Scary Gym in the TV ad.
It all set off a furious reaction, a lot of which came under the heading of, in the words of the great sports blog Deadspin, "dumb people say stupid, racist shit about Robert Sherman". The question of race is never far away in the U.S and Sherman, who hails from LA Gangsta Rap heartland Compton, seemed to be a lightning rod for people who use the word 'thug' as a coded racial epithet. A lot of people will hope to see him get his comeuppance tonight.
Will it happen? Sherman is pretty much impregnable; by and large teams don't even throw the ball in his direction and if they do they don't get any joy. Nobody's even completed a pass against him in the play-offs. But Welker's been yanking Sherman's chain all week, commenting, "Quit doing one-on-ones man. Every time I look up he's doing one-on-ones. Stick to the field man, stick to the field." And the little guy is a tough character himself. In the AFC title game against the Patriots, Welker clattered into Aqib Talib, a famed hard man once indicted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and knocked him out of the game. It's hard to imagine Manning and Welker will be able to resist taking on Sherman.
Then again Welker's team-mate Demaryius Thomas is actually Denver's top touchdown scorer this season, while Sherman's comrade Kam Chancellor might be the hardest hitter in the league. In fact, any one of Manning's receivers or any one of the Legion of Boom is capable of turning the game in a flash. And who could begrudge a player like Thomas, an electrifying athlete from Dublin, Georgia whose grandmother and mother have been in jail for drugs offences since he was 11, his moment in the sun? As always, the Super Bowl is connected with both the glory and the tragedy of American life. You won't see many battles as good as this one.