It ended the way all of these things should end, the way none of them ever do. It ended with one noble team staving off another, with one brand of magnificence enduring one almost as grand.
Super Bowl? This was no Super Bowl.
This was better.
It ended on the 1-yard line, with a Tennessee receiver holding out a football toward one more slice of destiny, with a Rams linebacker hanging on to the difference between success and failure. It ended with glitter in the air, with tears in Dick Vermeil's eyes, with joy on everyone else's face.
This was the darndest of games between the least likely of suspects. This was 36 inches between victory and defeat. This was what they had in mind when they started calling these season-ending affairs something as haughty as "Super Bowl."
This was the St. Louis Rams 23, the Tennessee Titans 16, and bless both of their greedy, nomadic little hearts. This was comebacks and collapses. These were teams that wouldn't die and opponents that couldn't kill each other. This was Kurt Warner's arm and Steve McNair's legs.
This was, in a word, delightful.
"It was even better than I thought it would be," Marshall Faulk said.
Even better than he thought it would be? How about the rest of us? Of all the places to look for high drama, theSuper Bowl is the last place you'd ever suspect. History tells us that Super Bowls are, for the most part, awful. Mainly they consist of one team embarrassing another, usually before halftime. The lingering images are of the 49ers and the Broncos, the Bears and the Patriots, anyone and the Vikings. As a rule, they are very much buildup for very much letdown.
Not this time. This time, two teams of dubious lineage put on a show that we will talk about as long as the world recognizes Roman numerals. Put it this way. When was the last Super Bowl you wanted one more play? The last football season?
This time, it ended with Kevin Dyson, the Titans receiver, catching a quick slant and heading toward the goal. It ended with Mike Jones, the Rams linebacker, making a saving tackle. It ended with Dyson reaching the ball toward the goal line, toward overtime, toward salvation, and seeing it falling just short as time ran out and space did not.
That far, and that close. Barely more than the length of this newspaper page. The width of an end table. The depth of the shallow end of the pool. The height of a gymnast.
Who would have suspected these two had this kind of game in them? Before Sunday, there seemed to be such little interest that rumor was the NFL was just going to call it "the Bowl." Scalpers were offering to throw in a car wash if you'd take tickets off their hands. The Rams? The Titans? Give us a break. Who had they played? Who had they beaten? And most important, who were they?
Turns out, they were entertaining teams putting on a feel-good game. Yes, it was better than the heroics of Joe Montana in Super Bowl XXIII. Yes, it was as dramatic as Scott Norwood's miss in Super Bowl XXV. This was as good as there has ever been, including fiction.
This was Warner throwing all over the lot, to magnificent receevers such as Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, even though the Rams' running game had disappeared. This was McNair, spinning out of tackles, turning into Houdini, making things happen. This was Jeff Fisher going for two when he didn't have to. This was Dick Vermeil going deep when he did.
Perhaps this is what it takes to get a great game. Teams without reputations. Players introducing themselves to a nation. A game with more heart than hype.
Funny, there used to be a formula to winning the Super Bowl. Teams were supposed to inch a little closer to the trophy every year. They were supposed to have an aging gunslinger at quarterback, and a find from the draft, and then they were supposed to have a breakthrough year.
So who is next? The Bears and the Bengals? The Saints and the Browns? The Lions and the Chargers?
These teams are going to give hope to everyone. You find yourself a quarterback at the grocery store, or maybe the post office. You find an aging, burned out coach in the broadcast booth. You turn your team into troubadours, wandering through the foothills of Tennessee, looking for a stadium that will accept ugly uniforms.
That's how these teams got here. And, oh, were they wondrous upon arrival.
What happens from here? Who cares? Does it matter if Warner goes back to the Super Bowl or back to the supermarket? Does it matter whether the Titans make it back, the way they vowed late Sunday night? Not really. They put on this show. For now, that's enough.
That said, bless Vermeil's leaky old eyes, which couldn't quite absorb the drama they had witnessed. Yep, Vermeil cried. Of course he did. Tears are quite familiar with their way down Vermeil's cheeks, the way water knows how to flow down a riverbed.
This time, the teardrops washed away whatever vestige there is of old Coach Burnout, the man who drove himself until he snapped when with the Eagles, who had to run from the profession before they carted him off. Now, he will be remembered as a miracle worker who took his team from four victories to formidable.
In St. Louis, the question that arises is whether he comes back. Vermeil admits he has thought about walking away, especially now there is a successor in place. It would be nice to see Vermeil back, but understandable if he leaves. How is he ever going to top this?
Come to think of it, how is the game ever going to top this? How do you match the Titans' comeback? How to do beat Warner's bomb with two minutes to go? How do you match the drama of the last heartbeat in a game that, finally, accelerated yours?
The Super Bowl? Finally, it was.
This was amazing, beating brilliant by a yard.