Two-minute thrill: Recent Super Bowls have featured close, dramatic finishes

Baltimore Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones kisses the Baltimore Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones kisses the Vince Lombardi Trophy after defeating the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. (Feb. 3, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

Even after all these years, viewers of a certain age -- let's call us over 30 -- could sense a familiar dread rising as the Ravens began to pull away from the 49ers on Sunday night, taking a 22-point lead 11 seconds into the third quarter.

The flashbacks were unavoidable, a return to midwinter days when anticipation consistently gave way to one team enjoying a snooze-worthy romp.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the rise of the Super Bowl as an American institution was that for most of its first three decades, it failed so regularly to deliver good theater.

By the time the 49ers famously obliterated the Chargers in 1995 in their most recent Big Game before Sunday's, it was an accepted reality that close, entertaining Super Bowls were an exception to be savored.

But times change, as we should have known when the Ravens appeared ready to do to the 49ers what they did to the Giants 12 years earlier.

Thanks in part to an embarrassing power outage that turned into a blessing, the 49ers stormed back and America continued to watch Super Bowl XLVII in droves as the Ravens held on to win, 34-31.

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Five of the past six Super Bowls have been decided by fewer than seven points, and even in the lone exception, the Colts trailed the Saints by a touchdown with less than four minutes left. It's the new normal.

Compare that to the misfortune of the ratings-challenged World Series; seven of the past nine Fall Classics have been decided in four or five games.

Sunday's drama was good news for CBS' ratings, which, though down from last year, still were enormous. But the network took a critical beating over several aspects of its coverage, including the uneven work of analyst Phil Simms and the awkward groping for information during the blackout delay.

(Too bad CBS didn't have immediate access to footage being shot for use on an episode of "60 Minutes Sports" on CBS-owned Showtime that premieres Wednesday. Reporter Armen Keteyian and his crew were inside the NFL control room at the moment the lights went out. Pretty cool stuff.)

Oh, well. The Super Bowl long ago proved it is immune to variables such as the quality of the telecast or the matchup. What does matter is the competitiveness of the games, a variable that against all odds seems to have become no variable at all.

And TV is only part of the equation. CBS, citing third-party research firms, said the event inspired more than 47.5 million social media comments, more than twice the numbers for last year's Super Bowl and Grammys, the previous record-holders. (Beyoncé and the electrical malfunction presumably were driving factors.)

Despite the blackout, the latest fantastic finish was just what football needed in a climate in which concerns about the sport's safety continue to rise, and after a season of lackluster ratings (by the NFL's lofty standards).

The NFL and Super Bowl XLVIII host committee can only hope the good-game streak extends to next year. Because the only thing worse than sitting in the cold for several hours in early February would be sitting in the cold for several hours in early February watching a game that is over early in the second half.

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SB viewership drops

CBS' coverage of Super Bowl XLVII averaged 108.41 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched program in American history but leaving it behind the previous two Super Bowls, which averaged 111.0 million (2011) and 111.3 million (2012). It was the first time since 2005 that Super Bowl viewership dropped from the previous year, a development that had been widely expected after a significant drop for the conference championship games.

The game averaged 46.3 percent of homes -- since 1986, second only to the Giants' victory over the Patriots last year (47.0). The figures would have been a bit lower, but CBS opted not to include the period during the blackout delay.

Sunday's contest peaked at 113.92 million viewers and a 50.7 rating from 10:30 to 10:47 p.m. EST.

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Baltimore led all markets with an average of 59.6 percent of homes tuned in. San Francisco ranked 29th among 56 major markets with a 47.3 rating. New York ranked 46th at 43.9.

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