SAN FRANCISCO — The NFL could not have picked a more appropriate location for its Golden Super Bowl than the Golden State, where the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers will become part of the narrative of the sport as well as the location.
Northern California is an area born from the quest for masses of gold. Its recent growth has been spurred by chips of silicon, and tonight it will see one team lay claim to the Lombardi Trophy. Not just any Lombardi Trophy but the 50th one, to symbolize a championship and cap a half-century of exponential expansion of the Super Bowl.
“I certainly think our players understand the significance of that,” said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who will be starting his fourth Super Bowl. “This is a unique and special opportunity.”
Like the area itself, the Super Bowl rose from humble, rugged beginnings to a high-tech extravaganza that will be played at the NFL’s crown jewel of gadgety gizmos — Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara — in front of millions of fans with high-def and surround-sound.
What would Vince Lombardi, who won the first two of these games (until Sunday the only ones that did not have Roman numerals when they were played, although they were retroactively added) make of tonight’s contest?
Could he have envisioned a 6-5, 245-pound quarterback who can flick footballs down the field as easily as he can run around defenders? Would he have been amazed that a 39-year-old man who has been pieced back together with neck and foot surgeries is on the verge of becoming an immortal in the game . . . just a month or so after he was a backup? He probably would have loved that a linebacker who broke his arm two weeks ago will be starting.
Although this game will be a celebration of the previous 49 incarnations, as this has been for this entire season with gold-painted 50-yard lines and shields on every field throughout the year, it also feels like a turning point.
Manning is one of the all-time greats and the holder of nearly every passing record imaginable, but most suspect he will retire in the coming weeks, ending a career that has transformed the position and the game.
And the Panthers’ Cam Newton seems to be ushering in a new generation of player: the super-athlete. He is the kind of quarterback who can do it all and do it all well, and who does not refrain from reminding opponents about both of those facts.
Mobile passers got here in the previous three years, with Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson representing the NFC in those games (and Wilson beating the Broncos). Newton, though, is so much more complete than those anomalies of the position. He could become the mold that teams try to find until Super Bowl 100.
The dichotomy in this game is too juicy to ignore from both a style perspective and a timing one. The Broncos, with the league’s No. 1-ranked defense, seem to be a team whose championship window is closing. Meanwhile, the Panthers and the league’s best offense appear to be starting out on what could be a run of success.
Football has well-documented problems. It is dangerous and violent. The effects can last a lifetime and can shorten one, too. It glorifies men who can act in unseemly fashion and gives second and third chances for infractions that would lead to banishment from other professions.
This is the second offseason in a row that the league will spend time and money investigating one of its most visible and successful stars for cheating — Manning’s alleged HGH use will be looked into, as was Tom Brady’s role in the use of deflated footballs a year ago — and it will be in court next month against Brady on the matter of his suspension, which was vacated by a federal judge last summer.
Yet the one thing football does best is football. The game. The players. The teams. The pageantry. The drama.
And yes, even the commercials.
Each of the previous 49 years was punctuated by one winter Sunday in which all of that has shined through. When everything, for 60 minutes on the field, has been Super.
On Sunday, that day turns 50. And though only one team will enjoy the confetti that falls when the game is over, for the rest of us, that seems to be something to celebrate.