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LOOK FOR SUPER BOWL XL TO OFFER A CLOSE ENCOUNTER.

For many years, the least scintillating thing about the Super Bowl was the Super Bowl itself.

The United States’ four-and-a-half-hour tribute to all things entertainment and commerce was an event where creative advertisements, not breathtaking touchdown runs, had viewers glued to their couches. The A-list musical acts that were a featured part of the pre-game and halftime fare were often more of an attraction than the world-class athletes battling between the lines.

And while the guiding hand of Madison Avenue and the glitz of Hollywood are as much a part of the Super Bowl spectacle as ever, the game has begun to matter again too.

Credit the salary cap, instituted about a decade ago to help achieve better competitive balance within the NFL, for making the on-field action worth watching again. No longer can the deepest-pocketed or most tradition-rich franchises stockpile all of the best players in the interests of building dynasties. In the past five years, Super Bowls have been won by a couple of former bottom-feeders – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots – as well as another team, the Baltimore Ravens, that didn’t even exist until 1996.

In the past, the outcome of the Super Bowl had often been a formality before the start of the second half, and sometimes even before the game kicked off. Twenty-two of the first 30 Super Bowls were settled by double-digit margins. Between the 1983 and 1994 seasons, the average margin of victory on Super Bowl Sunday was a whopping 23 points. It was this trend that gave us nail-biters like the Chicago Bears’ 46-10 thrashing of the Patriots, the San Francisco’s 49ers’ 55-10 pasting of the Broncos, and the Dallas Cowboys’ 52-17 dismantling of the Bills.

But with the overall parity now present in the NFL has come exciting Super Bowl games, in which the result remains in doubt even after you’ve seen your 24th McDonalds commercial.

Five of the last eight Super Bowls have been settled by less than seven points. Three of the past four have been three-point affairs. Last season, the Patriots were 24-21 winners over the Philadelphia Eagles, one year after they took down the Carolina Panthers, 32-29.

Viewers can expect to bear witness to another nip-and-tuck confrontation on Feb. 5th, when Super Bowl XL unfolds in Detroit. Those that bet - an estimated $90 million was wagered on the Super Bowl in Nevada alone this past winter - will want to consider just how close the NFL’s current crop of teams are to each other in terms of talent level.

New England and Philadelphia, teams that many pundits had pegged for another Super Bowl appearance back in the preseason, have been decimated by injuries and are not expected to get withing sniffing distance of the big game this time around. In the National Football League of 2005, major injuries can turn contenders into pretenders seemingly overnight.

One of the expected Super Bowl representatives at the time of writing is the Indianapolis Colts, the NFL’s most dominant team during the 2005 regular season. The Colts spent much of the 2005 campaign as the league’s best squad on both the offensive and defensive sides of the football, but that doesn’t mean Indy rolled over every team on its schedule.

Inferior opponents like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns were able to play the Colts within a touchdown, giving up a total of 23 points to that renowned Indianapolis offense. The stifling Indy defense was nowhere to be found in a 45-37 game against Cincinnati on Nov. 20th, when the Bengals managed a bloated 492 yards of total offense in a losing effort.

No one that might face the Colts on Feb. 5th – the leading candidates are the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Chicago Bears – would be considered cannon fodder for Indianapolis or any other team that might grace the Super Sunday stage.

The Seahawks, led by top NFL running back Shaun Alexander, are among the most balanced teams in the league and have seen their defense rise to prominence in 2005.

Carolina, which lost that memorable Super Bowl thriller to the Patriots following the 2003 season, returned to the contender scene with a vengeance this year, and stops the opposing running game better than perhaps anyone else in the NFL.

The Cowboys and Giants, who battled for the NFC East division crown until late in the season, are of a similar ilk. Dallas uses veteran passer Drew Bledsoe to put points on the board, while New York has strong-armed youngster Eli Manning to lead its offensive charge.

Chicago, vying to make just its second Super Bowl appearance in league history, fields one of the most historically tough defensive units in league annals.

If recent history is any indication, whoever ends up in the Motor City in early February the Superbowl will offer their fair share of entertainment, and the game itself figures to once again be an attraction, rather than a distraction.
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