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This one finally lives up to its name

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2000


ATLANTA -- 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 victory and success. It ended with glitter in the air, with tears in Dick Vermeil's eyes, with joy on everyone else's face.

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This was the darndest of games between the least likely of suspects. This was 36 inches, between victory and defeat. This 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 teams 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," said Marshall Faulk.

Even better than he thought it would be? How about the rest of us? Of all the places to look for high drama, the Super Bowl is the last place you'd ever look. History tells us that Super Bowls are, for the most part, awful. For the main part, 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 is the last Super Bowl you can remember where you wanted one more play?

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. The length of this newspaper page. The width of an end table. The depth of the shallow end of the pool.

Who would have suspected this? Before this game, there seemed to be such little interest that rumor was the NFL was just going to call it "the Bowl." The Rams? The Titans? Give us a break. Who had they played? Who had they beaten? And most important, who were these guys?

Ah, what a game they gave us. Yes, it was better than Joe Montana in Super Bowl XXIII. Yes, it was better than the Giants surviving the Bills in Super Bowl XXV. This was as good as there has been.

This was Warner throwing all over the lot, to magnificent receivers 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 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 in the draft, and then they were supposed to have a breakthrough year.

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 a linebacker on the basketball court. 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 Kurt Warner goes back to the Super Bowl or back to the supermarket? Does it matter if 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.

In St. Louis, the question that arises now 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?

This was amazing, beating brilliant by a yard.

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