SAN DIEGO, JAN. 31 -- What the amazing, relentless and wildly innocent excess of the Super Bowl spectacle proves once more is that the secret of living in the U.S.A. is knowing how to go precisely too far enough.

Roger Swift, originally from Camp Springs, war-danced in Redskins headdress and boxer shorts outside an RV tonight with a bunch of friends and announced: "When Elway threw that pass {in the first Bronco play of the game, which scored a touchdown} he woke a sleeping giant! Mess with a bull and you get the horn! Mess with fire and you get burnt!"

Nearby, in the stadium parking lot, fans gathered for their moment in the spotlight -- light belonging to Washington's Channel 7, whose Renee Poussaint worked on her makeup as she waited for the cameras to turn on, while the fans worked on their chants of "We're Number 1," "Adios Amigos," and the ever-popular "Hi, Mom."

Redskins fans looked like they owned the town; Broncos fans looked like strangers. Listen to the victorious fans screaming and high-fiving. Look at the losers doing the Armageddon shuffle down the stadium exit ramps. Weren't they all going a little too far? Wasn't it all a little self-conscious?

It's like the atmosphere at a Wayne Newton show in Las Vegas -- the total illusion that at any moment a bunch of wild and crazy guys could break loose -- until you realize that the NFL has everything locked up tight, supervised, credentialed, walkie-talkied. It's a theme park for total male brute-out.

The NFL "is better at this than the communists," said sportswriter Larry Weisman of USA Today. A fragment of skywriting in a sky growling with blimps, helicopters and planes pulling banners said it all: "REMOTE CONTROL."

Reality was just a matter of phrasing. The portable toilets came from Alternative Structures Inc. Partying corporate types were cosseted by California Leisure Consultants, specialists in what they called "destination management."

When you're just a fan, you try to get into the game. When you're riding the corporate gravy train, you manage your destination.

Washington dentist Iboo Mohamed was thinking more about his own destination, the Bahamas, where he was heading with the $750 he'd won in bets in San Diego. "We felt it was going to be a blowout before we even left," he said.

Some Broncos fans tried to put the best face on it. "I'm glad I came," said Richard Orr of Parker, Colo., but his voice had that thin tone that hunters have in their voices when they come back from a birdless day talking about how beautiful the weather was.

They were reduced to specks of moderation in a sea of excess. From the Redskins' lopsided score to the 4.5 million words of sports writing in the days leading up to the game, it was all going too far.

Wasn't it a bit much that the producers of the halftime show not only moved 88 grand pianos onto the field, but actually tuned them first? Wasn't it pushing it to have so many private jets taking off from Lindbergh Field after the game that San Diegans who lived nearby were threatening to picket the airport? That 70,000 fans and 2,300 journalists would fly millions of miles to watch a football game they could have seen better on television? That tickets were being scalped not only for the game but for an NFL party ($100 apiece) and a brunch before the game ($40)? That policemen on horses were rounding up hookers on the streets?

The answer to all these questions is yes, of course, but that was the whole point: going too far enough.

This is a subtle concept, but it's one of the things that makes this country great, as opposed to merely excellent, boss or primo. It's the American engineering concept summed up in the phrase "If it doesn't work, use a bigger wrench." It's the esthetic principle of "louder music, stronger wine," an idea enunciated in the 1960s in Firesign Theatre's First Law of Opposition: "Push something hard enough, and it will fall over."

It's a concept based on the idea that the only way to redeem excess is to push it just a little bit harder.

For instance, when the Redskins broke the Super Bowl record for number of points scored in a quarter, that was going too far. When they scored for a fifth time, that was going too far enough.

The City of San Diego's putting up so many fireworks over the bay that they were hidden by their own smoke was going too far, but lancing those clouds with green laser beams was going too far enough. Inflating a nightmarish four-story-high football was going too far, but installing circuitry to light up the laces was going too far enough.

Or take Houston meat salesman Dal Gilbert, 27. He was lurking in the lobby of the San Diego Marriott at 11 o'clock one night before the game, watching the fans floating around open-mouthed like an aquarium full of drunk, jet-lagged tuna. Gilbert had gone too far by buying four Super Bowl tickets from a scalper for almost $400 apiece. Too far enough: Trying to sell them to someone else for even more. "I'm not good at all -- nobody is buying," he complained, and then he pushed it just a little harder by bringing God into it as only Americans can: "I believe in God -- I may sell tickets, but that doesn't mean I'm a devil. I'm a Christian. If I make a profit, fine. If I don't, fine."

Or at the stadium:

Too far: devoting 1,000 parking spaces to limousines only.

Too far enough: complaining that this was 1,000 shy of what was needed.

Or San Diego's Yvonne Rehg, spokesman for the city's Water Utilities Department, talking about the hydraulic effects of halftime.

Too far: "There may be a momentary drop in water pressure, especially around the stadium."

Too far enough: "I, for one, would rather watch the halftime, so I'll be more inclined to flush during the game." Or in Tijuana.

Too far: making a 14-foot-long Caesar salad with 840 heads of romaine lettuce, 1,400 ounces of garlic-flavored oil, the juice of 175 lemons, 350 cups of croutons, 980 ounces of parmesan cheese and 840 eggs.

Too far enough: announcing the leaving out of the anchovies on principle. "My father never used anchovies," said Rosa Cardini, daughter of Caesar Cardini, inventor of the salad.

The most important too far enough was simply being in San Diego. People in Denver and Washington were already going too far, painting their heads, wearing team regalia to school, buying souvenirs at supermarkets. But how could they truly savor the halftime show in which those well-tuned 88 pianos would join with a 388-piece brass band to accompany 44 Rockettes (88 legs, get it?) in a numerological exaltation of 1988 orgy that verged on the mystical.

Which is akin to the superstitious, which was another reason for the mania.

As in Stephen Dujack, editor of the Foreign Service Journal, who stayed in Washington but didn't miss the game.

"I believe that if I don't watch the Redskins' games intensely, they'll lose." He then took this idea too far enough: "I have the data to back this up."

There's no telling how many fans were convinced that their presence was crucial for victory. This notion is an old one among fans, who like to think of themselves as the 12th man on the field. As Frederick Exley wrote in "A Fan's Notes" of an obsession with Frank Gifford and the New York Giants that would help land him in a mental hospital: "I came, as incredible as it seems to me now, to believe that I was, in some magical way, an actual instrument of his success."

One Redskins fan stood outside the stadium holding up a sign with the straight-armed rigor of some mad yogi. The sign read, "Oh Lord it's hard to be humble when you're a Redskins fan."

Then there's the reverse rooting that has led some Redskins fans to complain about the firing of CBS' Jimmy the Greek, not because they agree with his statements on blacks in sports, but because he was known for being wrong when he picked the Redskins to lose, ergo he was causing them to win.

You had to be here to appreciate it all.

The traffic jams on the way out to the stadium started days before the game, as thousands of people, more than 21,000 on Saturday alone, went out merely to look at the field, to wonder at the grass, which lay there like a green lens, and at the stadium, which like a lot of American stadiums has the appeal of a combination of King Arthur's flag-flown palace and something that just landed from outer space, the Mother Ship. The strange thing was that they were looking at the site of history before it was made, not after.

Be there or be square.

The great cult of history was everywhere, with its relics and indulgences. You could tell it was history. Part of the appeal was history. It was Super Bowl XXII, not 22. The Roman numerals promised that it was all as good as graven in stone, and you could take home your own piece of the rock in the form of souvenirs, not just caps but mesh, twill, corduroy, wool and painters' caps (along with visors); not just steins, but ceramic, thermal and plastic steins, along with a souvenir car cooler. And what would a good anthropologist have made of the life-size football helmet whose top came off to reveal a bowl for guacamole or clam dip where some linebacker's brain would ordinarily be. Imagine it: the mind of the NFL itself gleaming on the end of your Pringle.

The Postal Service set up a counter at the stadium to sell souvenir post cards to prove you'd been there during Super Bowl XXII. History. A woman named Jewel Freeman was quoted in USA Today as saying, after she got burned for $1,200 in phony tickets: "It was attainable. I felt it was history."

The scoreboard unloaded endlessly on the fans. There were 73,302 fans, who'd arrived in 1,000 buses, 15,000 rental cars and 500 taxis. It would all go in record books somewhere, no doubt. And the halftime show was pure nostalgia. Black-and-white art deco in the style of the '30s, which got pushed plenty too far enough with a mixture of '60s nostalgia, starring Chubby Checker standing on top of a giant jukebox singing "Let's Twist Again." Dave Reynolds of Annandale said: "The parties, the events, the superhype -- the game is secondary."

Wilson Greene of Houston, in town with his wife Jennifer, said: "The excitement is being able to say this was another Super Bowl we attended." They were amassing statistics of their own, just like Doug Williams' touchdown passes or rookie Timmy Smith's rushing yardage, and it was all history. Go too far enough, and you get into that Roman numeral country.

History! Magic! Going too far enough! Being here!