PASADENA, CALIF., JAN. 31 -- When the two-minute warning in Super Bowl XXVII was announced yesterday, the crowd of 98,374 in the Rose Bowl cheered. Soon, mercifully, it would be finished. The Dallas Cowboys would stop scoring touchdowns. The Buffalo Bills would stop fumbling. And there would be no reason for Michael Jackson, the halftime performer, to start singing again.
If the National Football League ever offered the world an absolutely typical Super Bowl, this was it. For the victorious Dallas Cowboys, the champions of the National Football Conference, the glory was total in this ludicrously lopsided 52-17 win. The Cowboys' three superstars went wild. Their agents probably will need an extra cup of warm milk to get to sleep. Quarterback Troy Aikman threw four touchdown passes and was named most valuable player. Wide receiver Michael Irvin caught six balls for 114 yards, including two for touchdowns. Running back Emmitt Smith ran for 108 yards and a touchdown. The Dallas franchise, which was 1-15 just three seasons ago, can now claim to be "America's Team" once more, an honor it earned in its heyday in the 1970s. On Sunday, the Cowboys played as if they were an All-Solar System team. But the Super Bowl tends to exaggerate every virtue.
As for the humiliated Buffalo Bills, the American Football Conference champions, their sense of professional degradation was utter in their third straight defeat in the NFL championship game. Of course, in Super Bowls, utter defeat is the rule. For two weeks, Bills Coach Marv Levy said the Bills reason-to-be was to avoid turnovers. "Our game plan," he said, "is to hold the ball and take it away from them." So the Bills set a Super Bowl record: nine turnovers.
Bills quarterback Jim Kelly limped off the field in the second quarter and then was unceremoniously taken to the locker room on a golf cart with a sprained knee. Second-string quarterback Frank Reich, who had inspired the Bills to a stunning comeback in the first round of the playoffs, showed no such inspiration today.
Now, and maybe always, the Bills will be linked with another team from the AFC, the Denver Broncos, as the two teams that played progressively worse in each of three Super Bowl defeats until, finally, they had succeeded in discrediting much of what they had accomplished. If the Bills are back for a fourth consecutive Super Bowl next year, will anybody come? The AFC has now lost nine straight Super Bowls by the almost unbelievable average margin of 27 points. Experts claim the conferences are not that far apart in talent and strength. However, casual sports observers are now entitled to consider the AFC a glorified minor league.
Finally, for 120 million television viewers, the quality of the football offered was vintage Super Bowl: It ranged from heinous to hysterical. Of all these January blowouts, none was more filled with bobbles and pratfalls, dopey strategy and mental blunders.
Maybe the happiest man in the house was Prince Bander bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, who has assumed the same cheerleading role on the Cowboys bench that Hammer takes for the Atlanta Falcons. He stood on the sidelines with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, glad-handing the players. Perhaps in the Middle East, the subtleties of Really Bad Football are not appreciated.
Hopefully, only one play from this Super Bowl will be remembered -- outside of Texas of course. In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys' defensive tackle Leon Lett, a 292-pound gentleman, picked up a Bills fumble near midfield. By that time, every Cowboys lineman knew that, if you just kept your eyes peeled, something would bounce past your feet pretty soon. In fact the Cowboys got so greedy that they missed a chance to recover three more Bills fumbles because they were too anxious to scoop and rumble. Yes, the Bills almost had a dozen turnovers.
The grateful Lett eventually achieved possession after a slipping, stumbling break dance that the King of Pop might have envied. He took off for the goal line and a permanent place in NFL Films history. Perhaps Lett knew that when he crossed the goal line, the all-time Super Bowl scoring record would belong to his team. The Cowboys were not only back but were going to bust up the San Francisco 49ers' mark of 55 points against Denver in 1990.
Lett, 10 yards from nirvana, began hot-dogging -- a tradition with teams coached by Jimmy Johnson, stretching back to his days at the University of Miami. Lett held the ball out beside him in one hand. One Buffalo Bill, bless his heart, was not defunct. Don Beebe, one of the NFL's faster men, made up 20 yards on Lett. Perhaps an inch from the goal line, he dove and knocked the ball out of Lett's showboating hand.
After a committee meeting of referees, none of whom were close enough to have any clue about the call, a decision was made to grant the Bills mercy. Since the ball had bounced across the goal line and out of the end zone, the ruling was "touchback." Buffalo ball.
Perhaps this play illustrated how the Super Bowl has, for 27 years, tended to be a theater of absurd exaggeration. Everything that's best in the winner gets raised to a new power. All the better, many ex-champions might say, to set the stage for the following season's Super Bowl Jinx. As for the loser, every flaw is not only exposed but turned into grist for weeks of nationwide stand-up comedy. When a team gets behind badly, perhaps it can hear 250 million Americans clearing their throats, preparing to mock.
To be sure, there was much to make sport of here at the Rose Bowl. This Super Bowl was over before the skinny man sang. Yes, before Michael Jackson could "Jam" or "Beat It" or even "Heal The World" at halftime, the truth was on the scoreboard: 28-10.
Afterward, Levy said he thought his team had prepared well all week. But he added: "We sure weren't good tonight. All you can ask for is the opportunity to get here and do something when you get here."
President Clinton telephoned the winning locker room after the game to congratulate Johnson and Jones. "I think you understand how much we put into this thing," Johnson told the president. "... You know a little bit about perseverance yourself, so I know you understand."
How lopsided was the game? The Cowboys scored twice within 15 seconds in the first quarter, then scored twice within 18 seconds in the second, at which time the public address system in the Rose Bowl tried to give the official NFL interpretation of the day's one-sided events. "Blame it on Texas. Don't blame it on me," wailed the country music lyrics.
Well, that's half true. Texas can take tons of credit. However, by the fourth quarter, when Dallas scored three uncontested touchdowns, it seemed hard to give the Bills credit for much of anything -- even trying.
Yes, blame it on Texas. But promise to blame it on Buffalo, and perhaps the hyperbolic nature of the Super Bowl.