What began 12 years ago as a put-up-shut-up challenge of the snooty NFL by the upstart AFL is now a week-long celebration for fans, a reunion site for former players, a social marketplace for huge corporations and smalltime wheeler-dealers. It is also a breeding ground for rip-off artists, a convenient spotlight for publicity-hungry celebrities and an opportunity for two football teams to withstand the pressure of incredible publicity and show grace.

The Super Bowl is pro football's fertility rite. Because New Orleans is a carnival city looking for an excuse to party, it was natural to pair the two. It appears to be a marriage made in heaven. New Orleans, with its masked mysteries and sequined jazz, is the perfect backdrop for the gaudy, and, sometimes ludicrous, drama of a football game played in Roman numerals.

More than 60,000 tourists will have arrived in New Orleans by game time. Hotels are filled, restaurants are booked days ahead, and you take your chances trying to get in to hear Pete Fountain at the Hilton.

Bourbon Street is awash with frenzied fans desperate to spot a football hero. Tall muscular men are stopped frequently and asked, "Are you one of the Cowboys?" One young and slightly inebriated woman was so sure her prey was Tony Dorsett and Walter Payton that the two men she accosted finally forged automgraphs and turned her back over to her disgusted date.

Window displays in the French Quarter souvenir shops are newly decorated with Bronco and Cowboy beer mugs, pennants, scarves and lapel buttons. Signs brag, "We Have Orange Crush Here!" Pushed to the background are the King Tut tote bags. The treasures of Tutankhamun will depart the city Sunday to the wailing upbeat brass sounds of a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral. Broncomania now replaces the art-crazed Southerners who have streamed into New Orleans during the past month to glimpse the tomb treasure. There is order in this parade of emotional excess.

It's always like that in New Orleans, a city that offers its fleshy favors to Sugar Bowl patrons, Mardi Gras celebrants, anybody who stops long enough to admire the black-trunked live oak trees and the fuchsia azaleas. It's the kind of city that football players fantasize about. It's the sort of place that gives coaches overlapping ulcers.

Trying to prepare for a world championship football game in the midst of the perpetual New Orleans bacchanalia is like trying to tread water in a whirlpool. One slip and you're sunk.

Both coaches - Tom Landry and Red Miller - are taking the I-know-you're-an-adult approach this year. Players are being allowed to room with their wives and families before the game. Eleven p.m. curfews apply only to Friday and Saturday nights. Players have been free to roam and most have.

Those with wives signed up for the red carpet tour of the King Tut exhibit, a private perusal, an hour before museum doors were opened to the public. Cowboy wives Rosie (Mrs. Charlie) Waters, Bonnie (Mrs. Bill) Gregory, Susan (Mrs. Doug) Dennison and Joyce (Mrs. Bennie) Barnes fanned out in the French Quarter and left no shop unbrowsed. Marianne (Mrs. Roger) Staublich has three daughters in tow for ferry-boat rides and McDonald hamburgers to go with the sugared beignets and cafe an lait at the French Market.

Both teams are billeted in motels near the New Orleans International Airport, a 20-minute taxi ride from town, hardly distant enough to discourage packs of players from sampling the nightime delights of New Orleans. The discos of Fat City were headquarters for some; Moran's and the Old Absinthe House in the French Quarter watered others.

NFL management celebrated the crisis point of the football season much more sedately. Landry took his mink-clad wife Alicia to a birthday (hers) celebration at Elmwood Plantation and found San Diego owner Eugene Klein, coach Tommy Prothro, and the Cowboys' vice president Gil Brandt already there.

Elsewhere former players gathered to talk about old times in marathon drinking contests that lasted all night. "It's not really a football game for fans," claimed the Redskins' Calvin Hill. "It is a giant reunion for all players. The game is just an excuse."

It is difficult to imagine any game living up to the importance placed on it by the excruciating focus of the media. Like a piece of dry paper on the wrong side of a magnifying glass under the sun, the game itself is usually a dull piece of charred skeleton, barely recognizable as football. In recent years the contests have offered all the excitement of two evenlymatched wrist wrestlers straining with no score for three hours.

Press conferences with the coaches are orchestrated. Landry says his team is capable of playing excellent football but he's not guaranteeing it.Miller says his defense bends a little but doesn't break. A tingle of deja vu chills the hord of reporters who record every inconsequential syllable. Haven't we heard all this before? Is this the rehearsal or the real thing?

The players grudgingly submit themselves to questioning. "It's boring," complains Bernard Jackson of the Broncos. "I keep having to say the same thing over and over."

The Broncos are youthful looking and have a well-scrubbed look mainly because most of them are wearing T-shirts with bright logos. Those like Randy Rich who are reborn Christians want to share the joy. "Whichever team win this Sunday, God will be glorified," Rich says, beaming happily at the reporters recording his prophecy.

The Cowboys are wearing velours and kid leather. They've been here before and they act like it. Everybody is scared stiff about the game but nobody wants to admit it.

Celebrities, anxious to be included in any large spotlight, offer their talents. Andy Williams, Minnie Pearl, Natelie Cale and the Mills Brothers are here to perform in the live telecast Saturday night on CBS of "Super Night at the Super Bowl." Billy Carter is here for half of his usual $5,000 fee to perform in a tasteless skit about a space ship that has selected the SuperDome as its mate. Joe Namath parodies Hamlet with his version called. "To pass or not to pass, That is the question."

Pete Roselle called from his Christmas card list 3,000 of his closest friends and sent them invitations to a party called "Mardi Gras XII" at the Rivergate on Canal Street.

It was a party Walt Disney would have loved. Backdrops created plantation scenes where the wanderer could refersh himself with a choice of entrees: jambalaya, shrimp piquante or crawfish etouffee. The Arcadia Parish Glen offered pastries, croquembouche and cafe capresso. Forty-eight stewardesses from Delta Air Lines, dressed in mint green dresses, plied the guests with strawberry daiquiris served in minature SuperDomes.

Shucked oysters were advertised as "topless" and each guest took home as a favor a piece of sugar cane with instructions to peel it with a fruit knife before attempting to chew it.

Out in the Superdome, George Toma, groundskeeper for the Kansas City Chiefs, was applying 200 gallons of paint to stencils on th eartificial surface. The Dallas stencil is 12 years old( the Bronos' is brand new. Toma reports proudly that the NFL logo at midfield measure 26 feet by 28.

The NFL has spared no expense, has left no nostalgia stone unturned. Red Grange will preside over the coin toss before the game. Phyllis Kelly, a voice major from Southerastern Louisiana University and Miss Baton Roughe, will sing the National Anthem with confidence that denies her lack of experience. At halftime the Tyler, Tex. Apache Bellies will dance the can can, their Moulin Rouge costumes reflecting the Parisian theme. They will be followed by a dog act featuring Ashley Whippet (a whippet) and Hyper Hank (an Australian sheepdog) who will play a fierce game of Frisbee while trying not to upstage the Super Bowl game.

In the cheeriest of Disney movies, a little evil always seeps in. This athletic orgy in New Orleans is not without its problems.

A spokesman for the New Orleans police said the force has been increased by 40 per cent. Plain-clothes officers patrol the French Quarter to protect tourists from purse snatchers, pickpockets and prostitutes. Arrests for soliciting were 10 per cent higher than normal two days before the game.

Price gougers and rip-off artists are a source of constant embarrassment to the tourist-conscious New Orleans populace. Scalpets were ruthlessly tracked down by undercover police operating out of the opulent Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Answer a want-ad offering Super Bowl tickets and you might get a cautious conversation like this: "I can't offer you tickets. Ah hem.But, I could offer to sell you something like an umbrella.How about $250 for two umbrellas?"

One young man who works as a housepainter made arrangements to exchange his tickets for hard such to a man registered in Room 211 at the Hyatt Regency. "What they (the police) did was go down all the ads and call each one," he said, still shocked at his arrest."Just after they gave me my money they pulledout their badges. Then they threw me up against a wall and frisked me right there in the Regency. I can see getting fined, buy they threw me in the drunk tank like I was a criminal. I'm not a scalper," he insisted "I just wanted to sell my tickets."

Many speculators avoided the threat of a $500 fine or 60 days in jail by investing $100 in a round-trip rail ticket to Dallas where there is no law forbiding resale. The $30 tickets are selling for upwards of $500.

New Orleans police say they are helpless to control other kinds of scalping despite their diligent attention to profitable transfers of tickets. Enterprising people reserved blocks of hotel rooms as long ago as August and are now offering to sublet for $200 a night and more. Homeowners clamored to get into the act, notifying the Tourist Bureau of rooms to rent - priced out of sight.

But the darkest cloud hovering over the tightly closed roof of the Superdome is that of mass violence that would mimmick the controversial television movie "Superdome" aired Monday night. Pete Rozelle said he deplored the decision to present the film so soon before the game. Police spokesmen say security police have been added to the game because of the suggestive properties of the movie, filmed on location in New Orleans this fall.

Police don't think there is any connection between the movie and the telephoned death threat to the Bronco home office against running back Jon Keyworth."You're gonna have that at all Super Bowis," said one police official.

Excess is tolerated. It is expected. Each Super Bowl is expected to be more extravagant than the last. It is like a slow leak in the levee that refuses to seal itself. First there's a trickle: then, the deluge.

But the folks in New Orleans are not thinking about bailing out. It's a carnival town continually searching out a party. The only problem facing the city is how to recover from the Super Bowl's "Bloated Sunday" in time for the parades and masked balls of "Fat Tuesday."