As the winds of war blow chilly and cold through our nervous streets, every home and office considers its special concerns and questions of taste. Should a department store hold that grand opening with champagne and a live band? Should a theater raise its curtain or go dark? Should you host the dinner party you've been planning? In this sports section, as in sports sections around the country, the defining question is: Should the Super Bowl be played?

The answer here is: Yes.

This is not an easy call, nor is it a hard and fast one. The outbreak of war has happened so close to this weekend's AFC and NFC championship games that the shock of conflict and the sensitivity of the situation might be better cushioned by a postponement of those games. No one will want to play this weekend, and few will care to watch. (Although an earthquake is not a war, baseball faced a moral dilemma after the earthquake in 1989, and wisely chose to resume, not cancel, the World Series.)

Give us some time to absorb the stunning jolt of war. If next week we have accepted the terrible compromise that our daily lives have to go on as normally as possible, then we can play the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, our most compelling sports event. Not because the dead would have wanted us to -- but because the living need some reassurance.

The argument against playing is that football is just a game, something trivial and unnecessary. But it is for that precise reason we should play it. It's a diversion, something to chase our minds away from the horror of war. Winston Churchill made it clear to the people of England that the cinemas and music halls should remain open during World War II. Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the same instructions about baseball. In times of crisis, people need entertainment -- it may be the only time they need it. The prospect of sitting home, listening to dirges, will simply depress us further. We pay no disrespect to our soldiers by watching games and reading about them. The soldiers themselves are probably eager for Armed Forces Network to broadcast the Super Bowl. They might see it as a hopeful symbol.

There are valid times to postpone sporting events. The NFL should not have played its Sunday schedule two days after John Kennedy was assassinated, when the nation was in deep grief; Pete Rozelle later acknowledged this. The Munich Olympics should have taken off more than one day to commemorate the murdered Israeli athletes and coaches. The NCAA should not have allowed its 1981 championship basketball game to be played on the night Ronald Reagan had been shot. These are solitary, overwhelming acts of terrorism that dwarf the landscape and demand uncluttered mourning and healing. War is no less awful, but it is ongoing. The grief isn't resolved in a week or a month. It becomes part of daily life and, sadly, must take its place with all other aspects of daily life, including sports.

What do we single out for postponement? Do weddings go on? Do movies? Do schools open? Businesses? The stock market? Few among us would ask that pro and college teams cancel their entire seasons. What's to be gained by canceling the Super Bowl? Assuming war continues, what is the appropiate length for the postponement?

If you're worried about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl -- and surely it is a legitimate fear; the film "Black Sunday" made the case for it more than a decade ago -- why would you think the chance of such an attack would be eliminated by indefinitely postponing or canceling the game? You think terrorists won't wait for the next one? In Europe and Israel, where they've lived with acts of terrorism for years, games go on as scheduled. We've never had to consider playing those odds in America. Unfortunately, now we will.

Sports have always been a balm. Warring nations used to call a truce so the Ancient Olympics could be played. Playing the games might help us realize how far we've drifted from the true meaning of sports. The stark reality of death on the battlefield might shake us loose from the obscene hyperbole of the "blitz," the "bomb," and the "tragedy" of losing a football game. Thank heaven for Marcus Allen, who following the Raiders-Bengals game pushed aside the notion he'd felt any pressure playing football. "I didn't feel pressure," Allen said soberly. "The Gulf crisis, that's pressure."

There is much to dislike about the Super Bowl, especially its excesses. Its halftime show, for example, has become a pageant of jingoism. If it truly is a national holiday, it's dedicated to corporate profiteering and overstatement. A terrorist's eyes would water at the thought of such a concentration of American wealth and power in Tampa.

Yes, play the championship games and the Super Bowl. But spare us the American Dream theme park, the jet flyovers, the orchestral anthems and the omnipresent flags. Can't anyone have a sense of decorum about the flag decals on the helmets, and the flag patches on the jerseys? You cheapen patriotism by selling it like laundry detergent. Spare us the ostentatious parties with the egregious tons of gourmet foods and the wall-to-wall celebration of greed and glitz. Spare us the false solemnity by the broadcasters. Don't insult our intelligence or goose our passions with stentorian monologues about the meaning of it all.

Let it be a game. Play it because it ends the season and crowns a champion, and the soldiers in the Gulf -- those half-million sons and daughters, and fathers and mothers -- will want to know who won. Play it because it's a small part of life, and every small part is worth holding on to.