TAMPA -- Why is picking-the-winner, even when we get it wrong, so much fun? Why is a Super Bowl or World Series prediction a bigger kick for millions of people than anything so silly ought to be?
Much of daily life is making decisions and forming judgments. From the trivial to the vital, we constantly hone and reevaluate our ability to come to conclusions about the world around us.
In sports, we can form opinions without consequences. It's a pleasure. But it also feels like practice.
Maybe that's why, to fans, trying to figure out a Super Bowl is invigorating. Picking games gives us a sense of control over the world -- if only a small part of it -- and Super Bowl XXV is made for pickers. There's a clear one- touchdown favorite, the Buffalo Bills, facing an absolutely tenable underdog, the New York Giants. Few doubt that the Bills' hurry-up attack might befuddle and blow out the Giants. And few doubt that the Giants' defense and its big offensive line might grind down the Bills for a typical Giants win. Buffalo, 31-13, and New York, 20-17, are both perfectly sensible predictions.
But it ain't gonna be both, is it?
Here are the factors that make this Super Bowl so wonderfully messy:
The Bills' Jim Kelly vs. the Giants' backup Jeff Hostetler. No Super Bowl team has ever overcome a quarterback disadvantage comparable to this. In big quarterback-gap games, the record is 10-0.
The NFC has won the last six Super Bowls by an average score of 40-14. If the NFC's best teams really are that much superior, then every statistic is skewed and the Giants should dominate so thoroughly that Kelly-Hostetler will be irrelevant. (This season's NFC-vs.-AFC mark? A perfect .500 split.)
Most Super Bowls are blowouts, built on early, demoralizing scoring blitzes. This describes the Bills perfectly. Fourteen Super Bowls have been won by more than 15 points. In such blowouts, the favorites have a 10-4 record.
Teams with a significant advantage in previous Super Bowl experience have a 10-3 record in this game. Most of the Giants were here in XXI. They're a calm, businesslike, mature team. Coach Bill Parcells's temperament and stick-to-basics approach seem ideal for this one-week-to-prepare game. The Bills tend to be flashy, talky and immature compared to their foes. They partied plenty early in the week. Marv Levy is smart, but somewhat tense; he might overcoach. The Giants seem more focused to play. But the Bills seem totally confident.
The mystique of the Bills' no-huddle offense is enormous -- for the moment. It's only been fully unveiled in recent weeks and has shredded the Dolphins and Raiders for 95 points. Teams that make the Super Bowl with innovative systems tend to win big. Remember the Bears' "46" defense? The Chiefs' "Offense of the '70s?" Joe Gibbs's multiple-shift, man-in-motion offense? The 49ers' ball-control passing attack?
These teams met just five weeks ago in an important game; most indicators from then point toward Buffalo. The Bills won, 17-13, at Giants Stadium. Buffalo lost Kelly for half that game and now has him back. The Giants had Phil Simms for a half then and will not have him Sunday. In that game, Kelly and the no-huddle scored two lightning touchdowns before his injury. The Bills held Hostetler to three points. That day, New York's Rodney Hampton rushed for 105 yards. Now, he's hurt, replaced by 34-year-old Ottis Anderson. So some people think this game has already been played. And that, this time, the Bills will win more easily.
In the NFL in this age of parity, rematches tend to favor the loser of the first game. Better motivation. Sharper practices. Revenge. And overconfidence affecting the previous winner. Hints of all of this are present in Tampa this week. Two Bills openly said they'd rather have played the 49ers so the glory would be greater. Loose lips sink ships.
The Bills are rested after a 51-3 romp. The Giants just survived the game of their lives to beat the 49ers at the gun. If both teams are equally fresh, the Bills' defense might be exhausted late in the game due to the Giants' thudding attack and the Bills' no-huddle offense, which hurts its own time-of- possession. But are both teams equally rested? The Bills should be. Are they partied out?
Both coaches worship turnover differential, as they should. Both teams excel here.
Marv Levy was George Allen's special teams guru. Edge to Bills. A kicking-game turning point would be a tip-of-the-hat to the recently deceased Allen.
Can Buffalo stop the run? Not very often. Ten teams have rushed for 120 or more yards against the sack-happy Bills. The Giants had 157 on 42 carries when they met in December. If you smash-mouth Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan and Ray Bentley, will they tuck their tails? Maybe. The Bills have allowed 23 or more points eight times. This is far from a great defense. Best-kept secret: The Giants' offensive line outweighs the Bills' front seven by 25 pounds a man -- 276 to 251. Remind anyone of Washington intimidating Denver?
Okay, enough with the analysis. What matters? What doesn't? Who wins?
The Bills' defense talks better than it tackles. Anderson isn't Hampton and Hostetler isn't Simms. But the Giants will make yardage and eat lots of clock. However, Hostetler hasn't proved he can produce touchdowns in the red zone. Matt Bahr better eat a big breakfast.
The Giants will try to do to Kelly what they attempted with Joe Montana -- send pressure up the middle early, play a soft double zone and risk some cheap 15-yard gains for the sake of sending a nasty message to Kelly. However, Kelly has a running game and an offensive line that's better than the 49ers' and even bigger than New York's.
Both teams will move the ball, but the Giants will become increasingly frustrated while Buffalo takes charge. The heart says Giants, but the head says Bills. Buffalo has more ways to win, lesser weaknesses, better special teams and a top reserve quarterback. New York hopes Hostetler can finish drives with scores. The Bills know that Kelly can.
Buffalo 31, New York 13.