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Tale of two cities

Sure, most people don’t seem too excited by the Super Bowl — but Bill Simmons isn’t one of them.

With the exception of Seahawks fans, Steelers fans, bald people and 300-pound asthmatics, nobody seems too excited about Super Bowl XL. Following the media coverage this week and sifting through everyone’s e-mails, I can’t remember one unbiased observer saying, “You know what? I’m freaking excited for this game!”

Well, I’m excited about it. I love the matchup. Like the main characters. Like the cities involved. Like how I struggled coming up with a pick this week (the Steelers look too easy). Like how both teams have gone 25-plus years without winning a title (making them officially “long-suffering”). And yet, ESPN’s interviews with Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb ended up being bigger than any Super Bowl story this week — other than Joey Porter’s trying to reenact the Beecher-Schillinger feud on “Oz” with Jerramy Stevens, of course — which would be fine except neither Favre nor McNabb happens to be playing this weekend.

So why isn’t anyone else excited about XL? The two-week break didn’t help. Not only was all the momentum from championship weekend lost, but the media couldn’t unearth a single generic story line to keep everyone interested other than “Jerome Bettis is coming home!” … which was summarily ridiculed and beaten into a pulp within 96 hours. I don’t hate the break as much as the spirit behind it: The NFL stretches things so the Super Bowl takes place during February Sweeps, only this leads to a second week of hype that everyone despises, most notably the writers and broadcasters who are doing the hyping. It’s like a dentist telling you how much he hates his job as he’s giving you a root canal.

Of course, if the Super Bowl were happening in a desirable location like Miami or San Diego, those same reports would have been sprinkled with the same giddy edge of two middle-aged parents calling their kids during a vacation to the Bahamas or Nantucket. Hey, just checking in! We were just at the beach all day! The weather has been unbelievable! Nobody sounds like that in Detroit. By all accounts, the city exceeded everyone’s expectations and easily shed the “It’s just going to be Jacksonville with bullets” joke by Tuesday. Jacksonville was woefully unprepared on every level, whereas the city of Detroit has risen to the occasion (at least so far).

On the other hand, it’s still Detroit. If you were planning a weeklong vacation in February, where would cold-weather cities like Detroit, Chicago, Philly and Boston rank? Pretty low on the list, right? So nobody is really that happy to be there, only nobody has the courage to shake things up and write the obligatory “This place sucks, what the hell are we doing here?” column after what happened to Jimmy Kimmel two years ago. And that relative lack of energy has seeped into this week’s Super Bowl coverage. With the exception of the e-mails from my degenerate gambler friends who have been wreaking havoc in Detroit and Ontario, I haven’t read or watched a single thing that made me think, “Wow, I wish I was there!”

(And make no mistake about it: Had I known about the downtown casinos, as well as Windsor’s being the Canadian Vegas, I absolutely would have gone this week. Am I kicking myself? You betcha. Are these secondhand gambling stories leading to a random Vegas trip this month that could end up getting me divorced? No question. Would it have been more fun to gamble when ESPN was paying for my accommodations, as opposed to my paying for them? As always. Note to self: Next time the Super Bowl is being held in an offbeat location, make sure that same location isn’t blanketed by casinos. Back to the column.)

There’s a third reason for the collective indifference: A nagging sense that Pittsburgh and Seattle aren’t worthy/interesting/dynamic Super Bowl teams. For instance, Page 2’s own Skip Bayless has been killing Seattle for the past few weeks. Either he’s messing with the city as a gimmick, he has some deep-seated animosity toward former Page 2 editor (and Seahawks fan) Kevin “KJ” Jackson, or this whole saga is leading to a Seahawks victory and a distraught Skip wandering into a Seattle Starbucks and reenacting an episode of “24.” It’s one of the three. Obviously, I’m rooting for the Starbucks scenario, if only because it will probably lead to Skip’s being talked off a ledge, followed by a brief jail stint and an exclusive interview with Graham Bensinger 18 months later. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why Skip has declared war on such a harmless city. What’s next, a feud with Switzerland’s Winter Olympics contingent?

Anyway, I find myself rooting for the poor fans in Seattle, who have suffered through the Griffey/A-Rod/Big Unit defections; the E! True Hollywood Story-level demises of Shawn Kemp and Vin Baker; the relative lack of success of “Singles”; the Dikembe Mutombo game; Jack Sikma’s perm; the Irene-Steven domestic violence incident on “The Real World”; an astonishing number of recent Mariners seasons in which the team peaked in July; and (unquestionably) the most mediocre franchise in NFL history. And that’s just in the last 15 years. Can you imagine being a Seahawks fan since 1976? No Super Bowl appearances. No truly memorable players other than Steve Largent. They were like the Hartford Whalers of the NFL … and by the way, the Whalers moved eight years ago. Now they have their one chance to step into the limelight and people are crapping on them? I don’t get it.

I find myself rooting for everyone from the ‘Burgh, as well. Great sports city. Great tradition. Die-hard fans all over the country. When I was growing up in the mid-’70s, the Steelers, Raiders and Cowboys were the only NFL teams that mattered. They were the BMOCs. Now the Steel Curtain is back. And they did it in the second-best possible way — three straight upsets on the road against the top three teams in the AFC (only a win in Foxborough would have been sweeter.) So how can anyone say this wasn’t the best AFC representative? Maybe the Patriots were more talented this season, but the fact remains, they turned the football over five times against Denver … a team that Pittsburgh obliterated a week later. The Steelers are playing better than anyone, peaking at the right time and playing hard for a coach who has inspired nearly 75,000 Sergeant Slaughter jokes over the last 15 years. Isn’t that the exact type of team that should make the Super Bowl?

Here’s the real problem: This particular Super Bowl matchup didn’t fit into anyone’s plan. If you look back at the previous 39 Super Bowls, most of them were the culmination of a story line (or story lines) that had been brewing all season. The worst Super Bowls were always the matchups that came out of nowhere — like Tampa playing Oakland three years ago or Atlanta screwing up the inevitable Denver-Minnesota showdown in 1999. We never know what to do with these Super Bowls, simply because we weren’t prepared for them. In the case of Super Bowl XL, everyone expected the Pats or Colts to make it, and everyone expected the Seahawks to collapse somewhere along the way, only neither thing happened … and now we’re here.

Trust me, it could be worse. XL has more good stories than you would think. Many of them have already been tapped, like Pittsburgh’s rare commitment to Bill Cowher over the years, or the irony of Roethlisberger’s emergence as the defining quarterback of the 2004 draft (when the Giants passed on him to trade up for Eli Manning). Matt Hasselbeck’s happy-go-lucky personality has emerged. So has Porter’s relative insanity. It’s been interesting to watch Mike Holmgren shed the “Never won without Favre” label, and I enjoyed profiles on relative unknowns such as Lofa Tatupu and Fast Willie Parker.

Still, five stories haven’t gotten enough attention this week. And just for the record, I considered expanding this list to 10 and including snarky ones like “What about the inherent dangers of a former Boston College quarterback (Hasselbeck) being involved in the biggest gambling event of the year? It’s like inviting Tom Sizemore to one of those ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ parties.” But I held off. Here are the five most underrated stories of Super Bowl XL:

Story No. 1
Ever since his nearly catastrophic fumble in the Indy game, we have been hearing about what a special person Jerome Bettis is: He’s a sportswriter’s best friend; his teammates revere him; everyone in the league loves him; there isn’t a better guy in sports; everyone on the Steelers wants to win XL for Jerome. And I am not disputing any of these things — for all we know, Jerome is like Travolta in “Phenomenon.” I’m just glad he’s using his powers for good instead of evil.

But I haven’t read enough stories about what makes him so special. Is he considered to be a great guy relative to every other professional athlete, many of whom are asses, so he’s a great guy by proportion? If he worked in a Staples or a Best Buy, would everyone consider him the greatest guy in the store? Is this greatguyness only confined to clubhouses and interviews? If I were working as a bellhop and carried his bags up to his hotel room, would the three-minute interaction with Jerome change my life in some way? If he becomes a talking head on TV, will he become the one person on an NFL studio show who can convince everyone to stop screaming and fake-laughing at jokes that aren’t funny? Quite simply, what are the limits to his powers?

(More important, why isn’t there one person in my life whom I would talk about in such a glowing manner? I have many friends and many family members, many of whom are extremely nice, but not one of them would make me glow as I spoke about them. Yet the mere mention of Jerome Bettis’ name immediately turns his teammates into extras from a Seals and Crofts video. This makes no sense. Somebody please explain.)

Story No. 2
Peter King casually revealed in his column this week that Bill Cowher has three daughters, one on Princeton’s hoops team, the other two on the same high school hoops team. Then he moved onto another story. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there thinking to myself, “Wait, how was this not the greatest reality TV show of all time? Bill Cowher raising three teenage daughters? You wouldn’t have watched that every week?” I mean, my Uncle Bob could barely handle three daughters at the same time, and he was the most stable member of the Simmons family. How could someone pull that feat off while also coaching an NFL football team? This should have been Gary Smith’s next 12,000-word profile for Sports Illustrated, and frankly, there’s still time. Somebody talk him out of interviewing that Sudanese decathlete with no legs and send Gary to the Cowher house!

(By the way, could someone please reassure me that the Cowher girls look more like Mrs. Cowher than Mr. Cowher? Every time I think of them, I keep picturing these female basketball players running around with giant chins and mustaches and spit flying everywhere as they scream at the referees. It’s a little disturbing. I’m not asking for pictures, just a little reassurance, that’s all.)

Story 3
On “Inside the NFL” last week, Peter King mentioned that Shaun Alexander was definitely heading for free agency this spring, adding that he could probably get $6.5 million a year from Seattle, but somebody like Arizona would probably be willing to go to $8.5 million for him. Peter thought Alexander was leaning toward taking the money, since it was his one big chance to cash in.

Allow me to interject. It’s already been established that Alexander’s MVP award was a joke; ask any Seahawks fan to rank the three most indispensable players for Sunday’s game, and I guarantee anyone’s list will look like this: (1) Walter Jones; (2) Hasselbeck; (3) Alexander. In that order. If they say differently, they’re lying. Even the aforementioned Kevin Jackson (Page 2’s signature Seahawks fan) admitted on the phone last week that anyone with two legs, two arms and a head could run for 1,000 yards behind Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson.

So why would Alexander possibly want to leave a very good team with a great offensive line for a shaky team with a shaky offensive line? Sure, he makes extra money in the short term, but what happens 10 months from now, when he’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry, fighting off the aftereffects of 20 gang-tackles a game, and dealing with the collective animosity of 25,000 pissed-off fantasy owners? He’s going to be using that extra $2 million for Vicodin, booze and psychiatric care. That’s what happens. Watching Alexander this week, I feel like I’m watching David Caruso during those last few episodes before he left “NYPD Blue” to make “Jade.” I hope he reconsiders.

Story No. 4
I kept the Pittsburgh-Indy game on my TiVo and watched the fourth quarter about 10 times before finally erasing it — partly because it was such an incredible sporting event, partly because watching Manning and Vanderjagt self-destruct down the stretch was like watching the Nazis fall apart in the second half against Stallone, Pele and the rest of the Allies in “Victory.” Somewhere along the line, I started trying to figure out why the Colts had such a problem blocking the Steelers in that game, since it seems logical that any accomplished NFL team should be able to contain a blitz. So I’m studying each play, even slow-moing some of the blitzes, and eventually, I realized something…

It was all Troy Polamalu.

Manning’s fatal flaw is the way he audibles at the line like an OCD victim who can’t leave his kitchen until everything on the counter is perfectly arranged. Against most teams, this would be fine; he’s almost always going to come up with the right read. But someone like Polamalu is Manning’s Kryptonite, and here’s why: No defensive player in the history of football can sprint from Point A to Point B faster than Polamalu. There’s no way for someone like Manning to prepare for him, no audible that can be called. Polamalu would wait until Manning received the snap, wait for the Indy blockers to commit to their assignments, then unleash his delayed blitz into the open area. The thing is, even on a delayed blitz, he could still reach Manning faster than any other Steeler. Since Manning can’t move around, he was screwed. More importantly, he knew he was screwed. And once Polamalu got into his head, the Manning Face kicked in, and that was that.

I have watched some memorable safeties over the years, with Ronnie Lott being the best. But I can’t remember anyone playing like Polamalu during these playoffs. He’s a freak of nature. So is he slowly redefining the safety position the same way LT redefined the linebacker position once upon a time? Or is he just having a really good run? These are the things I want to know.

Story No. 5
You may remember the column I wrote in 2002 about the 20 Rules for Being a Sports Fan, which was inspired by KJ (who just tied the record for “Most times one of my friends has been randomly mentioned in the same column”) and a bizarre comment he made during the playoffs that year. I always knew KJ as a Seattle fan, right up until we were discussing a possible Pats-Steelers playoff game, when KJ said, “At least if my Steelers lose, I’ll be happy for you, because the Pats made it.”

My Steelers??? That led to my subsequent rant about the evils of sports bigamy, as well as 20 set-in-stone rules for being a sports fan. If you learned one lesson from that column, I wanted it to be this: You cannot unconditionally love two teams at the same time, when there’s a remote chance that they might go head-to-head some day. As I warned KJ, there could be a time where the Steelers played the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, and it would be awkward as hell because he would have to choose.

Four years later, incredibly, it happened. And guess what happened? KJ dumped the Steelers in about 0.000005 seconds. Not only did he have to be talked out of shaving his head to support Matt Hasselbeck, according to various reports from Detroit, but he’s also threatening to break the modern-day record for “Most money ever spent by one person on ridiculous Super Bowl merchandise related to one’s own team.” What could have been an ugly love triangle along the lines of Johnny, Ryan and Marissa ended up being a happy ending: It’s like his childhood love affair with the Steelers never happened.

Here’s the point: Sports bigamy doesn’t work. D-Day could always be lurking around the corner. You never know. Just ask KJ.

(And if the Steelers win and he says, “I’m definitely bummed out about the Hawks, but at least my Steelers won” next week, I’m going to kill him with my bare hands.)

On to the big Super Bowl pick…

I was going to write an elaborate breakdown using my Manifesto and everything, but this looks like one of the easiest Super Bowl picks in recent memory. Try to follow me on this one:

1. The NFC stunk all season. Just look at the interconference matchups: The six AFC playoff teams went 20-4 against the NFC; the six NFC playoff teams went 9-11 against the AFC. Sorry, I’m going with the good conference.

2. Seattle made it to the Super Bowl by beating, at home, two banged-up teams that were running on fumes. We have no idea how good they are, or if they’re good in the first place. That’s the only reason this line isn’t seven points or higher. The Seahawks might be really good. It’s just that nobody knows. Personally, I don’t think they’re in the class of Pittsburgh, Indy or New England. They’re on that next level.

3. Over the last two seasons, the Steelers are 26-2 in games not started by Tommy Maddox, Charlie Batch or Tom Brady. Warrants mentioning.

4. Even before that interception touchdown bounced off Champ Bailey’s shoulder pads and went to Hines Ward for the first down in Denver, I was writing that the Steelers looked like the proverbial Team of Destiny. Sometimes, certain teams get on a run of luck, almost like someone at a hot blackjack table. And you have to ride it until it’s over.

5. Roethlisberger, Ward, Parker, Polamalu, Antwan Randle El, Heath Miller, James Farrior … just seems like Pittsburgh has an inordinate amount of guys who can make big plays during the course of a game.

6. The number of Steelers fans at Sunday’s game is going to be staggering — I bet that 70-75 percent of the stadium will be rooting for them, and at least 30 percent of those people will be poorly dressed and wearing a Pittsburgh jersey with some sort of condiment stain on it. Call it a modified home-field advantage for the Steelers.

7. I’m a big believer in the “We need to win this for Jerome” angle. Seattle seems happy to be there; Pittsburgh seems inspired by a higher cause. You can almost see Cowher’s jaw trembling on the podium as he hands the trophy to Bettis, followed by Jim Nantz wishing he could have been there to gush, “Jerome Bettis, welcome home!” Some things are just destined to happen.

The pick: Pittsburgh 23, Seattle 17

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day, Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on and in bookstores everywhere.