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No doubt a winning matchup

Storied franchises made game super

By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / February 7, 2011

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The Super Bowl.

Excuse me, the SUPER BOWL!!!!!

That’s what we had here at Jerry Jones’s over-the-top edifice last night. We had a football game to decide the championship of a sport commonly played only on our continent, and over the years this game has acquired such a prominent place in American life that no one even questions the pompous manner in which we enumerate the games. It was not the 45th annual Super Bowl. No, indeed, it was Super Bowl XLV. But who cares? Throwing in Roman numerals is harmless, and anyway, Hollywood has been doing it for close to a hundred years.

It is truly amazing how far this game, and this sport, have come. I grew up at a time when it was not at all uncommon for World Series games to be broadcast into our classrooms, especially if your teacher was a Dodgers fan named Sister Mary Gabriella, which happened to be the case in my class at St. Joseph’s School for grades 3, 4, and 5. Baseball, not football, ruled in those days.

Nowadays, Super Sunday is a great American holiday, a bonanza for package stores, delis, and pizza places. Where, and with whom, one watches the Super Bowl is an important decision. Doing it as a solo act is not really an option. The modern definition of a true loser is someone who watches the Super Bowl alone.

Some Super Bowl matchups are mundane. No offense, but did anyone outside of a few people in their home state care that the Arizona Cardinals were actually playing for a Super Bowl championship two years ago? Now, it turned out to be an OK game, complete with an ending we’ll be talking about for a long time. But, c’mon. Arizona?

Not so this year. This time we hit the jackpot on every level.

The Pittsburgh Steelers stand for something. They are in their fourth decade of sustained excellence. They offer continuity in an otherwise turbulent “What have you done for me lately?’’ sports world. The same family ownership since the time the team came into being 78 years ago? Three coaches in 42 years? A sound defense and a staunch running game? Fans who care about the team, and the game, in every corpuscle of their bodies? Check, check, check, and check. That’s your Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Green Bay Packers likewise stand for something. You know what Green Bay, Wisconsin, is? It’s a city of just about 100,000 people. It’s up there in northeast Wisconsin, and it’s c-c-c-cold. Alone among major American sports franchises, it is publicly owned. When people in Green Bay speak of “our’’ team, it’s not taking any liberties with the language. It really is the Olde Towne Team, if ever there was one. Such a franchise can only exist because of the NFL’s very generous revenue-sharing procedures, but it would now be unthinkable to have an NFL without the Green Bay Packers.

More than that, there is an image of excellence borne out of a remarkable decade of football that was brought to them by a strong-willed man from New Jersey by the name of Vince Lombardi. The Packers won five championships between 1961 and ’67, three of them NFL titles, and two being the first two Super Bowls. They also lost the 1960 NFL championship game to the Eagles. In so doing, they left us all with great memories and they left Green Bay with a sense of self that has never diminished, even during some lean post-Lombardi years. The winning ways returned in the Brett Favre era, but the fact remains the Packers had won it all just once in the last 43 years. It doesn’t matter. There is still a reverence for Green Bay.

These two franchises had never met in postseason competition. It’s not as if people were sitting around saying, “What we really need one of these years is a Pittsburgh-Green Bay Super Bowl,’’ but now that it was it dawned on everyone that it was a really neat thing, and that thinking started at the top.

“It just sounds like football,’’ said commissioner Roger Goodell. “Pittsburgh, Green Bay. The whole country is excited.’’

First and foremost, it was a great football matchup. Which vaunted defense was better? Which quarterback would prevail? Which wild-haired Defensive Player of the Year candidate would have a bigger game? Which set of receivers could outmaneuver the other guy’s secondary? There were lots of juicy issues.

And what further warms the commissioner’s heart was the fact that his league doesn’t need a New York, Chicago, Dallas, Boston, or Los Angeles (oops) in order to guarantee blockbuster ratings, and predictions were that Super Bowl XLV would be the most-watched television program in history. The NFL itself is a clever marketing entity. The NFL can create glamour for any city, even an otherwise forgotten outpost in decidedly non-glamorous northern Wisconsin.

“They’re both small markets,’’ Goodell pointed out. “But they have that competitiveness, that hope that you can always win.’’

So there was nothing but good feeling surrounding the game. Now that it’s over, the doom and gloom will prevail. The collective bargaining agreement will expire at 11:59 p.m. March 3, and negotiations to form a new one are (finally) ongoing. Every indication is that there will be an owners’ lockout beginning March 4 if a new agreement is not formulated.

Goodell said that’s getting ahead of the story.

“We have not made any determination on what will happen March 4,’’ he insisted. “They are prepared for any outcome, but they will be focused on getting an agreement that will work for everyone. The window of opportunity is open for the next few weeks.’’

The presence of Green Bay, and even Pittsburgh (look at the Pirates — eek!), in the league’s showcase game was a reminder that the current working premise of the National Football League is a sound one. You would like to think smart people would figure out a way to maintain such a superb working model for another hundred years, at least.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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