Hours before the Green Bay Packers defeated the New England Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI on January 26, 1997, I overheard a supermarket cashier greet a coworker with a salutation I’d not heard before: “Happy Super Bowl Sunday.”

That incident had me realize that Super Bowl Sunday had attained the status of an American holiday such as Thanksgiving. The Super Bowl has been the most watched single-day event for many years counting; today an estimated 800 million people in 200 countries sit down for the game each year.

But why is the Super Bowl so widely watched? Is it because it is the ultimate game to gamble on? Is it the creative, humorous TV commercials? The celebrities who sing the National Anthem and perform at halftime? Sure, these features attract many viewers who make the game the top TV ratings-grabber each year. But to devout sports fans, these explanations are far subordinate to those that reflect football’s fundamental nature.

First, football is a comparatively more intense game than other mainstream sports. The sport requires its athletes to study and memorize numerous strategic plays, which they must execute with precision or risk serious injuries trying, using a collective intellectual, psychological and physical strength unmatched in other sports. Further, each play in football is more crucial to each game’s outcome than in baseball, basketball and hockey. That is because of professional football’s relatively short regular season (16 games versus 162 in baseball) and its single-game, win-or-go-home playoff series — as opposed to the best-out-of-seven series in those other sports. Unlike the World Series, NBA Championship or Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl is a one-shot, do-or-die definitive contest that is the culmination of all of football’s condensed intensity.

Some people criticize the Super Bowl as an over-hyped and often lopsided, dull game. But despite its relatively young history, the Super Bowl has produced some great games and several dramatic, critical plays that have attained folklore-like status — which further entices sports fans to watch the game. Among the more recent legendary plays were the game-ending 48-yard field goal by New England Patriot kicker Adam Vinatieri against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, the tackle by Rams linebacker Mike Jones that stopped Tennessee Titan wide receiver Kevin Dyson one yard short of tying the game on Super Bowl XXXIV’s last play, and the head-first, third-down dive by Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway into a gang of Green Bay Packer defenders for a first down on a tie-breaking drive in Super Bowl XXXII.

This Sunday’s Super Bowl pits the New England Patriots, who incredibly have won 14 consecutive games (the second-best winning streak in NFL history), against the Carolina Panthers, who staged an outstanding eight come-from-behind victories this season. It pits the “mad scientist” football mind of New England’s head coach Bill Belichick against the underdog, never-say-die mentality of Carolina’s “Cardiac Cats.” It pits Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, a largely unknown, once back-up quarterback playing in his first Super Bowl, against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who two years ago was basically in Delhomme’s present position and earned both a Super Bowl title and MVP award against the favored Rams. It pits two exceptional defensive teams against each other in a sport in which the motto “defense wins championships” is a rule of thumb.

Thus, with an already thick plot, Super Bowl XXXVIII promises to be a close, hotly contested game. A devout football fan, I will be among the 800 million people worldwide watching the game, and like most of them I’m hoping it produces some spectacular plays for the ages — particularly in the final seconds. Such dramatic endings occur in the final championship game of other sports. But no sport by its nature embodies the condensed intensity and culminates with as great a dramatic flare than does football’s decisive game.

Ultimately, all these fundamental facts about football — the comparatively heightened intensity, drama and suspense of the sport, its regular season and playoff series, and its championship game — make the Super Bowl extraordinarily exciting and explain its enormous popularity.

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Joseph Kellard

Joseph Kellard is a journalist living in New York. To read more of Mr. Kellard's commentary, visit his website The American Individualist at americanindividualist.blogspot.com.