GLENDALE, Ariz. – So what if the script writers are on strike? This Super Bowl story line had something for everybody:
—The perfect team.
—The upstart team.
—The cover boy.
—The kid brother.
—The cheating scandal.
—The black hat (or gray hood).
Led by their strikingly handsome, unflappably cool quarterback Tom Brady and their sourpuss coach Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots tried to write the perfect ending to this one-of-a-kind tale and finish as the first undefeated team in 35 years.
Their opponents Sunday were the scruffy underdogs known as the New York Giants and their quarterback, Eli Manning, who tried to add to his family's legacy by winning the big one just like his older brother Peyton did last year.
With story lines like this, it's easy to see how the Super Bowl has become America's top unofficial holiday, its best party, its favorite time to unite.
"No other event even comes close," said Kelli Lammie, who teaches pop culture at State University of New York-Albany.
The Patriots were trying to finish 19-0 and become the first team to go undefeated from the start of the regular season through the Super Bowl since the Miami Dolphins went 17-0 in 1972.
Those weren't the only impressive numbers being bandied about this week.
Because of New England's pursuit of perfection and the big-market teams, there was a good chance more than 94.08 million viewers could watch this game, which would make it a record. Advertisers paid a record $2.7 million for a 30-second spot.
"It could be construed as a bargain," said Brad Adgate, research chief for the Madison Avenue firm Horizon Media. "Outside of `American Idol,' there's no real top-rated show that advertisers can bank on right now."
Is anyone more of an American idol than Brady these days?
He has spent as much time in the tabloids as the sports page lately, starting the day after the Patriots made the Super Bowl, when he limped up to supermodel girlfriend Gisele Bundchen's house with a walking boot on his foot — and a bouquet of flowers in hand.
Was his foot OK? Where would Bundchen watch the game? Will you marry me?
These were some of the questions Brady fielded during Media Day on Tuesday, and Brady handled them all — "Yes," "Not sure," "I'm a one-woman man" — as easily as he's been dissecting opposing defenses all season en route to his record-setting 50 touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, the sinister aspects of New England's history-making run remained part of the story. "Spygate" reared its head again when Sen. Arlen Specter said he wanted the NFL to explain why it destroyed evidence of the cheating scandal. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gave the less-than-satisfying response that "there are very good explanations why I destroyed the tapes, or had them destroyed by our staff."
This was all in response to Belichick's Week 1 plot to videotape New York Jets defensive coaches as they signaled to players on the field, which compelled the NFL to fine the coach $500,000 and the team $250,000 and a first-round draft pick.
Some say the cheating scandal taints all New England has done this season. Belichick, the coach who works the sideline in that trademark gray hoodie, was unflinchingly laconic all week, deflecting the questions as usual, saying it's a league matter.
On the opposite end were the Giants, who have been underdogs in every playoff game but found themselves in the Super Bowl nonetheless.
Led by the baby of a quarterback clan, Eli Manning has come of age in the past month, coinciding approximately with when the Giants played a whale of a game in the regular-season finale against New England but lost 38-35.
While the Patriots were trying to complete an undefeated regular season, the Giants had nothing to play for but pride. Coach Tom Coughlin chose to go for it, presumably to build confidence for the upcoming playoffs. The plan worked.
Suddenly, Manning found himself one win away from bringing a second Super Bowl ring into the family, a year after Peyton got his.
"I feel if I'm getting compared to Peyton, that's a compliment," Manning said. "He's at the top of his game and I'm still trying to get my game up to his level."
Americans watched it play out in living rooms and sports bars around the country, making up the biggest audience for any TV show all year — more than doubling the Academy Awards, which are usually the most watched program outside of football.
Whether fans were watching for the commercials, the football or simply to coo at Brady, they'll combine to eat more on Super Bowl Sunday than any day but Thanksgiving, although this "holiday" is more about chips (14,500 tons) and guacamole (8 million pounds) than turkey and stuffing. (And don't double dip. This week, a researcher released a study that said three to six double dips transferred about 10,000 bacteria into the dip.)
In all, the Super Bowl is a reflection of the best and worst America has to offer.
On one hand, it's an exhibit of sheer excess and commercialism. On the other, it's the country's favorite sport on the biggest stage — and in this case, a chance to see a perfect ending.