Column: One number looms large in Super Bowl of numbers

By Tim Dahlberg

The Super Bowl is always defined by numbers, this one perhaps more than others because there’s one number — positive tests for COVID-19 this week — that no one wants to see.

Still, this Super Bowl like no other remains a Super Bowl much like any other. That means the usual numbers, like a spread of 3 1-2 points favoring the Kansas City Chiefs, and enough statistical bets to help lift money from the pockets of fans across the nation.

Then, of course, there’s the number 43, which happens to be Tom Brady’s age. And by the end of the week, there will surely be a record number of times he’s asked about when he will be ready to retire.

“I think I’ll know when it’s time,” Brady said Monday as the traditional Super Bowl media day unfolded on Zoom without the past spectacle of anyone dressed in a wedding gown asking him to marry her.

If that wasn’t enough of a departure from Super Bowl norms, Brady took out his cell phone to start his Zoom so he could remember this, the strangest of his 10 Super Bowl openers.

“I’ve got to get a picture of this,” he said.

Brady has been around for so many of these that he can summon up enough answers from Super Bowls past to mollify most sports reporters. The Tampa Bay quarterback never gives up too much, and that was true once again as he got a question about his friendship with former President Donald Trump that he evaded about as easily as he did would-be tacklers in Green Bay.

But with the pandemic raging, this Super Bowl is also about the percentages.

Just 30 percent of seats at Raymond James Stadium will be filled by kickoff Sunday, a startling figure for a league that hasn’t had to worry about Super Bowl sellouts for a half-century now. That’s actually better than what many might have expected as the league battled to get games in during a season when many teams never welcomed a paying fan.

A third of those seats will be filled by vaccinated health care and public safety workers. And if there is reason to celebrate the end of the football season, the presence of the workers is reason enough to celebrate some light at the end of the tunnel for the millions waiting on vaccinations around the country.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arian with QB Tom Brady before NFL divisional round playoff game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans Photo: AP Photo/Brett Duke

Still, polls indicated that about 25% of Americans plan to get together with others to watch the game on television on a day that is unofficially a national holiday.

Meanwhile, half the country plans on making a bet of some sort on the game, as sports betting continues to expand and gain new respectability across the country — as well as in NFL executive offices.

Little of that was on the minds of players and coaches who gathered Monday — virtually, of course — for the kickoff to Super Bowl week. Their attention was focused mainly on the week of preparations for the game, a week that will be very different for Brady and other players who have Super Bowl experience.

“The mass of media, the mass of fans that you see every day. That’s not going to happen this week,” Tampa coach Bruce Arians said. “It’s unlike any other.’’

That’s what Chiefs lineman Chris Jones was thinking when his Zoom interview session briefly faded to quiet after a couple questions. Jones didn’t mind, saying he was happy to stay on Zoom for the entire 45 minutes if anyone wanted to know his thoughts about chasing Brady down on Sunday.

“I prefer this honestly,″ Jones said, comparing the media outing to last year’s session. “You get to sit down the whole time. I mean I was at a podium last year, but you have to walk into the stadium. There’s a lot that comes with it. I think it’s best we get to stay at our own facility. We don’t have to leave Kansas City until the day before the game. I think that’s a plus.”

Jones made his comments from Kansas City because, unlike previous Super Bowls, the Chiefs aren’t heading to Florida until Saturday. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, will sleep in their own beds , also unlike any other Super Bowl.

Also in Kansas City the first worrisome bit of pandemic news emerged with backup wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and reserve center Daniel Kilgore placed on the COVID-19 list as close contacts of someone who tested positive. Their status for the week was not immediately clear.

But while the pandemic is crimping a lot of Super Bowl activities, there are enough storylines to make the game even more compelling than usual. That includes Brady chasing a seventh ring in his 10th Super Bowl and Patrick Mahomes firmly establishing himself as the next quarterback great with a second straight championship.

Add in a matchup with two head coaches who are hard to root against (remember, Bill Belichick isn’t there) and there’s plenty to keep the attention of most football fans even if their betting slips are torn up early.

No, it’s not the same as usual, not even close. Nothing is these days, so it’s not like the Super Bowl is any different.

But there will be a game Sunday as planned. And in the midst of a terrible pandemic, that by itself is reason enough to cheer.

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