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Celebration gets lost amid game's security concerns

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Silver Anniversary Super Bowl has turned into the Security Super Bowl.

When the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills kick off Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium today, there was supposed to be much pomp and circumstance -- a culmination of a gala celebration of the game's first quarter-century.

Instead, it will be a somber affair played inside of what will be virtually a fortress of a stadium.

The question of winning and losing has been overshadowed by the question of whether the game will be postponed because of late developments in the Persian Gulf war or whether it will be the target of a terrorist attack.

National Football League officials used to root for a good game. Now they'll breathe a sigh of relief if the game is simply played on time and without incident.

"In ordinary circumstances, this, the silver anniversary Super Bowl game, would be a very, very special occasion for the National Football League, for its fans, for its teams, its players and its owners as well as its commissioner," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Friday.

These are not ordinary times.

When the fans arrive at the stadium, they will see a structure ringed by concrete barriers and a chain link fence. They will have to pass metal detectors to get into the stadium and will not be allowed to bring in any electronic equipment, including television sets, radios and cameras.

The blimp that is a staple at big sporting events has been banned and will be replaced by a helicopter.

What is strange about all this is that concern about security may not be warranted. There has been no credible threat of an attack at the game and no indication that any terrorists have targeted it.

One owner who is advising Tagliabue said he thinks there's been too much emphasis on security and he doesn't think there is a security problem, but the league had no choice but to take all the precautions to reassure jittery fans. He said some fans who had tickets decided not to come because they were afraid and turned their tickets over to people who were willing to take the risk.

In some ways, the Super Bowl has become a victim of its own mystique.

It will be watched by 125 million viewers in the United States and will be televised in more than 50 countries.

Against this backdrop, it's difficult to figure out what -- if any -- impact the security concerns will have on the game itself.

"It's taken away some of the luster of the game," said New York Giants defensive lineman Erik Howard.

Giants offensive lineman Bart Oates said: "I can just tell from the questions this week that things are different. It's much more businesslike."

On the other hand, for many of the players, it's still the Super Bowl, the game of their lives.

Even coach Marv Levy of the Buffalo Bills said he'd been preparing all of his life to coach in this game.

Giants wide receiver Stacy Robinson, playing in his first Super Bowl, said, "There's nothing like it. It's like your first love."

Then there are players for whom neither the war nor the game is paramount in their lives right now.

The Bills' Leon Seals and Bruce Smith are cases in point. Seals' mother died last Saturday, and Smith's father is in a hospital intensive care unit after suffering an emphysema attack. He also has a long history of heart problems.

All this makes it very difficult to know what kind of game it will be. Just a week ago, the Giants and the San Francisco 49ers put aside all these concerns and played a game for the ages, a game that came down to Matt Bahr's field goal on the final play of the game that ended the 49ers' bid to become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls.

On paper, this could be one of the best Super Bowls.

"We have two teams here who could make this a real knock-down, drag-out football game," Tagliabue said.

The American Football Conference has lost six straight Super Bowls -- five by blowouts. But the Bills not only don't figure to be blown out, they're favored by seven points.

On the other hand, despite their 51-3 rout of the Los Angeles Raiders last week, the Bills don't figure to be able to do that to the Giants.

While the Bills were the highest-scoring team in the league, the Giants are quick to remind you that they gave up fewer points than any other team in the league.

The game presents a fascinating battle between the Buffalo no-huddle offense run by Jim Kelly and the stingy Giants defense.

Kelly put two quick touchdowns on the board when the teams played last month, and the Bills hung on for a 17-13 victory after he was hurt. The Bills like to think if Kelly hadn't been hurt, they would have won more easily.

The Giants like to think they now know how to handle the no-huddle.

When Howard was asked how many points the Giants were likely to give up if they played their best, his answer was 10.

Also, the Giants have been here before. Twenty-three Giants have played in Super Bowls, including 19 who were on the team that routed the Denver Broncos four years ago.

By contrast, the Bills don't have a single player who's been in the Super Bowl, and last week Levy played the role of the uptight coach who can't handle the pressure of the big game.

One reason the Bills are favored is that they have an edge at quarterback with Kelly over the Giants' backup, Jeff Hostetler, who's filling in for the injured Phil Simms.

But they have different roles. Kelly is expected to win it for Buffalo, but Hostetler's job is not to lose it.

Hostetler also has surprised even Parcells the way he quickly took over.

"I think probably what surprised me is how consistent he was so quickly," Parcells said. "I mean he seemed to be able to go in and really maintain the style of play that the New York Giants were trying to play -- error free, mistake free, don't turn the ball over, don't make bad decisions."

If Hostetler can run the Giants' ball-control offense and run time off the clock, he'll have Kelly right where he wants him -- on the sidelines.

That could enable Parcells to join the select list of coaches who have won two Super Bowls.

"My friend, Bobby Knight, told me that once you win that first one, you want that second one worse," Parcells said. "I'm not sure he's not right. That doesn't mean you're going to get it. Once you win, your whole perspective on what you're coaching for in the NFL changes. If you don't get it in the next time, you're very, very disappointed. That's basically all I'm coaching for now is to win championships."

Levy's still looking for that first one.

"What I'd like to do is be back here next year and tell you how hungry I am to win it a second time," he said.

As Tagliabue said, in ordinary times, this would be a special game.

It may turn out to be a pretty good game even though these aren't ordinary times.

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