Pontiac, Mich. — Sunday's Super Bowl will be pro football's 16th such mega-championship, but don't let the serial number confuse you.There's almost a tangible freshness about this season's Cincinnati-San Francisco confrontation. Neither team has ever been in the Super Bowl before, and for many fans, that makes Sunday's game an attractive curiosity piece.
It's no secret that the National Football League has turned into an ''all teams are created equal'' advertisement. Still, few people expected a pair of last season's losers to grab the brass ring.
But these are no Cinderellas, really. They didn't back into the playoffs by the hair on their chinny chin chins.During a long, arduous 16-game regular season, followed by two playoff games, the 49ers and Bengals defeated the so-called powers of the game -- the Cowboys, Chargers, Steelers, Bills, and others. San Francisco, with a league-best 13-3 record, was one victory better than the Bengals, who lost to the 49ers 21-3 on Dec. 6 in Cincinnati.
''They licked us good . . . in our own stadium,'' Cincinnati coach Forrest Gregg recalls. ''They really did a job on us. We played a lot of teams and there isn't anyone I'm more impressed with.''
Gregg's remarks indicate a proper respect, yet the Bengals expect to atone for their worst defeat of the season in the Silverdome here. They'll get their chance at 4 o'clock Sunday afternoon (Eastern time, on CBS), when what many believe will be a classic Super Bowl gets under way.
It may help people forget the last NFL championship hosted by Detroit. That contest, played in 1957 long before the Super Bowl existed, was a 59-14 clunker won by Detroit over Cleveland.
The public is still getting to know this season's championship contestants. Neither team has been in enough ''money games'' to establish a strong personality, as other Super Bowl teams have done. The Packers were always Vince Lombardi's boys, the Steelers black-helmeted tough guys, and the Cowboys computer-age wonders.
What most fans know about Cincinnati and San Francisco was learned during nationally televised playoff games. Many went away impressed two weeks ago after seeing the gutsy Bengals ignore the bitter cold to master San Diego in the American Conference title game. The 49ers showed their class as well with a last-minute victory over Dallas for the NFC championship.
Basically, the image that lingers is that of two intelligent, hard-hitting teams with a lot of heart. Both have solid defenses and excellent passing attacks. The lone, big-mileage rusher on either team is Pete Johnson, Cincinnati's 250-pound fullback. It's reasonable to assume, therefore, that the game hinges on the forward pass.
This critical area has spawned the first pregame controversy. Hank Bullough, Cincinnati's defensive coordinator, pounced on some published remarks the 49ers made about using ''picks'' to get pass receivers open. Obstructing pass defenders by blocking, or setting picks on them in the secondary, is actually illegal. ''I think the league should make the officials . . . aware of this and make sure (the 49ers) don't get away with it,'' he told the Boston Globe.
More than anything, Bullough was probably trying to plant some doubts among the 49ers, who seem a pretty loose group.
On their flight to Detroit, they whooped it up watching a rerun of their win over Dallas. Then upon checking into the hotel, they discovered that the man carrying their bags was head coach Bill Walsh masquerading as a bellhop. Earlier in the season, Walsh told his team that he would enforce a dress code on road trips, then showed up attired in a general's uniform.
By comparison, the Bengals are a conservative, straight-laced bunch. Their coach makes them that way. An imposing man with a broad face and sharp features , Gregg played under Vince Lombardi at Green Bay. The discipline and mental toughness he learned on five championship teams have found their way into the club's work ethic.
''He has provided the leadership we needed,'' says Paul Brown, Cincinnati's vice-president and general manager. ''We needed someone to take command.''
Gregg really does have a dress code for his team, and they follow it. Where the Bengals are probably flashiest is on the field, where they have replaced their old, Shaker-simple uniforms with a new look -- tiger stripes on the helmet , jersey, and pants.
This progressive look is more in keeping with the team's high-octane passing game, which has been partly under wraps during two freezing playoff games. But both teams know they can look forward to ideal conditions inside the dome Sunday in ''the first Northern Super Bowl,'' perhaps Super Week's most worn-out phrase.
The Bengals have the league's 1981 passing king in Ken Anderson, who's won about every MVP-Player of the Year award in sight. The 49ers counter with the less experienced, but no less cool, Joe Montana, the NFC pass master.
For the most part, the other principals to this drama are new faces in high places. They lend the game an alluring just-baked aroma. Members of San Francisco's ''New Name Defense'' shouldn't be offended, then, if SB XVI goes down in history as ''The New Name Super Bowl.''