Two teams, two tales, and the meaning of it all

They say baseball holds the mirror to America's soul. But in wartime, the nation adopts more the rhythm of football.

The game is, after all, pugnaciousness and Patton all in one: the intense, almost military-style preparation for each opponent before a game, the daredevil on-field heroism of individual players, the no-mistakes conservatism of a team with the lead.

Anyone wanting to see elements of the American character, or, as the French would have it, noncharacter, should probably tune in to Sunday's championship matchup between the St. Louis Rams and the New England Patriots.

The teams epitomize two faces of post-9/11 America.

The Rams represent the face foreigners most readily recognize these days. The team bristles with so many offensive stars - "weapons" in football parlance, with no French subtitles - it practically merits its own branch in the military. Quarterback Kurt Warner throws long passes ("bombs") to a stable of speedy receivers. Versatile running back Marshall Faulk destroys defenses running and catching.

Between them, the players have earned the league's most-valuable-player award three seasons in a row. The team scored 500 points in each of the past three years, a record. If ever a sports franchise could match America's high-tech military firepower, so writ large in Afghanistan, the Rams would be it.

But questions remain about the team's toughness. Opponents have murmured all season that its players are "soft" and all "finesse," unwilling to endure the physical punishment the game regularly metes out. Patton had his own phrase for it - "yellow bellies." Even Rams fans unwittingly underline the "show-over-substance" moniker when they call the team "The Greatest Show on Turf."

More than an air attack

Of course, all those doubting football players are sitting at home now, while St. Louis prepares for the championship of the National Football League. In St. Louis's victory over the gritty Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, the "greatest show" settled in the second half for old-fashioned gutsy running to stage its comeback. That, plus big plays from a newly confident defense, powered the team to a convincing 29-24 victory.

"I'm just so proud of the fight in my team," Rams coach Mike Martz told a local columnist after the game.

Still, those who only see the high-speed wizardry of the US in the Rams may wonder about another American trait being called today: stick-to-itiveness.

Enter the New England Patriots. Like the forebears they're named after, they began their drive this season as impossible underdogs. With a 5-11 record the previous year, they lost their first two games, saw their $103 million quarterback sidelined with an injury, and had to rely on an untested backup quarterback to lead a bunch of mostly unknown players. "On paper, this looked like one of the worst teams in the NFL," wrote Ron Pollack of Pro Football Weekly.

Instead, young quarterback Tom Brady - with direction from cerebral head coach Bill Belichick, the Stephen Hawking of football - guided the Patriots to an 11-5 season and then two improbable postseason victories. The first, against the Oakland Raiders, looked hopeless. Trailing 13-3 in the fourth quarter, Brady directed a 10-play touchdown drive and then got the ball back.

Again, the game looked lost when Brady was stripped of the ball, an apparent fumble. But it was ruled an incomplete pass on replay. The ball remained in New England's hands. A last-minute field goal through a Valley Forge snowfall sent the game into overtime. The Patriots won with another field goal.

Then last Sunday, against a heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers team, the Patriots saw their young quarterback go down with a leg injury late in the first half. Game over? Hardly. Enter - actually, reenter - veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who hadn't played since September. With the help of two touchdowns from special teams, he generated enough offense to pull the 24-17 upset. Improbable New England had clinched the American Football Conference championship.

"You can call us Cinderella, you can call us destiny's team, but ... we proved we're the best team in the AFC," said Patriots' wide receiver Troy Brown.

Never dies versus never stop

Now the Patriots will play the National Football Conference champion Rams, who are - you guessed it - even more heavily favored to win the Super Bowl. Call it Cinderella vs. the Circus, high hope vs. high wire. One thing about New England: They never say die. One thing about the Rams: They never say stop.

So when the world tunes in to next Sunday's game, they may see the game's accompanying extravaganza and conclude the US remains more glitzy than gutsy, more ads than abs. Forget that. This isn't the Tour de France. This isn't bicycling in lycra through the countryside. This is football. American football.

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