The absent Saints dominate Super Bowl LIII, and the NFL wins

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Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman (23) breaks up a pass intended for Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis in the NFC Championship Game. No pass-interference penalty was called. | Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

It wouldn’t seem to be a good thing when the major theme of a Super Bowl is the team that’s not playing in the game.

But this is the NFL, which could televise a bunch of bruised bananas, add commercials and a halftime show to it, and break TV ratings records. As bad as I feel for the Saints, who got jobbed by a group of officials experiencing hysterical blindness during the NFC Championship Game, well, thanks for the wintertime distraction. I’ve warmed my frozen hands over the burning trashcan of their anger the past two weeks.

There is no single entertainment event bigger than the Super Bowl in this country, possibly because it has become so much more than a football game. The lead-up to the big day usually follows the same script, with the same stories, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with the upcoming game. It is the same this year with the Rams and the Patriots, who play Sunday in Super Bowl LIII.

How long will Tom Brady, who has played in every Super Bowl since 1967, keep putting on his pads? Hint: Forever.

When will the polar vortex loosen its grip on Bill Belichick’s face? Hint: Never.

The Rams have two male cheerleaders? The Rams have two male cheerleaders!

As good as those storylines are, they’ve taken a backseat to the non-call in the NFC title game between the Saints and the Rams. If you haven’t seen the replay, it’s because you made it your purpose in life not to see it. It has been everywhere at every moment. Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman arrived about a day before the football got to Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis, whom Robey-Coleman knocked to the ground like a traffic cone. Somehow, officials did not call pass interference, probably costing New Orleans a trip to the Super Bowl. It’s possible those officials were on the National Do Not Call Pass Interference Registry.

The play spawned a lawsuit, conspiracy theories and, for the longest time, silence from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

The league gets what it deserves, which, in this case, is universal derision over a blown no-call, the nation’s attention and billions of dollars in revenue. Nothing sells like controversy. It’s a win-win. Or a wince-wince. But the NFL wins, the way it always does.

The best emails I receive are from people who insist that NFL games are fixed. Whenever they arrive in my inbox, I know that the league has won. If it can get people wound up enough to believe that games are a massive conspiracy, involving referees, league executives and unpaid interns, then I know it’s bigger than anything else. Nobody of any weight attracts small conspiracies. Nobody alleges that the long-deceased tuba player from the local oompah band is actually alive and living in Paris. People say Elvis is.

If it sounds like I’m being cavalier at the expense of the Saints and their fans, it’s probably because I am. It would be a different story if it involved a team I cover. But it doesn’t, so I can look on it with distant bemusement. I can shake my head and laugh at how humans, given time and opportunity, will always screw things up. And if the Saints’ catastrophe leads to changes in the league’s rules on replay challenges, it only means some other avenue of absurdity will open up.

New Orleans has had a tough couple of weeks. Not only did the city watch its football team have a game ripped out of its hands and a heart out of its chest cavity, it learned that Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis wants to play basketball elsewhere.

The double dose of disaster reminded me of all the ink and pixels that were devoted to the heartwarming story of the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl title run. The team was painted as a savior that gave the city’s populace something to cheer about in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

If sports can be such a powerfully positive influence on a city’s psyche, it would seem to follow that the one-two punch of the Saints’ heartbreak and Davis’ rejection would be enough to make New Orleanians want to close the blinds and never leave their darkened rooms again.


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Or maybe sports don’t play as big a societal role as we in the media say they do. I know: Hard to believe.

The Super Bowl is a different animal. Half the country will be tuned in to see if the Patriots can stop the Rams’ fuel-injected offense and whether Brady can stave off the march of time.

The other half will still be wondering when the Saints-Patriots game begins.

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