TAMPA, Fla. — All week long, they kept saying it’s only a game, a war is going on, football, even a Super Bowl, can’t mean much. It’s only a game. Except that Sunday night, with eight seconds left and a group of New York Giants on their knees in prayer and Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood out on the field, sucking air, and every fan in the stadium on his feet and every fan in his living room on the edge of his seat — suddenly, it was more than a game; it may have been the best Super Bowl ever.

“The whole time I was saying, ‘Miss it, please, miss it, please,’ ” Giants cornerback Everson Walls would say when this one was all over, when Norwood’s kick went just wide, and the Bills sunk to their knees and the New York Giants won the championship of professional football, 20-19, the closest Super Bowl in history. ‘Please, please, please . . .”

Please. That was about the margin of victory in this one, wasn’t it? A please, a prayer, a whisper, an inch here or there. Either team could have won. Either team would have deserved it. This was better than Batimore-Dallas 20 years ago, the previous closest Super Bowl. It may have been better than San Francisco and Cincinnati a couple years ago, and it may have been better than Pittsbugh-Dallas in the ’70s, for even that classic rivalry didn’t come down to the final eight seconds, a one-point game, a team asking its kicker to do something he had never done before, make a field goal fly at least 47 yards through the uprights.

Wasn’t this magnificent theatre? Jim Kelly, the quarterback who’d waited his whole career for this chance, standing helplessly on the sideline now like a caged cat, having done all he could, waiting now for Norwood to determine his destiny? And Marv Levy, the Bills’ coach, who all week long had looked like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and now was about to have one for real? And on the other sideline, guys such as Ottis Anderson, Dave Meggett, Mark Bavaro and the rest of the low-profile Giants offense, along with their coach Bill Parcells, also watching with their hearts pounding, having stolen most of the clock already but wondering whether they had left eight seconds too much on the table.

Only a game, right?

We pounded, we pounded and finally we won,” said an elated Jeff Hostetler, the career backup quarterback who somehow guided this Giants team to the promised land, and is still undefeated in seven games as a starter. “I can’t describe the feeling . . .”

Understandable. For finally, here was a Super Sunday that lived up to its billing, a game that didn’t make one team look like Superman and the other look like Donald Duck. Both teams did what they were supposed to do. Neither team fumbled. Neither was intercepted.

The game was won, ultimately, by the Giants, with the most simple of philosophies: you can’t be outscored if the other team doesn’t have the ball. So the Giants kept it. Like kids in a school yard. Our ball. You can’t have it. Nyah, nyah. They moved slowly on offense, and I mean slowly, methodically, converting a series of big third downs, stringing together drives that seemed to stretch from one coast of Florida to another. At times it may have seemed they were moving the ball by nudging it with their noses. But it worked, this philosophy. New York had the ball for more than 40 minutes of this 60- minute war, and that was the difference.

“Shorten the game,” Parcells likes to call it.

Which is not to say that Buffalo didn’t do its job — when it had a chance. Kelly and company managed to move the football; he threw for more than 200 yards and Thurman Thomas gained 135 rushing. In fact, the game really came down Buffalo’s no huddle offense in the best of all possible situations — the final two minutes. And the Bills moved downfield in dramatic fashion, starting on their 10 and, with only one timeout left, charging into Giants’ territory — a Kelly scramble, another scramble, a Thomas burst, another Thomas burst.

Finally, they could risk no more. The ball was on the 30. One more play would surely have made them more comfortable, maybe even made the winning field goal a chip shot. They could not take the chance. So Levy motioned and out came Norwood, and down went the Giants on the sideline, into that same little prayer group they used last week against San Francisco, when their own kicker, Matt Bahr, put them in the Super Bowl with his last-second boot.

“My heart was racing; I couldn’t watch,” said New York’s Lawrence Taylor .
. .

Only a game, right?

A moment here for Norwood. The problem with games that come down to the last play is that someone is destined to be the goat. Norwood had never kicked one on grass as far as 47 yards. He got plenty of leg. But the ball never hooked. It went on a straight line just right on the goalpost, and as Giants cornerback Renya Thompson, just a few feet from Norwood, began to leap up and down, celebrating the victory, Norwood began the longest walk of his life, back to the unhappy side of the field.

“I feel like a let a lot of people down,” he said. “You only get one opportunity to do something like this. Maybe I tried too hard to get the foot into it. I don’t know. I just feel like I let everyone down.”

In truth, he didn’t. He just was the last guy on the stage in what had been a terrific play. Nobody disappointed anyone. And for once, the Super Bowl didn’t disappoint the audience. Funny, isn’t it. When you realize it’s only a game, you realize how great a game it can be.

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