NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- America's most high-profile sporting event will be played for the 36th time Sunday surrounded by a unprecedented barrier of protection designed to make sure that what is merely a football game stays that way.
The St. Louis Rams, first team in the history of the NFL to score at least 500 points three straight seasons, and the New England Patriots, a mere 5-11 a year ago, will meet to determine which gets to own the Vince Lombardi Trophy as the winner of the Super Bowl.
As usual, the game will be watched by more people than vote in a presidential election and will attract advertisers who pay millions of dollars to transmit 30-second messages about their products and services.
This Super Bowl, however, will be anything but usual. Having been declared a national security event in the wake of Sept. 11, the game will take place on a virtual island created by the Secret Service and FBI. Barrier fencing has created a no man's land extending two blocks all around the Louisiana Superdome and the event will be protected by a blanket of air cover as well.
Officials have said that for every uniformed officer visible to the fans who walk through the various check points en route to the stadium, there will be three more they do not see.
Once the kickoff arrives at 6:33 p.m. EST, the game will carry all the elements past Super Bowls have. The nerves will be on edge and every key play will be magnified to the point that they could take their place among the most remembered moments in NFL history.
"When you get to this point," said New England running back Antowain Smith, "you realize that it is the biggest game of our careers, so you have to go out and play like it."
Both teams have won eight games in a row, but St. Louis has been installed as a 14-point favorite -- chiefly because the Rams have offensive threats at every turn and also because New England has managed only two offensive touchdowns in its two playoff games.
In their six playoff contests over the last three years, however, St. Louis has recorded only one victory by more than 12 points, that being the divisional round triumph this season over the self-destructing Green Bay Packers.
St. Louis has been the Super Bowl favorite since early in the season with a cast that includes quarterback Kurt Warner (Super Bowl MVP from two years ago), running back Marshall Faulk and receivers Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Ricky Proehl and Az-Zahir Hakim.
In addition, the Rams use these players in an almost unlimited number of ways.
"You might not see the Rams run the same play from the same formation twice a year, much less twice in one game," said New England Coach Bill Bilichick.
In winning the AFC Championship game over Pittsburgh, the Patriots took away the Steelers' running game and forced quarterback Kordell Stewart to try and beat them. He was unable to do so.
A similar strategy is possible against the Rams since Faulk can take over a game.
"Of all the players in the league, and there are a lot of great players, Faulk is the hardest player to match up against," Belichick said. "When he was at Indianapolis, they split him out every now and then. When they did that, I thought he was the best receiver in the league. When he was in the backfield, he was a great running back. If he is the best receiver and the best runner, he presents a lot of difficult matchups."
Not only was St. Louis the No. 1 offensive team in the league this year, its defense was vastly improved from a season ago. The Rams allowed 200 fewer points than they did in 2000, having completely revamped its defense.
With such a complete team and with a chance to win two titles in a three-year span, there has been the natural talk of the Rams putting together a dynasty.
"A dynasty is something you think of 10 or 15 years later," St. Louis Coach Mike Martz said. "You have to win a whole lot of Super Bowls before you can be compared with the great teams in the league and we certainly aren't there."
New England, meanwhile, is very much a surprise participant in the Super Bowl. In the second game of the season, the Patriots suffered what appeared to be a major setback when quarterback Drew Bledsoe took a hit to his chest and wound up in the hospital.
In came Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000 who proceeded to lead the Patriots to the AFC East title. After losing by seven points to the Rams on Nov. 25, New England has won every game.
Brady suffered a sprained ankle in the win over Pittsburgh last week, but he was deemed ready to start the Super Bowl. At age 24, Brady would be the youngest quarterback to start for a Super Bowl winning team.
As St. Louis tries to win its second Super Bowl in three years, its opponent carries with it a similarity to the team the Rams beat season before last. The Tennessee Titans got to the Super Bowl against the Rams thanks to a trick kickoff return at the end of a wild card game against Buffalo. That return involved a lateral across the field, one that came very close to being a forward pass and had to withstand a replay challenge.
This season, New England advanced in the playoffs thanks to a controversial play of their own. Needing a field goal to tie Oakland in the final minutes of their divisional round game, Brady appeared to fumble away his team's final chance. But when the play was reviewed, it was declared an incomplete pass.
That allowed New England to keep the ball, eventually produce the tying field goal and then win in overtime.
The Patriots' chances of winning likely rest with their being able to create turnovers (St. Louis led the league with 44 although 14 of them came in two games) and with Brady producing the game of his life.
New England defensive back Lawyer Milloy gives Brady a good chance of doing just that.
"It is crazy how well he handles things as young as he is," Milloy said. "Believe me, he wants to win this game as bad as I do. He hates being second.
"He told me a story about knowing this guy who was the fastest guy on the block. And Tom was the slowest. He said that he wanted to race the guy and kept getting beat. But he would not quit. He kept racing him and kept racing him until he finally beat him.
"I don't worry about Tom in this situation. We're all here to win it. I was on this field (five years ago against Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI) and came up in second place. There was Brett Favre running up and down the field with his finger in the air saying they were No. 1. and I had all this confetti in my face. I don't want that again."