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 The silliest two-week period on the sporting calendar got off to a promising start when a video turned up showing Tom Brady limping into supermodel girlfriend Gisele Bundchen's New York town house with a protective boot on his right foot.
Patriots fans were understandably distressed, but what should have scared them more was the bouquet of flowers in his right hand. The offering hinted at the possibility of discord between Brady and his latest leading lady, and you don't need a medical degree to know that a sore ankle heals a lot faster than a broken heart.
As it turns out, neither Brady's foot nor his feelings hurt for very long, since a second video shot later the same evening showed Brady - now wearing cowboy boots instead of the removable cast - and Bundchen heading out to sample the nightlife in the East Village.
If the whole episode seems like much ado about nothing, well, brace yourself for much more ado.
This is one of those years where the break between the league conference championship games and the Super Bowl runs for two weeks, begging the same question Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas asked on the eve of the big game in 1972. Like just about everybody else involved, Thomas was tired of the buildup and itching to play when reporters kept probing to find out whether he understood the magnitude of the contest he was about to play in.
``If it's the ultimate game,'' Thomas finally said with flawless logic, ``how come they're playing it again next year?''
Fortunately for the suits at NFL headquarters, some players are only too happy to go along with the hype. The weekly reminders from coaches about not providing opponents with bulletin-board material become fading memories, or the hits accumulated over the course of the season have loosened their tongues. Either way, it helps pass the time.
That's how a brash young quarterback named Joe Namath wound up guaranteeing his band of AFL upstarts would upset the old guard's Baltimore Colts, during a poolside chat with reporters, and carved out a place in sports history.
It's also how Cowboys linebacker Hollywood Henderson wound up in the Hall of Shame. Matched against the Steelers in Super Bowl XIII, he was asked whether Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw was sharp enough to deal with Dallas' multifaceted defensive schemes.
``He couldn't spell 'cat,'' Henderson replied, ``if you spotted him the 'c' and the 't.'''
Much less memorable was what he said after the Steelers beat the Cowboys 35-31.
``I didn't say he couldn't play,'' Henderson said, ``just that he couldn't spell.''
Actions occasionally speak louder than words, which might explain why the NFL returned to a party town like New Orleans for the big game on so many occasions. Players who couldn't be tempted into saying something stupid sometimes were lured into doing something even dumber.
When local TV crews hired helicopters to fly over the Bears practice in search of newsworthy material, Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon obliged by flashing his backside.
The Raiders teams of three decades ago spent so much time getting into trouble in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl that the local cops could have kept media guides in the glovebox of their squad cars to speed up the booking process.
It became so routine that their spiritual leader, John Matuszak, finally told his teammates that anybody caught breaking curfew in the week before the game would have to answer to him. Naturally, when the Tooz was found partying late into the morning in New Orleans, he had an explanation ready.
``That's why I was out in the streets,'' he said. ``To make sure no one else was.''
Characters like that are hard to come by in today's businesslike NFL. The breathless reports of Brady's hikes through the village sparked a little panic and plenty of unintentional comedy, but that's likely as good as it's going to get.
Trying to help things along, one New York radio station offered listeners a chance to go on its Web site and print out masks of Bridget Moynahan, Brady's former flame and the mother of his child, and wear it to the game. For all of the good that will do. Brady can't be distracted, and even if he could be, the corporate types who get nearly all of the Super Bowl tickets have a hard enough time holding up the flash cards placed on their seats.
Oh, for the good old days, when the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl were more about partying than preparation and the game itself was an excuse to start partying some more.
``This ring may wind up in a gutter. But if it does,'' Redskins kicker Mark Moseley said after claiming the spoils from Washington's victory, ``I'll be wearing it.''
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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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