The stadium was full of cardboard cutouts and people in masks. A poet — yes, a poet — introduced us to some real heroes, and one of them handled the opening coin flip like she had done it 100 times before.
On the field a woman joined the crew in stripes for the first time in a Super Bowl. Even the commercials reminded us — at times somberly — that this was a season like no other in a time unlike any other.
Then Tom Brady took the field. And suddenly everything about the Super Bowl seemed normal once again.
There was Brady, playing pitch and catch with Rob Gronkowski like they were both still toiling in the snow in New England. There was Brady, calmly throwing for a score to end the first half that turned out to be more than enough for a Tampa Bay team that was determined not to let Patrick Mahomes spoil their hometown party.
And there was Brady, celebrating a fifth Super Bowl MVP award and hoisting the Lombardi trophy for the seventh time.
Did anyone outside of Kansas City doubt that this would be the way it would turn out? In a different uniform in a year where nothing else was even remotely as predictable?
Hardly, yet in a way it was oddly comforting to see. A season ending yet again with No. 12 sporting the biggest smile a 43-year-old can muster and hugging everyone in his path.
The greatest of all time was meant for just this time.
“I think we knew this was going to happen tonight, didn’t we?’’ Brady asked his teammates in front of him at the trophy ceremony.
Maybe, but they probably weren’t prepared for the way it did happen.
Brady was Brady, of course, and on this night he was almost perfect. The game was pretty much decided in the first half, meaning there was no need for any last minute heroics, and the smothering Buccaneers defense did what no one expected by keeping Mahomes out of the end zone all game long.
He’s had more exciting Super Bowl wins, sure. Indeed, Brady has had so many Super Bowl wins that the tendency is to try and rank them like they are not actually equal in value.
And even if Brady wasn’t about to rate this one, he did acknowledge one thing: His team rose to the occasion when it mattered most in a 31-9 win that was every bit as lopsided as the score indicated.
“We ended up playing our best game of the year,’’ Brady said.
Credit for that doesn’t just go to Brady, who simply needed to be good instead of spectacular on this night. The Tampa Bay defense chased Mahomes all over the field all night long, and Gronk came up big with two touchdown catches in the first half.
Bruce Arians did a masterful coaching job as well, joining Brady in the old-timer’s club by becoming the oldest coach to win the Super Bowl at the age of 68 after spending a career on the sidelines in various capacities.
“I’d have to be smoking something really illegal to imagine something like this,’’ Arians said.
It was Arians who called out his new quarterback early in the year for an uneven performance, and Arians who saw the potential for the team even as the Bucs struggled in November. They would go on to win their last eight games, including three on the road as a wild card before heading home to finish it off against the Chiefs.
“We knew we’d be tough once we got in,’’ Arians said. “We just had to get in the playoffs.’’
Once in, Brady outplayed future Hall of Famers Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers — then spent the days before the Super Bowl urging his teammates to seize the moment against the Chiefs.
“He was texting us at 11 at night that we would win this game,’’ running back Leonard Fournette said. “We believed in him.’’
Hard not to believe when No. 12 is on your team, no matter the uniform color. Brady didn’t need any more validation about his place in the history of the game, but he got it anyway with a playoff run for the ages — and the aged.
He did what the greats all do, which is make the players around him better. No one wanted to be the player to let Brady down; no one wanted to get in the way of yet another Super Bowl ring.
“He is the greatest football player to ever play. I can tell my kids I played with that man,’’ Fournette said. “I’m just blessed.’’
They’re blessed in Tampa Bay, too, because Brady says he’s coming back for at least one more year. So is Arians, and this coach-quarterback combination figures to be as good once again as the one Brady left in New England.
For now, though, Tom Brady is a Super Bowl champion once again.
Just like normal.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg