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PARTYING GOES ON, DESPITE DULL MATCHUP

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Less than a week to go before kickoff and the usual trappings are in place. This is this year's Super Bowl city, all right. Souvenir stands have sprung up in buildings that were unoccupied a week ago. Welcome banners are everywhere. There isn't a hotel room available in the entire downtown area, no matter what you're willing to spend. Well, almost no matter what you're willing to spend. The nearest rooms are in Alabama. The Lombardi Trophy is on display at the local branch of Tiffany & Co. Ticket brokers are holding firm at $800 a seat. Newspapers are featuring special sections. Terry Bradshaw should be here any minute.

Proof positive that the football game really doesn't matter.They have to play one, of course, but other than that, it's always been a popular theory that it probably doesn't matter much just who is actually going to play whom in the Super Bowl game. Now Atlanta is saying you can drop the "probably" from that statement.

Go ahead and pencil in any two opponents and the week will go on just the same. It has a life of its own quite apart from athletics. The usual thousand or so private jets will still fly into the airport. The usual hundred or so corporations will set up displays in the corporate tents. Sponsors will buy up all available billboard space. Fans will pay $75 for a sweatshirt that will shrink four sizes if it gets anywhere near a washing machine.

Atlanta is featuring all of the above madness and more - despite the fact it is hosting a sequel to a disaster.

The Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills have tried the Super Bowl before. They played last year in Pasadena, where the Cowboys won 52-17. Now it's 12 months later and neither team has changed much. Buffalo might win this time, and George Bush might win on a recount.

Don King himself wouldn't have touched this rematch. This is like Ali fighting Leon Spinks again. Buffalo is to the Super Bowl what Adlai Stevenson was to presidential elections. Another Cowboys-Bills showdown has all the appeal of Rocky VIII. If it were a movie it would go straight to video.

Prior to last Sunday's AFC and NFC championship games, America's football consciousness was excited about the prospect of a Joe Montana-Steve Young Super Bowl, or a Joe Montana-Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl, or maybe even a San Francisco 49ers-Buffalo Bills Super Bowl. All had intriguing story lines. All had the requisite balance of drama, intrigue and suspense. To say nothing of fresh faces. But then the Cowboys beat Steve Young and the 49ers and the Bills beat Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs. And now there's just the same old two of them.

Buffalo may indeed win Sunday's game. But if the Bills do succeed, they will have to shake off an enormous amount of psychological ballast, not to mention overcome a serious talent differential. The only chance the game has to be a good game is after the fact, not before the fact. If Buffalo wins, it's an upset, no question.

But you wouldn't know it walking around downtown Atlanta. You wouldn't know this ought to be a tough game to advance. All you'd know is that Super Bowl business is proceeding as usual. The parties are under way, the countdown has begun, the limos are lining up at the airport.

The monster has taken on a life of its own, and the life seems to get bigger with every Roman numeral. Look at just the games the Bills have been a part of, which is to say the last four in a row. Their first was three games ago, in Tampa against the New York Giants. The Persian War was only two weeks old at the time and was supposed to cut into the game's potency. Instead, the game became a rallying cry for the troops in the Gulf, Whitney Houston delivered maybe the greatest national anthem of all time, and for a week, ticket scalpers supplanted drug dealers as south Florida's most successful criminals.

Two games ago the Bills were in Minneapolis to face the Washington Redskins. The Gulf War was over by then, but there was another problem hovering over the Big Game: Minnesota's frigid weather. It was feared that below-zero temperatures would severely hamper the week's festive atmosphere; that ice-fishing wouldn't be enough of a lure. All fears were allayed, however, as the Super Bowl got even hotter.

Then there was last year, when the yet-to-win Bills tried it again, this time in Pasadena against the Cowboys. Would L.A., torn by riots and spoiled by hosting many Super Bowls, yawn the week away? Not a chance. L.A. treated the Super Bowl as if it were the Academy Awards.

But even all those mega-event litmus tests pale to this year in Atlanta. Rarely, if ever, has the Super Bowl featured such a lackluster pairing, and never has it been so obvious that it doesn't matter. The Cowboys versus the Bills? Again? They don't play till Sunday. Why should that have to spoil the entire week?