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NFL Fever 2004 an All-Pro game

Great graphics plus a lot of bells and whistles add to fun

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XSN Sports

Trailing with only seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the stunned Pittsburgh Steelers backpedaling. It's fourth-down-and-goal-to-go, and the new generation Steel Curtain desperately desires to keep Jon Gruden's crew out of the end zone.

The ball's snapped. The Reliant Stadium crowd goes berserk. Bodies fly, pads crunch. Brad Johnson steps back, checks off one and two receivers, dodges a furious rush and then somehow needles a perfect pass through outstretched defenders to Keyshawn Johnson. Touchdown, Bucs! A celebration breaks out.

"There's no sign of quit!" bellows announcer Ron Pitts.

Repeat Super Bowl champions?

Yeah, right. The lucky play merely makes the lopsided outcome look a tad more respectable. Final score: Pittsburgh 41, Tampa Bay 14. MVP? Tommy Maddox, of course, after throwing for 382 yards and five touchdowns, including three sweet scoring strikes to Hines Ward.

At least that's how this NFL season played out in Mean Jody Greene's stadium (a k a the Genessys' front room). That's one reason why NFL Fever 2004 deserves a starting spot in the Pro Bowl for sports video games. Great graphics, thrilling play, impressive offensive and defensive AI, minimal trash-talking and oodles of bells and whistles are added bonuses.

Proof that championships aren't built overnight, it took me three days before I could help my team hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy again for the first time since 1980.

The first step was an intensive yet easy-to-follow training camp. Next came chalk-talk sessions where basic concepts of offense and defense were explained a la Football 101. I then honed my skills in scrimmages during Open Practice.

After several hours of practice and preseason games against patsies like the Broncos and Rams, it was time to put my powerhouse to the test in "Dynasty" mode. There you can play general manager or just play out seasons and do all sorts of funky football stuff.

My quick success was due in part to in-game coaching hints and a loaded playbook, which has easy-to-read plays and advanced technical formations on both sides of the ball — from fly routes to belly dives to nickel and dime defenses.

The only complaints I have about the game were that the announcers became sort of annoying and repetitive and the referees always seemed to throw their yellow hanky at me. But that actually made the game seem more real.

When it comes to overall popularity, you could arguably say Xbox's NFL Fever series is the XFL of professional football simulation video games: flashy and fun yet greatly overlooked by the masses. The hype and hoopla surrounding EA Sports' smash hit, Madden NFL Football, could probably incite Microsoft gamemakers to pout in their best Jan Brady imitation, "Madden! Madden! Madden!" The Madden franchise, now in its 14th season, certainly gets most of the attention — well, and the sales (28 million copies).

To its advantage, though, NFL Fever 2004 has upped the ante on head-to-head competition — with multiplayer console and online options. With its Xbox Live feature, you can plug into the Internet at www.xsnsports.com, create franchises and leagues, and smash your friends, enemies or strangers in a virtual setting. (Not having DSL at my home, I wasn't able to try this feature, but it looks very exciting.)

As for which pro football game's the best, I'm gonna zig-zag like Antwaan Randle El on kickoff returns around that debate. I have better things to do — celebrating the Steelers' Super Bowl championship, for starters.

E-MAIL: jody@desnews.com