Sunday's Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Bucs will bring to a close what surely was the strangest NFL season ever.
Never before, and hopefully never again, will we see a season in which few or no fans attended games; a lot of the coaching and team-building was done via Zoom; players navigated a daily gauntlet of strict protocols to slow the spread of COVID-19; the schedule was jumbled by repeated virus outbreaks; and on and on and on.
When training camps opened last summer, a lot of smart people foresaw all that and figured the NFL would never get through the season with a pandemic raging across America.
But it's going to happen. Despite what truly was a mother lode of obstacles, the league will cross the finish line Sunday.
And as weird as it was, I'm so glad it happened.
The Ravens had an up and down season, for sure. They started out as serious Super Bowl contenders, stumbled in November, rallied in December and registered their first postseason win in six years in January. They endured a virus outbreak along the way and their playoff journey ended with a disappointing loss, but now that the season is over, I find myself taking a step back to consider the bigger picture.
How great it was that we had something else to talk about and occupy us, a glimmer of familiar excitement amid the grim virus and economic data that the news cycle puts forth every day. In that sense, it qualified as a mental health break.
It was beyond strange, yes, but the season also was fun and satisfying and important, giving us something to anticipate, obsess over and share with others.
Yes, other sports and leagues are also playing on with few or no fans and strict protocols in place. But nothing stands taller than pro football in the pecking order of American sports.
If the NFL's season had crumbled, I dare say other sports and seasons might well have suffered the same fate. But it seems the NFL's season was never really in jeopardy.
There were plenty of hiccups, sure, but the league's plan for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 ultimately was so successful it attracted the attention of the Centers for Disease Control. The two entities co-published a paper last week promoting the league's strategy, which, the CDC believes, could also work in schools, long-term care facilities or any workplace with a dense population.
Without getting too into the weeds, the NFL developed a new definition for high-risk contact and learned transmission can occur in fewer than 15 minutes. The league's considerable resources helped it implement the plan, but still, it's impressive to see the CDC give a public thumbs-up to some of the league's best practices.
The coaches and players are the ones who lived it, of course. They put up with a lot to see that the season began and ended on time. They submitted to daily testing, lived with the many protocols. Many of them actually contracted the virus and exposed their families.
Yes, they were well paid for it. And no, the stress they experienced doesn't compare with what frontline medical professionals are enduring a year into this heartbreaking situation.
Never has it been made clearer that football is just a game, not life and death -- a departure from reality, not reality itself.
But it was a welcomed departure as the pandemic hurtled through the fall, the holidays and the first weeks of a new year. The NFL became entrenched enough in our lives that, despite the weirdness, it felt strange not to have a game to watch last weekend.
I can guarantee you the coaches and players will never forget the 2020 season. Same with the fans and media.
It was a season unlike any other, but it was still a season, and when the opening kickoff of the final game is in the air Sunday, I'll be clapping my hands as a thank-you to those who made it happen.