By Julian Linden
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - One of the most tumultuous National Football League (NFL) seasons ever will climax on Sunday when the New York Giants and New England Patriots lock horns in the 46th Super Bowl.
A season that almost did not happen because of the bitter labor dispute between team owners and the players' union has not only survived but produced a classic encounter between two of the NFL's most popular franchises.
The United States has been whipped into a frenzy of excitement with more than 70,000 people expected to cram into Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to watch the game live while an estimated record worldwide audience of more than 160 million are expected to watch the extravaganza unfold on television.
"It's been an extraordinary year for the NFL on many different levels," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said on Friday."
"The best thing about it was the game and how fans responded to it. Now we finish up on Sunday with a fantastic match-up, the Giants and the Patriots. What many consider to be the best Super Bowl in the history of the NFL. No doubt, the whole world will be watching."
The rivalry between New York and Boston is already one of the oldest and fiercest in American sports and the stakes could not be higher this weekend after a wildly fluctuating season where nothing really went according to the script.
The Patriots, who have won the Super Bowl three times in the last decade, are the slight favorites after winning their divisional title, then beating the Baltimore Ravens to claim the AFC championship.
But is it a game where the unexpected is expected. Both teams have outstanding quarterbacks, solid defenses and game-breaking players who can pile on the points.
"Every Super Bowl is special," New England coach Bill Belichick said.
"I feel like we'll be ready to go, and we're looking forward, excited to be representing the AFC in this game. It's a big challenge for us, but one that we're excited to face."
The Giants, who have also won the Super Bowl three times, earned their place in Sunday's title game the hard way.
After struggling through the regular season, they won their last two games to sneak into the playoffs, then won against the Atlanta Falcons, the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers to take the NFC championship.
"We've had our backs to the wall," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin.
"It has been one elimination game after another. The players have been responding very, very well."
The Giants beat the Patriots 24-20 in the ninth week of the regular season but it is their previous meeting, in the Super Bowl at Arizona four years ago, that remains the biggest talking point in the lead-up the game.
The Patriots went into the game as overwhelming favorites and bidding to go through the entire season undefeated but the Giants scored a last-minute touchdown to beat them in one of the sport's biggest upsets.
"I remember waking up in Arizona the next morning after an hour of sleep thinking, 'That was a nightmare, that didn't happen,'" New England quarterback Tom Brady said. "(But) After time, you learn to move on and get over it."
Brady, already one of the most decorated players in the game, will be appearing in his fifth Super Bowl and a victory will see him tie Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win four titles.
New York quarterback Eli Manning, named the most valuable player when the Giants won four years ago, is chasing a second Super Bowl win, one more than his older brother Peyton, a cult hero in Indianapolis where he plays for the Colts.
"What happened in the last Super Bowl doesn't matter," Manning said. "What happened in the last game of the season doesn't matter. It's about what we do on Sunday and what we do in this game."
(Editing by Gene Cherry; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)