By Julian Linden
NEW YORK, Dec 17 (Reuters) - For most of 2013, the National Football League (NFL) made headlines for all the wrong reasons, but America's most popular and brutal sport has once again emerged seemingly unscathed.
With the NFL set to stage the first outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl in less than two months, excitement over the current season's pending playoffs is already starting to bubble over.
In recent years, the NFL has never seemed far from the eye of a storm, lurching from one off-field controversy to the next, but it hardly seems to matter.
With the end of each year, America's attention instinctively switches back to what is happening on the gridiron, and 2013 was no different.
Not even the prospect of a blizzard could detract from America's grandest sporting event where tickets are expected to sell on the secondary market for tens of thousands of dollars while 30-second TV commercials will sell for around $4 million.
At last season's Super Bowl, in New Orleans in February, the championship game between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers was interrupted for more than a half-hour due to a power outage.
But what was a major embarrassment for the NFL almost became a mere footnote after one of the most absorbing Super Bowl games of all time.
Baltimore, inspired by their fearless linebacker Ray Lewis and marshaled by brilliant quarterback Joe Flacco, upset San Francisco 34-31 in a game of unrelenting tension.
A season that started against the backdrop of an industrial dispute over money and a pay-for-pain scandal, ended in the sort of triumph only the NFL and Hollywood could have scripted.
It marked the first time two brothers squared off as the rival head coaches in a Super Bowl, with Baltimore's John Harbaugh beating his younger sibling Jim's 49ers.
For Lewis, the only remaining player from the Ravens team that won the Super Bowl 12 years earlier, it marked the ultimate high in his final game before retirement.
Flacco was named the game's Most Valuable Player and was rewarded with a six-year $120 million contract, while Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher, whose life was the inspiration for the Academy Award-nominated "The Blind Side," showed that happy endings do happen away from the silver screen.
"I think we gave the country a pretty good game to watch," said an understated Flacco.
The Super Bowl's feel-good factor quickly disappeared during the offseason as the NFL was forced to confront its violent undercurrent.
In June, the New England Patriots dropped tight end Aaron Hernandez after he was arrested over the shooting death of Odin Lloyd, a semi-professional player.
Two weeks before the start of the NFL's 2013 regular season, Hernandez was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder.
A week later, in an unrelated case, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit from players who accused the league of hiding the dangers of brain injuries while promoting the game's gladiatorial appeal.
Thousands of former players, many suffering from dementia and health problems, took legal action against the NFL, citing increasing research pointing to links between concussions and brain injuries.
In recent years, there had been a spate of suicides among current and former NFL players and the research prompted the league to make changes, including banning the most dangerous hits and resting players showing symptoms of memory loss.
The NFL admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation and a program of medical research as well as cover some legal expenses.
"We think it's the right thing to move forward and try to do what we can to help our players," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.
Early in the current season, another scandal erupted, this time over bullying, racism and the sport's clubhouse culture.
All-Pro guard Richie Incognito was at the center of the spat, accused of racially abusing his Miami Dolphins team mate Jonathan Martin in a series of phone calls, text messages and emails.
Incognito was suspended indefinitely by the Dolphins while the NFL launched an investigation.
Another dispute, this time over the name of the Washington Redskins, managed to draw the attention of President Barack Obama.
Many Native American groups want the Redskins name changed, saying it is racist, and Obama said if he was the team owner, he would consider changing the name.
Despite the seemingly endless stream of bad publicity, the NFL showed no sign of slowing down, with attendances, television ratings and revenues continuing to grow.
The competition on the field remained as captivating and as unpredictable as ever. The beauty of single-elimination playoff football is that no one can be sure which two teams will make it through to the Super Bowl.
The Feb. 2, 2014 showdown, at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, just across the New York state line, is looming as another first for the NFL because the game's biggest match has never been played outdoors in a wintry state.
"Football is made to be played in the elements," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a launch to promote the next Super Bowl. "We're gonna celebrate the game here." (Editing by Frank Pingue)