By Steve Keating
HOUSTON (Reuters) - From U.S. President Donald Trump to the Pope, the world was settling in for a rousing Super Bowl Sunday with the Atlanta Falcons taking on the New England Patriots in an NFL title game that will be played with deep political undertones.
President Trump will kick off the pre-game buildup with a television interview while Vice-President Mike Pence will be among the estimated 73,000 fans packing NRG Stadium.
A worldwide television audience and upwards of 180 millions Americans are also expected to be huddled around their televisions to watch United States' biggest sporting spectacle that could be equal parts patriotism and protest.
While there will be no shortage of flag-waving patriotic pageantry around the game there were also protests, with reports of close to 500 demonstrators gathering at a park nearly two miles (3.2 kilometers) from the stadium with plans to march on the Super Bowl.
The FBI and the Joint Information Center confirmed to Reuters they are aware of the protest in Hermann Park and were monitoring the situation.
"They will be around to protest and exercise their first amendment right as long as it doesn't interfere with any security operations," Victor Senators, spokesman for the Joint Information Center, told Reuters.
The halftime show featuring outspoken singer Lady Gaga could also be a potential flashpoint.
An advocate for LGBT rights and a champion for inclusion, Lady Gaga's 13-minute concert has generated tremendous speculation over whether she might use the Super Bowl stage to deliver a rebuttal to U.S. President Trump's controversial appointments and policies, including travel restrictions targeting seven Muslim-majority nations.
Though American football is one of the world's most violent sports, Pope Francis invoked an historic blessing on the Super Bowl for the first time, saying the game could be an agent for peace.
"Great sporting events like today's Super Bowl are highly symbolic, showing that it is possible to build a culture of encounter and a world of peace," said the Pope in his Sunday address.
"By participating in sport, we are able to go beyond our own self-interest and in a healthy way we learn to sacrifice, to grow in fidelity and respect the rules.
"May this year's Super Bowl be a sign of peace, friendship and solidarity for the world."
The reality of a dangerous world, however, was reflected in the heavy security around NRG Stadium where the Falcons, led by their newly-minted NFL most valuable player quarterback Matt Ryan, will try to remove their name from a list of teams never to have won a Super Bowl while the Patriots seek to confirm their status as a dynasty by claiming their fifth title in 16 seasons and second in the last three.
Federal, State local police and private security surrounded NRG Stadium while airplanes, helicopters and drones kept watch overhead.
On the ground bomb sniffing dogs were hard at work as thousands of fans patiently made their way through airport-style screening.
(Additional reporting Ernie Scheyder and Liz Hampton; Editing by Andrew Both)