Back in the 1980s, it seemed like every Super Bowl was a massive butt-kicking. On Super Bowl Sunday, the one thing you could count on, other than a strange halftime show involving three-dimensional magic and an Elvis impersonator, was an anticlimactic football contest. It was a running joke in American culture that the game was never any good. Two weeks of hype and then… over before you knew it, like a Mike Tyson fight against Michael Spinks.

I personally remember most of the Super Bowls of my youth playing out like the one in 1988 between Washington and Denver, in which the Redskins used a fierce defense and 204 rushing yards from a rookie named Timmy Smith to dominate John Elway and the Broncos, 42-10. (For me, the most entertaining thing about that Sunday was not the game at all, but rather the premiere of The Wonder Years—and my introduction to the prepubescent siren that was Winnie Cooper.)

But sometime in the mid-1990s, the game actually became a nail-biter. Since 1996, 12 of the 21 Super Bowls (nearly 60 percent) have been decided by 10 points or fewer, whereas in the preceding 15 years, just four games were that close (27 percent). And I’m not complaining. I’ll take Giants 17, Patriots 14 over Cowboys 30, Bills 13 any February. But it does make you wonder: Why the hell is that? Why are Super Bowl games now close, competitive, down-to-the-last-snap contests, when they used to be absolute laughers?

Free agency allowed bad teams to get better quickly. And it made it harder for great teams to stay great because their best players could seek better deals from the rest of the league.

To find out, I talked and/or emailed with many people who responded to my cry for help on a website called Help a Reporter Out. (Thanks, HARO!) They offered up many good and thought-provoking reasons.

Of course, some of their hypotheses were a bit crazy. For example, Sean Pate at Gametime, a mobile ticket app, suspects there’s a high-level conspiracy at work. “The Super Bowl has been a thrilling game for most of the last 16 years,” says Pate. “It’s no coincidence that the price of the tickets has skyrocketed during this period, both the face value and secondhand. To keep the value of the event high, perhaps the NFL has ‘arranged’ for a competitive contest to keep those well-heeled fans and advertisers pleased with their investment and coming back.”

Kevin Burke, who does PR for StubHub, echoes Pate’s thoughts, writing: “Maybe higher TV and ad ratings warranted the NFL to demand a better game.” Which just makes me wonder: What is it with ticket guys and conspiracy theories?

My favorite response might be from Michael Bilello, CEO of the marketing agency Centurion Strategies, because it incorporates the military and modern warfare. Bilello, a former US Marine Officer and Iraqi Freedom vet, writes: “Just as intelligence-gathering technology in the hands of battlefield commanders has allowed for pre-operational planning that translates into increased mission effectiveness, NFL coaches are now able to gather, analyze and share ‘film’ like never before. With these technologies, teams have the ability to prepare for every threat opponents showcase before they face it. Good intelligence and preparation can also set the team up to exploit an opponent’s weakness. This is far more effective than deploying scouts and watching VHS.”

In other words, there’s more info out there, less secrecy, and therefore fewer surprises on game day, assuming you do your homework. And we all know these NFL coaches spend approximately 23 hours per day in the film room, so they definitely do their homework. Good intelligence, in essence, narrows the gap.

While I appreciate these theories, none of them get to the real crux of the issue like my next sources.

Robert Mays, who wrote and podcasted about football for Grantland and now contributes to The Ringer, credits the tighter games to a killer one-two punch thrown by the NFL in the ’90s.

“My answer is pretty simple,” Mays says. “In 1993, a new era of the NFL was ushered in with the establishment of free agency. A year later the league instituted a hard salary cap. Because of free agency, the talent got more evenly distributed, which led to more parity. And because of the salary cap, no team could just completely stockpile talent anymore. So between those two changes, it ultimately led to more competitive games—and more competitive Super Bowls.”

(Note: This is what he said more or less. I didn’t record this conversation and I was barely awake, even though he was calling at a perfectly reasonable time of the day.)

To give Mays’ reasoning a bit more context, let’s dig deeper into this whole free agency thing. At the insistence of the players union, the NFL started allowing unrestricted free agents in March of 1993. Reggie White, you may remember, was the first big-time player to test free agency. After visiting eight different teams (eight!), the Eagles’ star pass rusher chose the Green Bay Packers. The team jumped from 23rd in total defense to second, and a few years later, they won the Super Bowl. White even set a Super Bowl record with three sacks.

So what are we getting at here? Essentially, free agency allowed bad teams to get better quickly. And it made it harder for great teams to stay great because their best players could seek better deals from the rest of the league.

Plus, as Mays correctly states, the salary cap was introduced in 1994—as a reaction from the owners to free agency, as if to say, “Fine, if you guys want to shop yourselves around, go ahead, but we’re only going to pay all of you a set figure.” (Original cap amount: $34.6 million dollars. Yes, really.)

And because it was a hard salary cap (not a soft cap or a luxury tax situation like in the NBA and MLB, which still leaves a little wiggle room for large-market clubs), the upper-echelon teams no longer had enough money to pay all of their best players. It’s still that way today; there’s simply not enough money to go around. (Unless you’re the Patriots. Then you just supplement your quarterback’s salary by paying a company that he owns.)

Mays points to the 1994 San Francisco 49ers, who whipped the Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX, as the type of “dream team” that doesn’t exist anymore. Looking back at their roster now, it’s sort of mind-boggling. The Niners had 11 players who were All-Pro that season, including Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice, Brent Jones, Bart Oates, Dana Stubblefield, Deion Sanders, Tim McDonald and Merton Hanks. And just to leave no doubt the Lombardi Trophy would be theirs, they also had future Hall of Famers Richard Dent and Rickey Jackson. Which explains why they were favored in the Super Bowl by, wait for it, 18.5 points (!!!!!).

“It’s not the type of team you could build today,” Mays says of those Niners. “Even Seattle recently—they had a stacked team. But after the Super Bowl, they lost a couple of key players because those guys have to get paid.”

San Francisco’s annihilation of poor Stan Humphries and the Chargers is a good place to segue to Dan Flaherty, a researcher at the sports handicapping organization WinningEdge.com. Like Mays, Flaherty believes the root of the answer is free agency. But he also thinks it was the superiority of the NFC over the AFC that contributed to all those blowouts.

“In the 1980s, the best and most physical teams were in the NFC,” he observes. You know, the Redskins and their Hogs offensive line. The Bears and Giants and their overwhelming defenses. The Cowboys teams of the early 1990s, with a great offensive line and an attacking defense. The total package 49ers.

“These teams were not only better than the best AFC had to offer, but they all kept retooling to beat each other,” notes Flaherty. “Whereas the AFC powers-that-be—primarily Denver and later Buffalo—didn’t have that same sort of motivation. The NFC teams were like pace cars for each other. The physicality of these teams meant they could not only beat you, but really humiliate you in the process.”

To Flaherty’s point, consider this: The AFC went 14 years without a Super Bowl win, from the Raiders in ’84 to the Broncos in ’98. Crazy, right? That would be like if a team from the Western Conference hadn’t won an NBA championship since 2001. Talk about utter domination.

What’s more, Flaherty posits that when free agency and the salary cap came along in the ’90s, it was the offensive lines that suffered the most. “You had to pay your quarterback, you usually would pay at least one playmaker at the skill spots, and you might pay one or two defensive guys big money,” he explains. “But offensive linemen were easier to let go. Cohesion matters more on the offensive front than anywhere else and it’s no coincidence that the Cowboys offensive line of the early 1990s was the last really great offensive line the NFL has seen. It’s also no coincidence that Super Bowls became generally more competitive.”

Translation: The way to really crush an opponent is with an amazing offensive line, and we just don’t have those anymore. Which is why, says Flaherty, even though the Patriots have won multiple titles, all of their Super Bowl wins (and losses) have been super close.

So now you’re finally ready to hear from Scott Cooley, who is an odds consultant for BookMaker Sportsbook, one of the largest sports betting websites in the world (and based in Costa Rica, in case you’re wondering).

Cooley agrees that the salary cap had a major effect on the Super Bowl—and the regular season too.

“It really evened the playing field,” Cooley tells me from his home in Texas. “That phrase ‘any given Sunday’ really holds true in the NFL these days. Every Sunday you’ll see a team that seems to have no business beating another team, and yet they do. There are a lot more underdogs winning these days, both in the regular season and the Super Bowl.”

To back up his point, Cooley cites this intriguing little nugget: In the last 16 Super Bowls, 12 underdogs have at least covered the spread, many of them winning outright (see: Giants over the Patriots, both in 2008 and 2012).

But Cooley identifies other factors contributing to the “close Super Bowl trend”—some that support what Bilello, the ex-Marine, theorized about the availability of information narrowing the competitive gap.

“Coaching trees have something to do with that parity as well,” Cooley notes. “Thirty years ago, the lines of communication between coaches and teams weren’t as strong. The coaches, these guys were rogues. Now they’re all disciples of Bill Parcells or Bill Cowher or whoever. They know each other’s tendencies. And with texting and emailing, everyone’s connected. It’s a bit easier to gameplan.”

All of which adds up to a potentially close game next weekend. The spread is just three points (with the Patriots favored), and if it’s anything like every other Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era, the final margin will be right around that number.

But hey, if it isn’t, we can always flip over to Lifetime’s Mommy I Didn’t Do It. Turns out Winnie Cooper has aged quite nicely.