The New England Patriots go for 16-0 perfection against the New York Giants Saturday night — it's an undefeated mark achieved in the National Football League only by coach Don Shula's legendary 1972 Miami Dolphins, a team that marched through a 14-0 season on its way to the championship.
Now, it's Bill Belichick's turn. A perfect season would cement the historical status of the stone-faced Patriots' sideline man, a likely future Hall of Famer who has coached the team to three of the last six Super Bowl championships.
The Pats' domination hasn't come without controversy, however. The team was busted by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell at the regular season's outset when a Patriots assistant was caught video-cyphoning play signals from the opposing New York Jets' sideline during a 38-14 win.
It was an embarrassing blemish for the often emotionless Belichick, one that prompted New York Post editors to mark each day's NFL standings since with an asterisk and the footnote reading, "Caught cheating."
But the Patriots haven't lost a football game since and have beaten most opponents convincingly, posting the greatest point differential in league history in a rush of offensive record-breaking.
Much of that success can be tied squarely to America's quarterback or, at least, America's most idolized quarterback — Tom Brady.
The literal Stetson Man (he's the shirtless pitchman of the cologne's ad campaign), already renowned as one of the best players of his era, has torched the opposition during a season for the ages and enters the final game in reach of the NFL's all-time record for touchdown passes in a season.
Breaking it would give him a leg up on his modern-day rival — Peyton Manning, whose Indianapolis Colts defeated the Patriots in last year's playoffs — and the perfect season would place the Patriots alongside all-time great teams.
"You know, being 16-0 would be a very special achievement, one that no other team has ever achieved," Brady told a mass of reporters during a news conference earlier this week.
The New JFK Jr.?
Brady's appeal doesn't stop when he steps outside the lines. When the sports writers finish taking notes, Boston's gossip columnists go to work.
He has achieved near godlike status that has Boston Herald gossip girls Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa dubbing him the new John F. Kennedy Jr., an almost unheard of comparison in a city that worships intensely at the alter of its favorite sons.
One former fan who may no longer be quite as charmed by the chiseled QB, however, is his most recent ex-girlfriend, 37-year-old actress Bridget Moynihan, who gave birth in August to a baby Brady named John Edward Thomas or Jet.
While a traditionalist might consider the out-of-wedlock birth a knock on Brady's image as "Teflon Tom," at least one woman was unfazed. Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen has been snapped by paparazzi on Brady's throwing arm from Manhattan to Miami Beach.
Fatherhood didn't spoil Brady's game, and he enters Saturday night's showdown two touchdown passes shy of Manning's miracle mark of 49.
Will the Giants Stars Play?
Brady has multiple options in his receiving corps, none more dangerous than Randy Moss, a playmaker who arrived in New England in the off-season with a mixed reputation of extreme talent balanced by questionable character. But Moss has since silenced critics by keeping his mouth shut and hauling in a league-leading 21 touchdown catches, many of the improbable and dramatic variety.
And then there's the New York Giants, oft-kicked by the local media for an uninspiring coach in Tom Coughlin and a cantankerous locker room full of egos. They drew the straw to serve as the last hurdle blocking the Patriots' path to perfection in a primetime matchup Saturday night.
But New York's G-Men, with Peyton's baby brother Eli playing quarterback, last week locked up a respectable 10-5 record, earning a wild-card playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With their playoff future locked up, league-wide debate this week has cantered on how much Giants bosses should rest key players this weekend to prepare for post-season play.
Brady waded gamely into the coaching conflict this week, suggesting from his locker that Coughlin play it safe and sit his stars Saturday night — especially those dangerous defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, Brady stressed with a trademark smile.
The Giants were respectful, a bit glib, but ultimately unresponsive to Brady's request. The team's public comments suggest they're not really interested in serving up the 16-0 softball.
"It's not like they're Jesus Christ and his 12 disciples or anything like that," Umenyiora said. "It doesn't matter what the situation is, we're not going to go into a game and just give anybody a game."
Coughlin echoed the point, minus the biblical reference. "Our objective is to win," he repeatedly said.
Coughlin and Belichick, of note, are friendly colleagues, both serving as assistant coaches to Bill Parcells when the "Tuna" guided the Giants to the 1990 Super Bowl championship. For his part, Belichick said he expects nothing less than a full-tilt football game Saturday night.
The primetime matchup is undoubtedly must-see TV, so much so that the NFL backed out of exclusive contracts with three smaller affiliates in the Boston, New Hampshire and New York markets, as well as its own NFL Network, and will simulcast the game nationwide on NBC and CBS. The affiliates' lawyers, of course, doth protest the NFL's populist decision.
So like Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens said before a 48-27 drubbing by the Patriots in Week 6, "Get your popcorn ready."