GLENDALE, Ariz. - Running hand in hand with history, the New England Patriots take the field tonight with a chance to go where no men in shoulder pads have gone.
Already the NFL's first 18-0 team, the Patriots will attempt to win their fourth Super Bowl in seven seasons when they kick off against the New York Giants at University of Phoenix Stadium.
On the heels of the Red Sox' World Series sweep in Colorado in October, Super Bowl XLII stands to endure as a signature event in the Boston sports renaissance of the 21st century. Humble pies and football-shaped cakes have been ordered and set in front of game-ready flat-screen televisions back in New England, while here in the desert, thousands of pigskin pilgrims - many wearing Brady and Bruschi jerseys - are on hand to witness the Patriots' final step toward pro sports immortality.
Since September, the mantra for coach Bill Belichick and his players has been, "We're only thinking of our next opponent." But amid the noise of Super Bowl week, a few veterans finally allowed themselves to acknowledge the possibility of perfection.
"I think it's the biggest game of all of our lives," acknowledged Tom Brady, who has a chance to join Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks with four Super Bowl rings. "We're going to be remembering this game for as long as we live, win or lose. We're going to have great memories of this experience or we're going to look at it truly as a missed opportunity."
The Patriots are 12-point favorites as they attempt to become only the second team in NFL history to complete a season without a loss (the 1972 Miami Dolphins finished 17-0). The only smudge on New England's otherwise perfect résumé is a September videotaping controversy in which Belichick and the Patriots were slapped with the largest penalties in league history after getting caught taping the signals of the Jets' assistant coaches. The scandal resurfaced days before tonight's game when Senator Arlen Specter, Republican from Pennsylvania, asked NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to explain why the league destroyed the tapes seized from the Patriots.
Tonight's game features clashes of quarterbacks, coaches, and cultures: Brady vs. Eli Manning (columnist/author Mark Kriegel tabbed it "quarterback chic and quarterback geek"), Belichick vs. Tom Coughlin, and Boston vs. New York.
Brady, who grew up in the Bay Area worshiping the iconic Montana (four rings with the San Francisco 49ers), threw a league-record 50 touchdown passes during the regular season and directed an offense that shattered NFL marks for touchdowns and points. Twice named Super Bowl MVP, Brady's preparation for the Giants was hindered by a high right ankle sprain sustained in the AFC Championship game victory over the Chargers. The uber-quarterback recovered nicely and his ankle wound was not listed on the official injury report.
Manning is the younger brother of Patriots nemesis Peyton Manning, the veteran Indianapolis Colts quarterback who won the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears last year. Eli Manning's path to greatness has been blocked by interceptions, poor decisions, and a perception that he lacks leadership and toughness. The younger Manning shed his critics in the playoffs, leading the Giants to three road victories without throwing an interception.
The coaching matchup features Old School vs. Ancient School. Belichick is known as humorless, disciplined, and hard on his players. Coughlin, who put Boston College football back on the map and rebuilt Alumni Stadium during his three years at Chestnut Hill, makes Belichick look like a stand-up comic. The second-oldest man to coach a Super Bowl, Coughlin (61) made an effort to lighten up this season and his players responded positively.
The Patriots are expected to put a lot of points on the board. New England scored 38 or more points eight times during the regular season, but averaged only 26 in two frosty playoff wins. When Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress predicted a 23-17 New York victory in the Super Bowl, Brady seemed miffed only because Burress didn't think the Patriots would score more than 17 points.
In ideal weather conditions on a dry, fast surface, Patriots fans expect New England to score early and often against the Giants' reputedly soft secondary. Randy Moss, who caught a league-record 23 touchdown passes during the regular season, had a pair of TD grabs when the Patriots beat the Giants, 38-35, in the final game of the regular season.
The Patriots have a lot of players who have been here before. This will be Tedy Bruschi's fifth Super Bowl with New England. There are many Patriots with multiple rings, but this is a Super Bowl with much more at stake.
"This is about history," said 18-year veteran Junior Seau. "It's something for us to look back on and be very proud of for years to come . . . It's the chance of a lifetime, and there's no disputing that."
True to the finish, Belichick stayed on message.
"Right now, we are just thinking about trying to win this game and beat the Giants," the coach said in his final press conference Friday. "That is all we are thinking about. What happens after that, we will deal with at that point in time. Right now, it is only on the Giants."
After tonight, there will be no next opponent. When the confetti falls from the sky, Belichick and his men will finally be able to exhale and tell us what they really think about this once-in-a-lifetime season.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com.