Pats playing for history

Published 12:24 am Sunday, February 3, 2008

This one is for history.

No longer can the New England Patriots ignore it. Beat the New York Giants on Sunday and it means more than winning a fourth Super Bowl in seven years. More than reaffirming their dynasty in a sport designed to even the playing field.

It means staking an undeniable claim to that most elusive of titles: greatest ever.

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“I think it’s the biggest game of all of our lives — my life, the entire team, our coaches,” said Tom Brady, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and the Patriots’ poster boy for perfection. “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. There’s not too many teams in the history of the NFL — none, in fact — that have been 18-0 going into this game.”

The pursuit of an unbeaten season, surpassing the 17-0 by the 1972 Miami Dolphins that stands alone atop the pro football pantheon of unblemished excellence, has turned this Super Bowl into even more of a must-see or must-attend event. Resale tickets for the first title game in Arizona since 1996 are going for thousands of dollars above face value. TV ratings are expected to challenge the highest for any game.

All those elements make this game quite an attraction — as if a matchup between two teams that played a 38-35 season finale isn’t enticing enough.

Throw in all the passing records set by Brady, receiving marks established by Randy Moss, the prospect of another shootout with a fearless opponent that has won 10 straight road games, and it’s enough to make even the casual fan salivate.

Not to mention the whole Spygate affair after the season opener that effectively cast a shadow on many of Bill Belichick’s achievements as Patriots coach.

The Patriots are aware of the historical significance of 19-0. And of 18-1.

“It’s the biggest game of my life because it’s the Super Bowl,” said Moss, who was traded to New England last spring after years of productivity and controversy in Minnesota and Oakland. “With everything we have at stake, as far as hopefully saving the undefeated season, it is right to say that.”

It’s also something they’ve pretended didn’t exist throughout the first 17 wins. When they edged the Giants to finish the unbeaten regular season, they took the one-game-at-a-time mantra to exceedingly more boring heights. Same thing after the divisional playoff victory against Jacksonville.

Then, despite Brady injuring his ankle, the Patriots won the AFC title against San Diego. Only after that, and in the days leading to America’s biggest sports party, did the players begin mentioning history. Or, as 18-year veteran linebacker Junior Seau put it, “EVER.”

“As far as the Super Bowl goes, yeah, this is the Super Bowl, but this is a special Super Bowl,” Seau said. “We can hide from the fact that there’s going to be another Super Bowl, but this special day, this special week, we can do something that can be here forever.”

As for 19-0 having a bearing on their performance, Seau said no way.

“Thinking about it isn’t going to do us any good,” Seau said. “We are trying to focus on making it a reality, and that’s more important than hypothetically or dramatizing it. Because until we get out there on Sunday and go ahead and prove that we can embrace and sustain it and can take advantage of our opportunity, it’s meaningless.”

Meaningless perhaps to Seau and the other players in the game, but not to the general public. The Patriots’ saga might be better dubbed a soap opera. It has included Spygate and the subsequent fines and stripping of a first-round draft choice; accusations of running up the score; claims by opponents that some of them, notably safety Rodney Harrison and tackle Matt Light, play dirty; and Brady’s sore ankle, which was first captured on film while he was visiting his supermodel girlfriend in New York the day after the AFC championship game.

As if all that wasn’t juicy enough, throw in the perfection part.

Oh, and then there’s the Giants, Hey, there were only 10-6 during the regular season, a wild card in the clearly inferior NFC. Plus, they blew a 12-point third-quarter lead at home in losing to New England on Dec. 29.

The last thing they want to be a bit player in the Patriots’ coronation. They believe the winner on Sunday will be the two-touchdown underdog with the “other brother,” Eli Manning, at quarterback.

Wide receiver Plaxico Burress even predicted the final score: 23-17.

“It’s all entertainment. We’re all having fun with it,” Burress said. “The prediction has gotten so much play … we can still laugh about it and have fun with it. That was one of the things that made Muhammad Ali great.”

And The Greatest — something the Patriots might be able to say they are come Sunday night.