A regular season finale that will have no effect on the playoff picture has never meant so much.
With so many records within reach for the New England Patriots on Saturday night, the one that matters most is the chance to complete the best regular season in NFL history if they can defeat a New York Giants team which also has its playoff seeding secure.
Besides Tom Brady and Randy Moss having impressive league records within their reach this week, New England seems unlikely to rest many starters in its pursuit of a 16-0 record despite having the AFC’s top seed wrapped up.
“Like I’ve said before,” Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said, “‘Put me in coach. I want to play. I want to win.’ And if what it means this week is being 16-0, yeah, I want it.”
Already the first team to go 15-0 in a regular season, New England now tries to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only teams to take an unbeaten record into the playoffs. Miami went 14-0 that season and won the Super Bowl, but this year’s Dolphins could not spoil the Patriots’ perfect run last Sunday and lost 28-7 at Foxborough.
“We know we have an opportunity to get to 16,” said Brady, recently named the AP’s Male Athlete of the Year. “That would be a great accomplishment for this team.”
New England does not get to play this one at home, but could benefit from the fact New York (10-5) is locked into the No. 5 seed in the NFC and might want to rest some starters because it does not have a first-round bye. The Giants will visit Tampa Bay in a wild-card game next weekend.
“We want to win every game, and we want our players to be as sharp as they can, but that having been said, I am aware of the fact that all the things you talk about are true,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Monday. “We cannot improve our lot, etc. I won’t be really painted into the corner on any of those things. I wish I had a more definitive answer.”
No opponent has had a good answer defensively for the Patriots, whose 551 points leave them needing just six to break the league’s single-season record set by the 1998 Minnesota Vikings. The only time New England failed to total more than 20 points or 300 yards of offense came two weeks ago against the New York Jets in horrendous weather conditions, but there is no rain, snow or strong wind in the forecast for Saturday.
A clear night would only make things easier on Brady, Moss and New England’s vaunted air attack. Single-season league records are in sight for both Pro Bowlers, with Brady needing two touchdown passes to break Peyton Manning’s record of 49 and Moss two TD receptions away from surpassing Jerry Rice’s record of 22.
“There have been things every week, different distractions every week that we’ve dealt with,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I think the players have done a good job of staying focused in approaching the games, coming to work, working hard and paying attention, putting the team first.”
Another record within the Patriots’ grasp is the one for consecutive regular-season victories. They already have tied their own league record by winning 18 straight.
“I hope we can go on a one game-winning streak,” Belichick said. “Just get ready, have a good week and be able to win on Saturday. … There is maybe a time to reflect on that, but right now is not it.”
New England, though, has not dominated teams as it did during the first half of the season. Four of its previous six wins were by 10 points or less before it failed to score in the second half last week against a one-win Miami team.
Brady threw two interceptions in that victory, increasing his season total to eight, and completed less than 55 percent of his passes for the third time in four weeks. However, he enters this game 105 yards shy of Drew Bledsoe’s 1994 club record of 4,555.
“When you look back at the end of your career, you’ll be excited about individual records,” Brady said, “but winning’s more important and I think that’s really what everyone’s concerned about.”
One area of concern for Belichick may be his run defense, having allowed an average of 136.3 yards per game and 5.0 per carry this month.
The Giants ran for 291 yards last week, their most since 1959, in a 38-21 win at Buffalo as they clinched their third straight playoff spot.
Brandon Jacobs ran for a season-high 145 yards, one week after rushing for 130 against Washington, but a nagging ankle injury could put him among the New York starters which may sit out this game. Receiver Plaxico Burress (ankle), linebacker Antonio Pierce (ankle, hamstring) and safety Gibril Wilson (knee) also have been playing hurt.
“Of course you play every game to win, and so all of our thoughts are on that,” Coughlin said. “All of our thoughts are on trying to figure out how we can be in a position to defeat a team that is 15-0 and a very, very good team.”
New York has previously knocked off a team pursuing perfection late in a season and it came at Giants Stadium, handing a 13-0 Denver team its first defeat on Dec. 13, 1998.
This Giants squad, though, has not won a home game since Oct. 21 against San Francisco, losing three in a row. At 3-4, New York is the only team to have qualified for the playoffs that does not have a winning home record.
This is the Patriots’ last game away from home, unless they reach the Super Bowl. However, they continue to avoid looking ahead or thinking too much about the potential history they are making, as evidenced by the comments of their flashy star receiver.
“We play the Giants next,” Moss said. “They’re standing in our way and we’ll try to get a victory. We’ll put 11 on the field and try to get a victory.”
Except this victory would be one for the ages.
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