This is the Super Bowl the grumpy old men of the 1972 Miami Dolphins hoped, prayed and decreed would never happen. For 35 years those Dolphins have had unlimited NFL bragging rights but the statute of limitations may very well be running out.
If the Patriots can make it 19 wins in a line by beating the New York Giants two weeks hence in the Arizona sunshine, they will make official what most people have believed for quite some time: They are the best football machine ever assembled.
Not the most popular or the easiest to admire. But, simply, the best.
Even though there have been some mighty teams that sprang up in the interim, the '72 Dolphins always have been able to cling to that perfect season and lay claim to the top of the mountain. Best team ever? Well, what's better than undefeated?
The numbers 17-0 are the ones that always have been cited but those are about the only statistics that back them up. Truth is, the '72 Dolphins had a schedule that couldn't have been softer had they handpicked their opponents themselves. They won 14-straight regular-season games against opponents whose record that year was a combined 70-122-4. Not one of their regular-season opponents made it to the playoffs and only two of them -- the Giants and the Kansas City Chiefs -- finished above .500, but just barely, both at 8-6.
By contrast, the 2007 Patriots won eight of their 18 games against teams with winning records and they managed those 18 wins by piling up some impressive numbers, averaging nearly 36 points a game, while allowing just 17. The old Dolphins averaged just 26 points a game, allowing only 12.
New England's point differential this past regular season -- a whopping 315 points -- is the largest in history, 101 points more than the '72 Dolphins.
Early this season, after they were fingered in that infamous "spygate" controversy with the Jets, the Patriots were winning big and winning angry. They pounded on teams. In their first 10 games, they averaged 41 points scored and 15 points allowed.
But as the season went on, the opposition got tougher and the Patriots started winning games the same way they always have under Bill Belichick: By getting contributions from everybody on the roster. Sunday's win over the gritty San Diegos was cut from that cloth.
Tom Brady threw three interceptions. Randy Moss caught one ball. The Chargers moved the ball up and down the field all day. And New England still won 21-12 because of clutch contributions from players like Junior Seau, talked off his retirement beach and back into uniform two years ago, from third-down specialist Kevin Faulk and from the indomitably persistent receiver, Wes Welker.
When the moments dwindled down to just a few at the end, the Patriots took over the ball and wouldn't give it back, playing to win, no longer angry, just hungry to get the job done.
The Giants, who looked as if they were dead in the water by the second week of December, have come as close as anyone to derailing the New England juggernaut, narrowly losing a 38-35 thriller in the last game of the regular season. That outstanding performance catapulted them into the playoffs full of enough confidence to wear out Tampa Bay, Dallas and Green Bay in consecutive weekends. Impressive.
Now the Giants have a chance to play giant-killer, a wild-card afterthought on New England's triumphant march into the history books. Who's to say they can't get the job done?
It may surprise people to know the old Dolphins and the modern Patriots aren't the only teams in NFL history to finish the regular season with unblemished records. The 1934 Bears and the 1942 Bears each were undefeated heading into the playoffs and both those teams lost the championship game and, by so doing, disappeared into that deep, dark lake of sporting amnesia.
Which is exactly where the Patriots will end up if they can't beat Eli Manning and the Giants, giving those grumpy old men something to cackle about.