By: Bob George/
December 29, 2007

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E. RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It will come down to this: What is more important, beating the Patriots or beating Tampa Bay?

Most of the discussion surrounding the historic game Saturday night, where the Patriots can nail down the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history, is about the Giants and what they won't do rather than what the Patriots will do. The Patriots have the perfect record and the individual records on the line, and the players well know it and want to get as many of them as they can. But of greater interest seems to be how Giants head coach Tom Coughlin approaches the game, and how long he lets his starters play.

Everything the Patriots wanted to have happen last weekend, they got, especially with the Giants. The Giants, after stumbling at home the previous week against the Redskins, beat Buffalo handily in Ralph Wilson Stadium to clinch a playoff berth. To make things better, the Vikings coughed one up at home to Washington, locking the Giants into the fifth playoff seed and will play at Tampa, the Buccaneers locked into the fourth playoff seed as they lose a tiebreaker with Seattle, who has the three seed locked up.

So the Giants know they are heading to Raymond James Stadium next weekend, and nothing they can do against the Patriots will change that. There is zero incentive for the Giants to beat the Patriots Saturday night at Giants Stadium, a very familiar road venue the Patriots historically do well at. The only reason the Giants have to play to win, other than professional integrity, is so that they don't have to go down in history as the team which was victim number 16.

Quick, who was victim number 14 for the Dolphins in 1972? The undefeated Fish are more remembered down and through the years than who lost game number 14. By the way, it was the Colts, and it was a 16-0 whitewash. This writer, who watched the game live back then, had to look it up and for some reason thought it was the Detroit Lions instead. No one will remember the Giants 30 years from now for losing tomorrow night if the Patriots do win.

Coughlin faces one of the most intriguing decisions of his sometimes successful, and sometimes rocky, head coaching career. Possessing tons of football smarts but with a propensity for handling men like children, Coughlin could be playing for his job. He needs to understand that it is far more important for the Giants to play well next weekend at Tampa than it is for them to try and upset the Patriots Saturday night (the latest line has the Patriots favored by two touchdowns). While he would love to stick it to his former Giant colleague (Bill Belichick and Coughlin coached together for three seasons under Bill Parcells and won Super Bowl XXV together), Coughlin would face a hail of adverse scrutiny in Gotham if he loads up and beats the Patriots, but the Giants wind up coughing it up at Tampa because they expended too much energy or manpower in winning a meaningless game to avoid being part of negative history.

To complicate things a bit, both Osi Umenyiora and Antonio Pierce were popping off in the New York papers on Thursday. Umenyiora complained that the Patriots "aren't much better than everyone else", while Pierce compared Brady to Prince Charles and complained of him looking arrogant while getting hit by Philadelphia pass rushers a few weeks back. No explanation is necessary as to how the Patriots respond to opponents who run smack during the week.

It just so happens that both these defensive starters are hurting right now. So are top running back Brandon Jacobs and top wideout Plaxico Burress (who is familiar with the Patriots from his days with Pittsburgh). These guys are prime candidates for getting a rest on Saturday night, as it is much more important for them to be ready for Tampa than it is for them to try and prevent a perfect Patriot season.

Then you have Eli Manning. Belichick has a good history against quarterbacks from the Manning family. What could turn out to be real intriguing here is that Coughlin might be better advised to let Manning play one series, then bring in backup quarterback Jared Lorenzen. The 285-pound Charles Barkley clone usually plays well against the Patriots in August during preseason games, and Belichick might be adverse to play complicated defenses against the Giants for fear of giving potential playoff foes more hints on what to prepare for. Lorenzen is very hard to bring down when he takes off running, though his arm is far inferior to Manning's. But this would gave Coughlin a nice option for resting Manning, and add a potentially interesting wrinkle to the game.

So, if the Giants do indeed go half speed and worry more about Tampa, then what about all those records?

Tom Brady needs two touchdown passes to eclipse Eli's brother. Randy Moss needs two touchdown catches to surpass Jerry Rice. The Patriots need one touchdown to become the greatest one-season point scoring machine in league history. Brady and Moss went a little too far last week in the second half against Miami to try and put each other into the record book. Most observers believe that Brady will try and get all this done as early as possible. It is also widely held that if this game becomes a blowout early, starters will disappear in the second half rather than to try and score 60 or 70 against the Giant junior varsity.

That said, the Patriots should be concerned with two things and two things only: Keeping everyone healthy and just going for 16-0. Let's say that Brady and Moss get their records and the team does break 556 points, but somehow the Giants win the game. The Patriots will have a miserable two weeks waiting for their first playoff opponent. But if they pull off the win and nobody gets any of the individual records, it will still be party time and a gleeful two weeks. The 16-0 reigns supreme, a mark nobody thought any team could ever attain. It could go down in history as the most remarkable achievement in any team sport of this new millennium, and maybe of the last 50 or so years. This is what the players and coaches want the most.

Moss himself said so. He is on record as saying that he would rather have the right number remain at zero versus the receiving touchdown record. He is also emphatic as to how badly he wants a Vince.

The big night is almost at hand. It will be now impossible for you to not see the game. Everybody in the area not employed by WCVB or WMUR should be psyched up and ready for a night for the ages. The Patriots are expected to deliver something to this region which might be more remarkable than the Red Sox comeback against the Yankees three years ago.

Sixteen-and-oh. Yikes. Simply incredible. What a badge of honor for the Patriots to wear for eternity.

It would be nice if we could hear what Billy Sullivan thinks of this.