The Patriots, 15-0, will visit the New York Giants (10-5) today in an effort to complete a perfect campaign, the first since the league adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978.
The Dolphins went 14-0 during the season 35 years ago then won two playoff games and the Super Bowl to complete the only perfect run in the modern era of American football.
The Patriots, whose 551 season points are five shy of equalling Minnesota’s one-season record point total, can expect the best from the Giants and a full set of starters even though nothing will change New York’s playoff seeding.
“They are tough, physical. They are hard to beat,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “They do a lot of things that make it tough to beat them.”
New England’s Tom Brady has thrown 48 touchdown passes this season, one shy of equalling Peyton Manning’s one-season NFL record of 49 from 2004.
Randy Moss, in his first season with the Patriots, has 21 touchdown catches this season, one shy of matching the all-time record for a season set in 1987 by Jerry Rice.
“We have a lot of records at stake,” Brady said. “It would be a great achievement to go 16-0. It would be great for the team. That’s the one goal I have in mind.”
The Giants, who open the playoffs at Tampa Bay next week regardless of the result, have spoiled Denver’s bid for a perfect season in 1998 when the Broncos were 13-0 and also beat Chicago in the 1934 final after the Bears began 13-0.
The final two playoff berths, the sixth and last spot in both the National and American conferences, will be decided tomorrow with Washington and Tennessee having the upper hand.
Tennessee, 9-6, will travel to Indianapolis tomorrow night in the last regular season game of the year and would advance with a victory. The Titans have not won at Indianapolis since 2002.
A Titans’ loss would mean Cleveland would take the final American Conference berth no matter how the Browns fare earlier in the day against San Francisco.
Tennessee was in a similar situation last season but lost to New England 40-22 and missed the playoffs.
The defending Super Bowl champion Colts (13-2), will be the second seed in this season’s playoffs but would have to play a conference final at New England should they and the Patriots each win their home playoff game next month after a first-round bye.
The Washington Redskins have been the big shock, winning three games in a row to control their playoff hopes after losing their first game following the death of star defender Sean Taylor.
“I think once we got our angel up situated in heaven, he gave us all the strength in the world,” Redskins running back Clinton Portis said.
The Redskins (8-7) play host to National Conference top seed Dallas (13-2) in a meeting of arch-rivals that will see the Cowboys rest many of their top players since the team has playoff home-field advantage.
A victory sends the Redskins into the playoffs, where they could play at Dallas in two weeks. If Washington loses, the Minnesota Vikings (8-7) can advance by winning at Denver (6-9).
Should the Redskins and Vikings both lose, the door is open for the New Orleans Saints, who are 7-8 but who would be tie-breaker winners if they win at Chicago and the Vikings and Redskins both falter.
Schedule: Tonight: New York Giants v New England Patriots, 1.15am (Sun); Tomorrow: Atlanta v Seattle, 6pm; Green Bay v Detroit, 6pm; Cleveland v San Francisco, 6pm; Houston v Jacksonville, 6pm; Tampa Bay v Carolina, 6pm; Philadelphia v Buffalo, 6pm; Chicago v New Orleans, 6pm; Miami v Cincinnati, 6pm; Washington v Dallas, 9.15pm; New York Jets v Kansas City Chiefs, 9.15pm; Arizona Cardinals v St Louis Rams, 9.15pm; Oakland Raiders v San Diego Chargers, 9.15pm; Denver Broncos v Minnesota Vikings, 9.15pm; Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers, 9.15pm; Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans, 1.15am (Mon).
Play-off schedule - Jan. 5-6: Wild-card playoffs; Jan 12-13: Divisional playoffs; Jan 20: Conference championships; Feb 3: Super Bowl, Glendale, Arizona.