There will be no rings or trophies handed out after Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. The winner won't even be assured a trip to the Super Bowl - there's another game to be played before that.
Yet in the end, this game could be worthier of that name than any contest between now and the first weekend in February. Forget halftime extravaganzas and trips to Disney World: This game features a coach whose game plan looks more like organic chemistry than X's and O's, a quarterback so smart his helmet should have electrodes, and two teams with only one loudmouth between them - and he's a kicker.
On a cold New England day, it could be football to chap the lips and warm the heart: a budding rivalry, a dose of adversity, a sense of team, and a supersize portion of football genius. If the Super Bowl is sport as spectacle, perhaps Sunday will be Football as It Ought to Be Played.
Start with Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The image of Tom Landry, he is not. In press conferences, he grunts with the enthusiasm of a musk ox. On the sideline, his array of sweatshirts makes him the coach most likely to be selected for "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
But beneath the grumpy exterior, Belichick is every bit the Landry or Don Shula of his era. In a time when football has become full-contact calculus - with increasingly complex plays - Belichick is the gridiron's mad scientist, drawing up defenses that could win a Nobel Prize.
It's one reason the Patriots have taken two of the four Super Bowls in the new century. It's also one reason that the Colts haven't. Since 2001, the Colts have played the Patriots five times - and lost each game. In last season's AFC Championship, Belichick's defense seemed like Sanskrit to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw four interceptions.
Again this Sunday, all of Gillette Stadium should distill down to the minds of these two men. On the one side, Manning's memory is a hard drive of stunts and soft zones programmed during hours of film study. And on the other is Belichick, the coach's son who began breaking down Naval Academy game videos at age 11.
Whatever Belichick concocts, Manning must unravel. "That's what I like about this matchup," says Peter King of Sports Illustrated. "There's going to be something that Belichick comes up with that none of us [will] know until 10 minutes into the game."
It has already made for interesting theater. During the 2003 regular season, the Colts lost to the Patriots when they failed to score in four attempts from the one-yard line late in the game. Earlier this season, they lost to the Patriots again when their kicker missed a last-second field goal.
For Manning and his coach, it has merely added to the charge that has followed both since they entered the league: They can't win the big game. Coach Tony Dungy took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the cusp of the Super Bowl. But they didn't make it there until the year after he was fired - when they won it. Meanwhile, Manning had never won a playoff game before last season.
Yet while the weight of history is heavy on the Colts, the weight of circumstances is threatening to sink the Patriots. Heading into a game against the quarterback who recently set the record for touchdown passes in a season, the Patriots defense is hobbled by injuries. The situation has gotten so dire that Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt quipped that the Patriots are "ripe for the picking."
But such a combustible comment hardly fits these teams. At a time when tacky behavior is all too common in sports, the members of the Colts and Patriots are a cut above.
When Manning began incorporating other receivers to improve the Colt offense, all-pro receiver Marvin Harrison stayed silent as his stats declined. For their part, the Patriots forged their current identity in 2002, when they refused to be introduced individually during the Super Bowl pre-game show, instead coming out as a team.
On Sunday, the Patriots will have an opportunity to cement that they are indeed the team of the decade. The Colts will have another shot at redemption. Yet whatever happens, Sunday will probably not be the end of it. As other teams bounce up and down in the uncertainty of the salary-cap era, the Patriots and Colts have carved out a level of consistency.
"Both will be on the shortlist of contenders," says Joe Horrigan of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "I see no indication of change in the future, and that's good for football."