Before the New England Patriots could make history, the NFL made it first.
In an unprecedented decision, the league announced Wednesday that CBS and NBC -- and not just NFL Network -- will air Saturday night's finale between the Patriots and New York Giants in a three-way simulcast.
The unexpected move by the NFL, which came under intense pressure from Washington lawmakers in recent days, means any fan will be able to watch the undefeated Patriots try to become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to win every regular-season game.
Saturday's game had become the latest flash point in a bitter carriage dispute between the league and big cable companies -- including Time Warner and Charter -- that refuse to offer NFL Network in basic packages.
The league-owned network, meanwhile, has the broadcast rights to the game as part of its exclusive late-season package.
"We have taken this extraordinary step because it is in the best interest of our fans," Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "What we have seen for the past year is a very strong consumer demand for NFL Network. We appreciate CBS and NBC delivering the NFL Network telecast on Saturday night to the broad audience that deserves to see this potentially historic game. Our commitment to the NFL Network is stronger than ever."
The game, which begins at 5:15 p.m. PST, will be the first three-network simulcast in league history and the first simulcast of any kind of an NFL game since 1967 when CBS and NBC televised Super Bowl I.
In the last few weeks, the league had been staunch in its refusal to share the telecast, even though NFL Network is available in only 40 million homes. ESPN, in contrast, is seen in 96 million homes.
League spokesman Greg Aiello said that, among the league's broadcast partners, CBS and NBC were the most natural fits for the simulcast. NBC has the rights to prime-time games, and, if the game were played during the day, CBS would handle that broadcast.
Also, Aiello said, "Those were the only two networks that contacted us."
Fox spokesman Dan Bell said, "We weren't asked to air the game," when asked why that network was not participating in the simulcast.
The NFL's action came after lawmakers in Washington ratcheted up the pressure so that more fans could see potential gridiron history in the making.
On Christmas Eve, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) delivered a letter to Goodell suggesting the NFL consider using the "flex schedule" -- a progamming device that allows the league to change kickoff times to give NBC the best matchups for its Sunday night broadcasts.
"Electing to air the game on NBC would ensure that every television in America has access to such a historic game," Kerry wrote.
The carriage dispute has its roots in a decision two years ago by NFL owners to keep an eight-game late-season package each year for the league's own network, forfeiting an estimated $400 million TV rights would have brought.
The owners were out to raise NFL Network's profile, but they also raised the ire of fans.
The league has tried to use the games as leverage to push cable systems to give the network space on widely available digital tiers at a relatively high monthly fee of 70 cents per subscriber. Comcast, Charter, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision have largely refused.
Last month, the dispute reached fever pitch when the resurgent Green Bay Packers took on the Dallas Cowboys in a game available only on NFL Network. Yet neither side budged.
Sources said the decision to simulcast Saturday's game was so unexpected that even some high-level executives at CBS and NBC were taken off guard by it.
"We had a unique fan response to a unique game," said Joe Browne, an NFL senior vice president. "So now we're pleased that the telecast will be seen across the country."
Yet as late as last week, NFL Network spokesman Seth Palansky was adamant that no such deal would occur as the Patriots made their bid for history. The chances of the game airing on another channel was "zero," Palansky said.
The league's reversal was welcomed by longtime NFL fan Robert Eakins, who was among the millions of fans whose cable companies don't offer NFL Network. He remembers watching the Super Bowl I simulcast.
"It's all about greed, the NFL's greed," the 58-year-old Garden Grove resident said Wednesday. "And now they've caved -- and that's what you should write. The NFL caved, and we fans are just sitting here laughing at them."
The NFL Network feed will include most of the network's pre-sold commercials, and CBS and NBC will be able to sell advertising during 18 commercial slots that typically would be filled by local cable systems.
Wednesday's move closes a particularly bitter episode but does not end the feud.
Cable companies contend the NFL has dramatically overestimated consumer demand. "Only a very small fraction of 1% of our disconnects for the past year are NFL Network-related," Time Warner Cable spokeswoman Maureen Huff said recently.