If there's a litmus test for America's latest form of patriotism, today is it.
In the kind of attention that could warm the local frozen stiff, Iowa-confined presidential candidates, three television networks -- four if you live in the Boston or New York area -- are broadcasting the much ballyhooed New England Patriots-New York Giants matchup tonight in a game utterly devoid of NFL postseason implications but potentially huge ones for ratings on a usually sleepy viewing night.
"It's almost like a presidential address," said Seth Palansky, a spokesman for the NFL Network. "You flip the channel and the Patriots will basically be what's on."
In an otherwise dismal year for network television, professional football has been among its few bright spots. In particular, the nationwide interest in the Patriots' pursuit of perfection has helped ease some of the network pain of a fall season that failed to produce a single bona fide hit drama or comedy and was capped off by a damaging writers strike.
In fact, seven of the 10 most-watched shows on television over the last four months have been NFL football games -- the top three all being games featuring the Patriots. Only the season premiere of CBS' "CSI" and two episodes of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" have broken into the Top 10 during this time period that covers the pro football season.
The Patriots are seeking to become only the second team in the modern era to go undefeated in the regular season (the 1972 Miami Dolphins were the other). Until Wednesday, the plan was to show the potentially historic game exclusively on the NFL Network. But the NFL bowed to intense political pressure, notably from 2004 presidential hopeful Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), earlier this week and agreed to simulcast the game on CBS and NBC, which are already league broadcast partners.
The unprecedented move means that, instead of the game being shown in about 50 million homes, it will now be seen in 113 million. The game is the first three-network simulcast in league history and the first simulcast of an NFL game since 1967, when CBS and NBC televised Super Bowl I.
The highly unusual decision grabbed national headlines and uncustomarily landed the NFL on the front pages of Hollywood's trade publications. The fanfare is as much a testament to the NFL's ongoing ratings might as it is to the incredible season of the Patriots.
Last month, the Patriots-Indianapolis Colts game drew about 33.8 million viewers and the highest television ratings for a regular-season NFL broadcast on any network since 1987. Meanwhile, ESPN's Monday-night game between the Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens earlier this month set a record for cable TV. That game averaged 17.5 million viewers, breaking the previous mark of 17.2 for the premiere of the Disney Channel movie "High School Musical 2" in August.
While Saturday's game means nothing in getting to the Super Bowl -- unless a key player is injured -- it still could be packed with historical significance for stat-happy fans. Among the records that could fall include the ones for single-season touchdown passes, touchdown catches and highest team scoring totals. The high-octane Patriots offense, powered by quarterback Tom Brady's arm, has scored as readily against opponent secondaries as it has with television audiences across the country.
Beyond the offensive fireworks and the pursuit of perfection, viewers have no doubt been drawn to the Patriots by their taciturn, media-loathing, sweatshirt-hooded coach, Bill Belichick. After being caught violating league rules by videotaping the hand signals of an opposing team, the revered-as-much-as-hated New England coach was personally fined $500,000 and the team lost a top draft pick for next season. Belichick has used the black mark to motivate his team to run up huge scores on opponents all season long.
The simulcast is expected to draw big numbers, but exactly how big won't be known until Jan. 2, said Palansky. The game itself will be called by Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth.
There's a chance Don Shula, coach of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, will be brought into the booth if the Patriots are winning handily in the fourth quarter, added Palansky. Shula suggested earlier this year there should be an asterisk by the Patriots if they remain unbeaten because of the videotaping scandal. He later backed off those remarks.
For those who can't wait until kickoff at 5:15 p.m. Pacific time, the NFL Network is expanding its originally planned pregame show from two hours to six.
"It will be the longest pregame show ever assembled," said Palansky. "And that includes the Super Bowls."