The New England Patriots' previous visit to Giants Stadium had produced a scandal, when an assistant was caught illegally taping opposition play signals. But their return trip sealed a triumph for the ages the first perfect regular NFL season in 35 years, and a string of individual performances that rewrote the American pro football record book.
Saturday night's game against the New York Giants could have been an anti-climactic afterthought. After all, the Patriots had long since clinched the AFC East and home-field advantage in the playoffs, and the Giants too were sure of a post-season spot. If either or both had rested star players for the chase to the Super Bowl, no one could have complained.
Instead they produced a full-strength, full-hearted thriller, a duel in which history trumped common sense. The Patriots secured the victory that rounded off a 16-0 season, but only after a titanic struggle in which they were behind 21-16 at half-time, only to reel off 22 unanswered points in the third and fourth quarters to emerge with a 38-35 win.
And the figures tell only a fraction of the story. Led by quarterback Eli Manning and his four touchdown passes, the Giants gave the Patriots their biggest scare of the season. Even when New England had opened up a 38-28 lead, the Giants produced a final touchdown with a minute to play.
Could perfection yet be denied? No, for these Patriots had destiny on their shoulder. They recovered an onside kick and ran out the clock to secure their place alongside the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the last team undefeated in the regular season (though then the season consisted of 14 games, not the 16 of today).
In the meantime other records tumbled. With the victory, New England overtook the 1998 Minnesota Vikings to become the highest scoring team in NFL history. Quarterback Tom Brady set a new NFL season mark with 50 touchdown passes, while wide receiver Randy Moss broke the regular season mark for touchdown catches with 23.
The telepathic Brady-Moss understanding has been the hallmark of this all-conquering team, and fittingly the pair delivered the play against the Giants that put the Patriots ahead for good early in the fourth quarter. Moss hurtled down the right touchline to collect a Brady pass and ease into the endzone. By the end Brady had completed 32 of 42 passes for 356 yards, while Moss had 100 receiving yards.
But the question is, now what? The Patriots are already to the first decade of the 21st century what the Dallas Cowboys were to the 1990s, the San Francisco 49ers to the 1980s and the Pittsburgh Steelers to the 1970s. The Cowboys share with the Patriots the distinction of winning three Super Bowls in four seasons. But even the juggernaut 90s Cowboys of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith never achieved a perfect regular season.
A Patriots triumph in Super Bowl XLII on 3 February in Phoenix would set them on a pedestal of their own. Not only would they have matched the Dolphins' perfect season of 1972, when Miami captured the Super Bowl as well. They would also have collected four championships in seven years, an extended dominance that would make a mockery of the determined egalitarianism of the NFL.
From the weighting of the draft to the arrangement of the schedule, from the salary cap system and free agency rules for star players, the League is structured to offer everybody a chance of winning. Despite this, the Patriots have built a dynasty.