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Dan Shaughnessy

For buildup, you can't beat this

INDIANAPOLIS - The words have all been spoken - even the unspoken words about the unwritten rules of engagement in the National Football League.

It is the league's regular-season Game Of The Last Two Centuries. Exaggeration? I don't think so. Unbeaten teams haven't met this late in a pro football season since the Buffalo All-Americans (6-0) played the Akron Pros (7-0) in November of 1921. That one ended in a 0-0 tie. Old Man River Paul Robeson was a member of the Akron Pros, and I think the late, great Will McDonough did the color commentary for CBS.

It's not likely to be 0-0 when the final whistle blows tonight. We expect Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to empty all chambers, then reload and fire again. Remember those Russell-Chamberlain duels? They'd combine for 60 points and 50 rebounds, shake hands, then promise to do it again soon. Brady-Manning is getting to be a lot like that.

There is simply too much hype and hysteria to digest. The NFL Network is providing 36 hours of pregame coverage and - making you wait an extra hour - America was awarded an extra hour of anticipation when we turned the clocks back last night. Colts coach Tony Dungy likened the matchup to Ali-Frazier. Bill Belichick, naturally, pretty much put it on a par with the Aug. 10 preseason joust at Tampa Bay.

This Week 9 game gets Super Bowl attention because the winner will be in great position to win Uber Game XLII in Glendale, Ariz., Feb. 3. Today's winner stands the best chance to play at home for the AFC Championship, which we all know will be the de facto Super Bowl.

Cutting through the noise, I find two things most amazing:

1. The Patriots are 5 1/2-point favorites. This speaks to the breathtaking brilliance of New England's first half. Think about it: The Patriots are on the road, playing the undefeated defending Super Bowl champs, and New England is favored. Reread that. The math simply doesn't work. It says a lot about the Patriots' eight-game dominance thus far this year.

2. The Colts have won the last three meetings between these teams, including the AFC Championship last January. It's amazing that we are talking about the Patriots as the greatest team of all time (that's what Cris Collinsworth said last week, provided they beat the Colts) when by tonight they could have lost four straight games to the same opponent over the course of 24 months. Doesn't make much sense, does it?

There are many other layers, of course, and we are not talking about Bill Belichick's sweatshirt selection. The Patriots' awesome run this season has come at a price: They are no longer a team worshipped by America's high school football coaches. Spygate forever changed the image of New England's football icons, and the Patriots' reputation took another hit when Rodney Harrison got caught with a banned substance, reportedly HGH. Now we have Belichick's bloodless mission to destroy and humiliate all of his enemies.

Denying the obvious (Belichick is like a kid with powdered sugar all over his face saying, "No, I didn't eat the doughnuts!"), Coach Hoodie is intent on showing the world that he doesn't need to cheat to win, and if he's matched against anyone who dissed him, he'll put Brady in shotgun formation on fourth down in the fourth quarter when the Patriots are ahead by five touchdowns.

To this point, we can only wonder what Coach Bill makes of Dungy's post-Spygate comment, that it was "really a sad day for the NFL."

Belichick probably won't have a chance to run up the score this time. But we know the Patriots hate Colts GM Bill Polian, and Hoodie is no doubt furious with Dungy and his holier-than-thou attitude. Let's not forget that the Patriots are still stinging from blowing a 21-3 lead in the RCA Dome nine months ago.

The Patriots have outscored opponents, 79-7, in the first quarter and have only seven turnovers all season, while averaging 41.4 points. They've won every game by 17 or more, and are on a pace to score 100 more points than any team in league history. In the last three weeks, they have scored 48, 49, and 52 points, the highest three-game total in the NFL since 1950. Brady has 30 touchdown passes to go with two interceptions. But stopping Manning is the most important thing for New England today.

Mr. Cut That Meat was 2-10 against New England after he couldn't put his team in the end zone in the 2005 AFC Championship, but he's outperformed Brady in their last three meetings. Meanwhile Brady has gone a couple of years without a ring and become the QB with the gaudiest of numbers. (What is the football equivalent of 100 points in a game by a single player?) So Russell is Chamberlain and Chamberlain is Russell. And it is what it is.

The kicker is the kicker. Anybody mentioned Adam Vinatieri this week? Hardly. But just about the time folks are getting ready for "60 Minutes," there's a chance that 60 minutes of football might have been decided by the greatest clutch kicker who ever lived, a man who has seen this great rivalry from both sidelines.

Maybe not as memorable as Akron-Buffalo 1921, but it should be pretty good.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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