FOXBOROUGH - The question was from an out-of-town reporter and it was anathema to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, but it has proven prophetic.
"A lot of people, not just here locally but across the country, are talking about this team having a perfect record this season of 16-0. Is that something that you welcome or strive for?" asked the uninitiated inquisitor Sept. 19, three days after the Patriots had defeated the San Diego Chargers, 38-14, to run their record to 2-0.
"That's so ridiculous," said Belichick. "Seriously, is there anything else? We need to go out and have a good practice today. That's what we need to do. We need to get ready for Buffalo."
But it's not so ridiculous anymore. The moment has arrived. Belichick and the Patriots can complete the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history - the league switched to a 16-game schedule in 1978 - with a victory over the host New York Giants tonight, becoming the fourth team in league history to post an undefeated, untied regular season and the first since the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who had a 14-0 regular season on their way to 17-0 overall.
The prospect of going 16-0 has been the elephant in the locker room the Patriots wouldn't acknowledge . . . until now.
"As focused as we've been answering all these questions in here, it is in the back of our minds what we can achieve," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi, when asked if the Patriots would have an extra adrenaline rush tonight.
"To be undefeated in the [16-game] regular season is something that has never been done before. When you're faced with that, it's a challenge and you want to face that challenge and achieve it. I think that will all be in the back of our minds, and of course all the attention to this game, being on three different networks. But how do we win the game? We have to focus on the Giants and what we have to do to stop them."
No one has been able to stop New England as it has posted an average margin of victory of 20.8 points, scoring a league-best 36.7 points per game while allowing only 15.9 per game, tied for tops in the league. But talk of 16-0 was verboten until this week.
That wasn't a surprise to Giants quarterback Eli Manning. In 2005, Manning's older brother, Peyton, quarterbacked the Indianapolis Colts to a 13-0 start. Eli said 16-0 wasn't a topic of conversation with his brother.
"No, I never really spoke to him at that time about it," said the Giants quarterback. "It's one of those deals maybe like a guy that's throwing a no-hitter, you don't talk about it at the time. You try to go unnoticed and treat everything the same. Even afterwards, he didn't make a big deal about it. He had other things and the most important thing was the playoffs, so I never really spoke to him about that."
New England had taken the same position, but now history is within its reach. The Patriots, who have clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs and a first-round bye, have made it clear they intend to play for 16-0.
The Patriots could set other records in the process. Randy Moss needs two touchdown catches to break Jerry Rice's record of 22, set in the strike-shortened 1987 season. Tom Brady needs two touchdown passes to surpass Peyton Manning's mark of 49, set in 2004. The Patriots, who have scored 551 points, need just 6 to break the NFL record set by the 1998 Minnesota Vikings.
But Brady has made it clear the only record he cares about is 16-0.
"If you take any energy away from that as a goal, then you're really not doing yourself or your team any justice," he said. "Maybe when you look back at the end of your career you look at those things and it's a cool thing to have, but everything I've experienced in the NFL and the greatest moments I've had is not when you throw five touchdown passes. It's when you win championships."
Locked into the No. 5 seed as a wild card in the NFC playoffs, the Giants have nothing to gain by beating the Patriots, but have made it clear they don't plan on being the foil for New England's football first. New York doesn't see tonight's game as David vs. Goliath.
"They are an outstanding football team, but they are not so far ahead of everybody else," Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora told the New York Daily News in yesterday's editions. "Nobody in the NFL wants to see them go undefeated. If they do go undefeated, they are going to be known as that team that was just that much better than everybody else. I don't want to see that."
More motivation for the Patriots, not that they need it.
Although the Patriots may have changed their approach to dealing with questions about perfection, they're not changing their approach to achieving it.
"We're all right in the middle of this right now and it's our next game, so this week, right now, I look at it as possibly achieving a victory over the Giants," said Bruschi. "I think being in the middle of it in this locker room, that's the way we have to approach it. It's worked up to this point, so why change it?"
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.