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The moment of truth

The teams are headed to the bunker. When they awaken on Saturday, they will escape the hype and go into lockdown. You will see Sal Paolantonio do a live standup from the Houston Inter-Continental Hotel describing the team's boarding of busses to travel to an undisclosed hotel outside the area to escape their families and the hoards of Patriots fans clogging the hotel lobby and just about every other nook and cranny near the hotel and streaming over into the city. It's a good thing, too, because the team hotel has become chaos.

There is no more media access. Tomorrow there will be no more fan access. There is just one thing left – Super Bowl XXXVIII.

"It's certainly the moment of truth for the whole year right here in one game," Head Coach Bill Belichick said on Friday as he stood a few feet from the sparkling Vince Lombardi Trophy that neither he nor John Fox dared to touch the way Mike Martz did two years ago. "When you get to this point in the season and two teams play in the final game, I think there's a big difference in the end of the season for the two teams, for the winner and the loser."

The outcome of the game has a ripple effect on perception. Two Super Bowl championships in three seasons would spark talk of a dynasty, especially with New England's coaching stability and the team's sound financial condition. Bill Belichick would go from a Super Bowl winning coach to being mentioned as a Hall of Fame coach. Tom Brady would continue to evoke Joe Montana comparisons or fall back to the pack. And all this because of one game's outcome. It is truly the moment of truth.

Lose and the 14-game winning streak is a nice piece of Patriots history and nothing more. The season will live forever in team annals, but would be most remembered for the loss on the final day of the season. The implications of this game cannot be overstated. The losing team, as the Panthers have said all week, is roped off and sent to the locker room to be forgotten while the winner celebrates in a rainstorm of confetti, and parties all the way back home and through the city streets. Nobody on the losing team rides with Mickey Mouse.

Belichick was asked Friday about moving into elite status as a head coach and if he's thought about that.

"Not much," he said. "My thoughts are on Carolina and I think that there's always a point later on to reflect on things that have happened in the past and that's great. But right now I don't think this is any time for reflection on anything. I think this is time for performance. This is biggest game of the year. It's what we've worked for from the end of the last day of the season in 2002, the day of the Miami game. I think the only thing anybody is thinking about is playing the Carolina Panthers. That's what's at stake and we haven't accomplished what we're out to accomplish this year until we're able to perform on Sunday."

Notes
Belichick was asked what the Lombardi Trophy stood for and had this to say: "I think what that stands for is the team that played the most consistent, toughest, smartest football for that season." … Commissioner Paul Tagliabue gave his state-of-the-league address and awarded Chiefs guard Will Shields the Walter Payton Award winner as the NFL Man of the Year. He also lauded Houston for its hospitality all week as the host city. … On the topic of assistant coaches who reach the Super Bowl being at a disadvantage in their quest to land a head coaching job, Tagliabue said that he believes that success is what creates opportunity for the coaches and while it may defer their advancement, it ultimately helps then land a head job. That certainly was the not case for Patriots coordinators Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, who just won a Super Bowl two years ago and may have landed one of the head coaching jobs that opened this season had the Patriots not advanced to the Super Bowl this year, causing the coaches to be off limits to other teams with the exception of one interview during the team's bye week a month ago. … The commissioner also was asked about the officiating in the playoffs and said that he believes the officiating was consistent in the regular season through the postseason and that better teams usually commit less infractions which is why fewer penalties are called in the postseason. Speaking directly about the Patriots-Colts game he commented on the Colts incredible offensive success through the first two games and downplayed the impact the officials played in the outcome of the Patriots-Colts game, one that New England employed a very physical defensive style but was called for just three penalties for 15 yards. "The difference is that the New England defense was on the field and not the Kansas City defense." … Speaking of officiating, here is the crew that will work Super Bowl XXXVIII: Referee, Ed Hochuli; umpire, Jeff Rice; head linesman, Mark Hittner; line judge, Ben Montgomery; field judge, Tom Sifferman; side judge, Laird Hayes; back judge, Scott Green.

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