There will be no rings or trophies handed out after Sunday's game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. The winner won't even be assured a trip to the Super Bowl - there's another game to be played before that.
Yet in the end, this game could be worthier of that name than any contest between now and the first weekend in February. Forget halftime extravaganzas and trips to Disney World: This game features a coach whose game plan looks more like organic chemistry than X's and O's, a quarterback so smart his helmet should have electrodes, and two teams with only one loudmouth between them - and he's a kicker.
On a cold New England day, it could be football to chap the lips and warm the heart: a budding rivalry, a dose of adversity, a sense of team, and a supersize portion of football genius. If the Super Bowl is sport as spectacle, perhaps Sunday will be Football as It Ought to Be Played.
Start with Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The image of Tom Landry, he is not. In press conferences, he grunts with the enthusiasm of a musk ox. On the sideline, his array of sweatshirts makes him the coach most likely to be selected for "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."
But beneath the grumpy exterior, Belichick is every bit the Landry or Don Shula of his era. In a time when football has become full-contact calculus - with increasingly complex plays - Belichick is the gridiron's mad scientist, drawing up defenses that could win a Nobel Prize.
It's one reason the Patriots have taken two of the four Super Bowls in the new century. It's also one reason that the Colts haven't. Since 2001, the Colts have played the Patriots five times - and lost each game. In last season's AFC Championship, Belichick's defense seemed like Sanskrit to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw four interceptions.
Again this Sunday, all of Gillette Stadium should distill down to the minds of these two men. On the one side, Manning's memory is a hard drive of stunts and soft zones programmed during hours of film study. And on the other is Belichick, the coach's son who began breaking down Naval Academy game videos at age 11.