The final weekend of the NFL regular season will be a curious mix of the New England Patriots chasing history, two other teams trying to win their way into the playoffs and just about everyone else simply awaiting a predetermined fate.

It's not exactly the sort of wild, anything-can-happen culmination of four months of play that league officials envision annually when they draw up the schedule. The biggest question in many NFL cities this week is whether the local team will &

or should &

sit its key starters this weekend to keep them healthy and rested for the playoffs.

But the league at least has the Patriots attempting to complete the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history when they face the New York Giants Saturday night at Giants Stadium. It was to be the potentially historic game that practically no one got to see when it was to be carried only by the league-owned NFL Network, which remains in disputes with several large cable companies over pricing and distribution and is in only about 35 million U.S. households. But now it's the game that no one can miss, with the league announcing Wednesday that the NFL Network telecast also will be carried by NBC and CBS in the sport's first nationwide simulcast since Super Bowl I.

After reaching 15-0 with Sunday's triumph over the Miami Dolphins, even the tight-lipped, one-step-at-a-time Patriots loosened up a bit this week and acknowledged that an unblemished regular season record would be meaningful to them.

"Being 16-0 would be a very special achievement, one that no other team has ever achieved," quarterback Tom Brady said during a midweek meeting with reporters. "And we're finally at that point."

The 1972 Dolphins remain the only unbeaten team in NFL history, finishing the regular season 14-0 and then going on to win three more games in the postseason, capped by a 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl. When other clubs threatened in recent years to finish the regular season 16-0, the conventional wisdom around the league was that it was a next-to-impossible task in today's NFL, with great teams being ripped apart by free agency and the salary cap.

"It's a great accomplishment," Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said during a news conference this week. "I tip my hat to the coaches, the front office people and the players. It's unbelievable to do that and really, for the most part, in convincing fashion."

The Patriots also have a chance to rewrite the record book Saturday night. Brady is one touchdown pass shy of Peyton Manning's single-season league record of 49. Wide receiver Randy Moss is one touchdown catch away from Jerry Rice's record of 22. The Patriots are five points away from the single-season scoring record of 556 set by the Minnesota Vikings in 1998.

"I'd hate to think that we'd go out there and not put our best out there this week, so we've got to bring energy and excitement," Brady said.

Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has given no sign that he intends to ease off even with his club having clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Brady, Moss and other key Patriots players likely will be on the field Saturday night unless they build a comfortable lead and Belichick decides to rest them. But even the Patriots-Giants game probably will have an odd look and feel to it, for it's the Giants who could put a diminished lineup on the field.

The Giants, whether they win or lose against the Patriots, will play a first-round NFC playoff game in Tampa against the Buccaneers the following weekend. They don't have the luxury, like the Patriots do, of knowing that a first-round playoff bye would give any players hurt Saturday night two weeks to heal before the postseason.

So Coach Tom Coughlin likely will sit wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who has played on a bad ankle all season. He also could sit quarterback Eli Manning and tailback Brandon Jacobs. And a Giants team that has some of the elements necessary to challenge the Patriots, including superb pass rushers in defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, might be rendered a far less menacing opponent. Brady, who had lobbied to stay in the Patriots' lineup earlier this season, jokingly did some lobbying this week for the Giants' lineup to be adjusted.

"Definitely Strahan and Osi should take the weekend off," Brady said. "I'd rest them, I know that. I definitely would not play those two. ... Coach Coughlin, if you're listening, definitely rest those guys."

Who plays and who doesn't could determine the outcome of several games this weekend. The Redskins need a victory Sunday to clinch a wild-card playoff berth in the NFC and probably will get to face a lesser version of the Dallas Cowboys, who secured home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs last weekend and already are without injured wide receiver Terrell Owens. The Tennessee Titans can get the final postseason berth in the AFC with a triumph Sunday night at Indianapolis, and likely will see plenty of Colts backup quarterback Jim Sorgi instead of Peyton Manning.

In the NFC, the top five playoff teams are locked into their seedings. In the AFC, the San Diego Chargers need a win to secure the No. — seed and keep the Pittsburgh Steelers fourth. With so little undetermined for the postseason, coaches are reluctant to expose their most important players to the risk of injuries this weekend.

"You know when you start seeing your players carried off, you have emotions that go through you," Gruden said, "It's not an easy decision, but it's one that needed to be made."

Cowboys Coach Wade Phillips vowed to try to beat the Redskins &

but not necessarily with Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo on the field.

"We're gonna do what's best for the team," Phillips said. The players "know that. Who plays, who doesn't play, all those things &

I told them, even the guys that are not playing, it's not personal. It's just what we decide is best for the team. I think they're fine with whatever we decide."