For the past six days, the city of Cod has been celebrating Fish Week. Not fish week as in your basic broiled entree (drawn butter, side order of beans). Fish week as in "Squish the Fish" -- an exhortation adorning thousands of T-shirted torsos from Beacon Hill to Boston Garden.

Never mind that the species in question (the dolphin, as in Miami Dolphin) is actually a mammal. When the New England Patriots qualified for tomorrow's AFC championship game with a win last weekend over the Los Angeles Raiders, fine zoological distinctions went right out the window -- along with 25 years of fan frustration, a shaky franchise's inferiority complex and the sanity and decorum of most of Greater Boston. Those T-shirts might have urged the team to "Strangle the Mammal," after all, but that's a slogan that could just as easily apply to, say, a ram or a bear. And for now, anyway, the upstart Patriots and their rabid followers are stalking more elusive -- and finnier -- game.

"This place is so high right now, that if the Patriots beat Miami, they could own this city," says Boston stockbroker and author John Spooner. "The Celtics have always been the one team in town that has shown heart, and that's why all the others look like stiffs by comparison. Now the Pats are showing heart, too, and they've got everyone whipped up into a frenzy about it.

"If they win Sunday, they could lead an armed insurrection through the Back Bay."

"I'm not much of a pro football fan," adds Tommy Leonard, famed Eliot Lounge bartender and guru to the Boston Marathon brigade, "but there's a pretty incredible feeling around here now. A couple of days ago, between the Patriots' rally at City Hall and the $22 million Megabucks drawing, you'd have thought Christmas had been extended an extra week."

In fact, while Chicago sharpens its claws and Los Angeles hones its horns in preparation for their own pre-Super Bowl showdown, Boston has taken off on the wildest fishing expedition this city has seen since Doug Flutie harpooned the Heisman. In a broadcast area that already leads the known universe in call-in sports talk shows, local radio stations have seen their switchboards come down with terminal cases of Pats Fever.

They're not the only ones showing symptoms of the disease. One Boston TV station recently ran a Name-the-Patriots-Defense contest (the winner being Red Tide, by a whisker over the New England Slambake). All devoted precious minutes at the top of Thursday evening's newscast to wide receiver Irving Fryar's alleged accident with a kitchen knife. They devoted many more yesterday when reports surfaced that Fryar's injury resulted from a domestic dispute.

Hub travel agencies, meanwhile, have been booking anything that moves south, hoping their preferred customers won't wind up begging for tickets in the Orange Bowl parking lot. Says Million Air Charter Co.'s Joseph Quinn, "If you think this is crazy, wait till the Super Bowl. We've already gotten one call from a company that wants to charter a 727 to fly down to New Orleans. Those planes cost $43,000 to rent and seat 119 people."

Any way you slice it, the Patriots' bandwagon is in high gear.

That bandwagon shifted into overdrive on Wednesday during a noontime rally at City Hall Plaza. Even though the team hadn't won anything more than the right to put an 18-game losing streak in Miami on the line, 30,000 of the reborn faithful turned out to wish them well on their way to Florida.

In weather reminiscent of Green Bay in February, Brahmin lawyers and East Boston shipyard workers stood side by side -- some stripped down a full layer below T-shirts -- to scream encouragement at their once woebegone heroes. Braving the elements sans topcoat, Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn predicted that the Patriots would "soon join the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox as world champions." It was only later that someone pointed out to Flynn that the Red Sox had not held such a title since 1918, or roughly the same year the Patriots last prevailed in the Orange Bowl.

The mayor, his people explained, had actually been referring to "future" Sox championships. That brand of sunny optimism sounded all too familiar to long-suffering Boston baseball fans, who, like their pigskin counterparts, have come to think of "wait'll next year" as less a rallying cry than a religion. Still, no one seemed in the mood to quibble with hizzoner -- or anyone else -- over minor points of fact. As far as Boston is concerned, next year is now, and faith has been redeemed.

"All my patients are talking football now," said Bill Lenkaitis, a local dentist who once toiled in the trenches for a succession of hapless Pats squads. "Everywhere I go, that's all people want to talk about. And this is January, not September."

"I don't even like football, but sure, I'm watching the game," said Russell Gaudreau, senior partner with the venerable Back Bay law firm of Ropes & Gray. "It's exciting. And besides, our firm represents the Sullivan family interests."

If there was one sour note around town, indeed, it resounded over members of that same Sullivan family, who at the beginning of this season of glory put the team up for sale and who over the last 10 years has shown an uncanny knack for alienating management from the team and the fans from management.

The latest straw piled on that camel's back was the performance of General Manager Pat Sullivan (son of owner Billy Sullivan) during the Raider contest. Young Pat chose to prowl the sidelines throughout the game, baiting the despised Los Angeles players, particularly Charlestown-born defensive end Howie Long. Following the final gun, Long and teammate Matt Millen returned the favor by breaking Sullivan's nose. Embarrassed by antics they saw as detracting from the team's greatest victory, many fans openly derided Sullivan as "bush" and "a sore winner." Nobody, however, was heard to complain about the winner part.

"I just want to say one thing," offered veteran defensive lineman Julius Adams from the steps of City Hall. "We're gonna go down there and rip their faces off!"

Inspired by such lofty rhetoric, the crowd focused on the sheer novelty of celebrating anything having to do with the Patriots in championship contention. Gone (if not entirely forgotten) were visions of the fumbled punts, the errant place kicks, the touchdown passes called back for holding penalties that had solidified the Patriots' reputation as a team long on promise and even longer on self-destruction.

Retrieved instead, if only for nostalgia's sake, were memories of players like Bob (Harpo) Gladieux, who was once cut from the team only to be summoned back from the grandstands by the public address announcer so he could suit up and return the opening kickoff; of former coach Chuck Fairbanks, who deserted the team on the eve of a rare playoff appearance for a short-lived job at the University of Colorado; and of John Deere, a lowly tractor employed for emergency snow removal purposes just prior to a game-winning field goal against Miami.

There was even passing mention of the Spirits of New England, the winsome cheerleading squad summarily dismissed a year ago by the Sullivan family over a workman's compensation suit involving a collision between a pompon waver and a home-team halfback.

So much attention was being paid to so many facets of Patriots trivia, in fact, that one wondered what would be left for New England to talk about if the team actually beat the Dolphins and had two weeks to languish before the Super Bowl. Would the players' agents host their own rally? Would Pat Sullivan fight Marvelous Marvin Hagler or seek an audience with the pope? From New Hampshire to Newbury Street, minds were reeling.

One of those minds belongs to WBZ-TV news reporter Andy Hiller. "My problem is, I don't know how to bet anymore," laments Hiller. "All season long I was betting against the Patriots. Now that I desperately want them to win, I can't put money on them. I'm afraid the whole key to their season so far has been my betting pattern. And I'd be heartbroken if I screwed them up now."

Win or lose tomorrow, it remains to be seen whether the Patriots' current success will elevate them to the same status the Red Sox and Celtics enjoy in the hearts of all Bostonians. That kind of affection takes both time and proximity to develop, and the Pats have not had much of either.

Though they once played in Fenway Park (as well as Harvard Stadium and the home fields of both Boston College and Boston University), their present home is in Foxboro, Mass., 25 miles south of the city. The stadium itself is a charmless cement bowl, and over the years, it has hosted more than its share of beer-induced brawls and 15-mile traffic jams. For Sullivan Stadium to become trendy to the old guard of Boston sporting society would take a measure of passion beyond anything yet seen here.

On the other hand, with city officials and private developers now debating myriad proposals for renovating the Boston Garden site, perhaps the Patriots will soon have an option nobody would have dared dream of back in October. Someone may yet come up with a plan that will set a football stadium on top of the new garden, thereby allowing Pats players to literally perform in the same neighborhood as Bill Russell, Bobby Orr and Larry Bird. That would be the kind of deep symbol that Boston fans have always shown a hankering for.

Then again, if New England wins tomorrow, they could stick it on top of the aquarium.