It was the fourth quarter, and the New England Patriots were rolling to their 17th consecutive victory two Sundays ago when Adam Vinatieri began to pick up a familiar refrain:
The Patriots kicker and hero of two Super Bowl victories laughed to himself. He'd heard this before, of course, even at his team's own stadium.
But this was different. This was at Sun Devil Stadium. This was in Tempe, Ariz., a land as far away and different from New England as a cactus is from a cup of chowder.
"I hear it all the time," Vinatieri said with a laugh.
He paused and offered a truism.
"This is a baseball town."
Actually, it's a baseball region. Red Sox Nation. After nine seasons with the Patriots, even Vinatieri, a native South Dakotan, counts himself as a citizen. He reached into his locker one recent morning and pulled out his proof of citizenship -- a Red Sox cap.
These are heady times for the Patriots. They have won two of the last three Super Bowls -- Vinatieri kicked the winning field goals in both -- and the word "dynasty is being thrown around. By the time they play again Sunday (they had a bye last week), they will have gone more than a calendar year without a loss. They are one victory away from tying the all-time mark for consecutive wins (including playoffs).
The Patriots have a sparkling new stadium. They have played before 107 consecutive sellout crowds and have a season-ticket waiting list of more than 50,000.
Yes, the Pats are big.
But not as big as the Red Sox, a team that plays in a cramped, 92-year-old ballpark and doesn't come close to matching the Patriots' recent success.
"They've won two championships," Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein said. "We'd kill for one."
In New England, people love their Patriots.
But they live for their Red Sox.
So says Ken Casey, a Red Sox diehard who counts himself as a fan of both teams.
"Your dad took you to Red Sox games and his dad took him to Red Sox games," said Casey, a bassist and vocalist for the Dropkick Murphys, the popular Boston-based punk band. "It's going to take more than two Super Bowl championships to overtake all these years of tradition.
"Undeniably, the Red Sox are the biggest team in town. They always have been. To think that the Celtics won all those championships (16) and that didn't cement them as No. 1 just shows you this is a baseball town."
After winning Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII, Boston police estimated that 1.2 million and 1.5 million people, respectively, lined the city streets for the championship parades.
No one doubts those numbers could double if the Red Sox ever break their 85-year World Series championship drought.
"I can't say for sure, but I can't imagine anything matching this mania," said Terry Francona, the Red Sox' first-year manager. "People are nuts about this team."
Two nuts, Bobby and Peter Farrelly, the Rhode Island moviemakers who did "There's Something About Mary, "Dumb and Dumber, and the masterpiece "Outside Providence," have spent part of the last week at Fenway Park, filming scenes for "Fever Pitch, a romantic comedy in which a woman (Drew Barrymore) competes with the Red Sox for the attention of her Sox-crazed boyfriend (Jimmy Fallon).
The last time we checked, there were no movies being filmed about obsessed Patriots fans.
"The last couple of years, there has been a minority of football zealots trying to delude themselves into thinking that two championships have made this a football town," said Bob Ryan, the longtime Boston Globe columnist. "They're kidding themselves.
"Football is very important, more important than it's ever been, and it's nice to have around. But the Sox are still most important. This is the last great American town of baseball supremacy. This and maybe St. Louis."
Ryan remembers when the Patriots were No. 4 on the depth chart. It all changed when Bill Parcells became coach in 1993 and later when Robert Kraft bought the team in 1994.
"Now, the Patriots approach 1-A," Ryan said. "But they are definitely No. 2 -- a strong 2 -- like Pedro (Martinez) is to (Curt) Schilling."
Patriots officials concede that the Red Sox are the top obsession of New England sports fans, but they are happy to be on the rise.
"The fact that we're even part of the debate is light-years ahead of where we were 10 years ago," said Stacey James, the Patriots' director of media relations.
"New England fans are passionate," Vinatieri said. "There's room for both teams."
Kraft likened the following of both teams to parenthood.
"Like our children, we love each of our teams individually and are loyal in our support of them," he said.
If the Patriots had a complaint about attention, it might be directed at the local media, which smother the Red Sox in coverage. On Sept. 20, after New England's win in Arizona, USA Today ran pictures of the Patriots on its front page and the cover of the sports section. The cover of the Boston Globe's sports page was dominated by the Red Sox' game against the Yankees.
Patriots players have noticed they are No. 2 on the media's depth chart.
In January, at media day during Super Bowl week, John Tomase of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune sat down for an interview with Patriots receiver Bethel Johnson.
"Where are you from?" Johnson asked.
"Boston," Tomase answered.
"I don't recognize you," Johnson said.
Tomase explained that he usually covered the Red Sox and was just helping out on the Super Bowl.
"The [expletive] Red Sox!" Johnson huffed. "They're the reason no one cares about us."
Columnist Jim Donaldson of the Providence Journal says the Patriots are taken for granted in New England.
"They've done it and the Red Sox haven't," he said. "The Red Sox and their angst and their 85 years of frustration are the story.
"There's such a focus on the Red Sox because you can gripe about them. How are you going to gripe about the Patriots? The coach [Bill Belichick] is a genius, the quarterback [Tom Brady] is a great guy, they have great team chemistry, and they win all the time."
Epstein, the Red Sox' general manager, who is a Boston native and an avid Patriots fan, occasionally shakes his head over the intense coverage his team gets.
"Sometimes I'll pick up the sports section and get a little embarrassed," he acknowledged. "We would have won two of three against a team we should have swept, and the Pats will have had a big win against a tough team, and we're above the fold and they're below the fold. It's not right."
Last winter, as the Patriots were driving to the Super Bowl, Epstein would cringe when he picked up the paper and saw that the Red Sox were getting bigger headlines in their pursuits of Schilling, Keith Foulke and Alex Rodriguez.
"I tried to tell the media to cover the freakin' Pats once in a while," Epstein said. "At the winter meetings, I told some of the writers to leave me alone and give the Pats the ink they deserve.
"If this were a meritocracy, the Pats would get more attention than us because they deserve it. We get a lot of attention, but we're really trying to follow their lead."
Red Sox mania even astounds writers who regularly cover the team.
"From April to October, you can walk into any restaurant, bar or store and it blows you away -- everyone is talking about baseball," said Jeff Horrigan of the Boston Herald. "It's almost to the point where you want to say, 'Hey, let up a little. It's not life and death.' "
But it's awfully important, this pursuit of a first World Series title since 1918, when Babe Ruth was a 23-year-old pitcher and outfielder for the Red Sox.
The Red Sox spent $125 million putting this year's team together. The desperation for a World Series title has, to quote the moviemaking Farrelly brothers, reached a fever pitch. The team played before its 145th straight sellout crowd Sunday. Players are wearing T-shirts under their uniforms that say, "The Time is Now."
"Maybe this is the year," said Casey, the musician, echoing words that have been spoken for decades.
Casey and the rest of the Dropkick Murphys begin a tour in Japan in early November.
"We've taken the entire month of October off, just in case this is the year," Casey said.
Down in Foxboro, where the Patriots play, no one is taking October off. If the Patriots beat the Bills on Sunday in Buffalo, they will go for the record, 19 consecutive wins, the following week at home against Miami.
Will anyone notice if the Red Sox are still alive?
"I don't really care about the streak," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "We've only won two games. Those other games were last year.
"This is crunch time in baseball. People are excited about the Red Sox. I'm excited, too. But they'll be just as excited for us when we get rolling."