They will deny it, downplay it and barely acknowledge it, but this Sunday's Patriots-Cowboys game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough is more than your typical inter-conference matchup. It is a battle of 7-2, first place teams to be sure, but it also is a battle between Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, the two long-time colleagues and one-time friends whose relationship was strained three-plus years ago when Belichick broke away from Parcells and his commitment to the New York Jets.
"We worked together for a long time and we shared a mutual respect," Belichick acknowledged of his 15 years working alongside Parcells. "Not all decisions are easy, but as coaches we often have to make difficult choices. There was a lot that went (my decision to leave the Jets) and given the circumstances, I felt I made the right decision."
That is Belichick's explanation for what happened in January of 2000 when, a day after becoming the Jets head coach upon Parcells abrupt retirement, he walked away and fought for his freedom to coach elsewhere despite being contractually obligated to the Jets.
He, of course, accepted the Patriots job a month later when New England agreed to send the Jets a No. 1 draft pick. His relationship with Parcells has never been the same, however. "We have a professional relationship," Belichick said. "We've all moved on with our careers."
Belichick has guided the Patriots to their first ever world championship since the divorce and Parcells has resurrected his fourth franchise since coming out of retirement again this year to coach the Dallas Cowboys.
Now he brings his Cowboys back to Foxborough where he once roamed the sidelines as head coach for four seasons from 1993-1996 before leaving after losing Super Bowl XXXI.
"He's coming back to beat my butt," wideout Troy Brown said. "There's nothing special about that. I'm not looking at how special it is because Bill (Parcells) gave me my chance. There won't be any of that. I'm not playing against Bill. I'm playing against his team. He won't be trying to hit me. He's just coaching and doing everything he can to get his team ready. After the game, you shake hands and do the sportsman thing, but it's football. It's not a reunion."
It may not be a reunion for Brown, but Parcells is 2-0 so far against his former teams, with his Cowboys winning at the Jets and Giants in consecutive games. He'll be going for the hat trick this weekend.
"I know he'll have something for us we haven't seen," said tight end Fred Baxter, who played for Parcells with the Jets and joined Belichick's Patriots last year. "I know exactly what he's talking to the guys in Dallas about and about the team we have here and at the same time, Coach Belichick is doing the same thing here because they are so similar. It will be a great game for the fans with a lot of strategy."
For Belichick, every game is about strategy and execution and this one is no different even though his former boss will be patrolling the visiting sideline.
"We approach every game the same way with the same amount of preparation," Belichick said. "The next game is always the biggest. We won't prepare any differently for this game with the exception that we've had some extra time with the bye. But I'm sure Bill will have Dallas well prepared to play us."
It's a good bet that plenty of preparation will go into this game since the coaches know each other so well, but Belichick correctly surmises that it will be won on the field, not on the sidelines.
"The real challenge is Dallas. Dallas is playing well," Belichick said. "I have a lot of respect for Bill. He is doing a good job with that team. I don't think that's a surprise to anybody. But the team is the matchup. It is about the Patriots and Cowboys. In the end, the players are going to win the games. That's the way it's been all year."
The players for both teams have been winning all year, and the game's importance outweighs any personal duel between Belichick and Parcells. At 7-2, both teams lead their respective divisions, but the second half is when the better teams start jockeying for postseason seeding.
"I think it's an important game to (Belichick)," linebacker Roman Phifer said. "But it's because it's one we need to win. November and December is when your team needs to be winning."
"We're in position," linebacker Tedy Bruschi added. "But now it's up to what we today, tomorrow and through Sunday."
And this Sunday will have a different feel. While the Cowboys bring their top-rated defense to town, the matchup of two coaches who, as of now, are vying for coach of the year honors, is intriguing to say the least.
SERIES HISTORY: 9th meeting. Cowboys lead series 8-1, but Patriots won the last meeting, 13-6, also on a Sunday night, in 1999. The teams first met in 1971 with Dallas scoring its biggest margin of victory in a 44-21 trouncing, it's first of seven straight wins to open the series. Six of the last seven games between the clubs have been decided by a touchdown or less.