Why the NFL Is Still No. 1

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Left; Fort Worth Star-Telegram / MCT / Landov; Nell Redmond / UPI / Landov

Left, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning

If there were ever any doubt about football's unchallenged place as the most popular pro sport in America, consider this fact: more people will watch this Sunday's regular-season showdown between the league's two undefeated teams, the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, than watch a typical World Series and NBA Finals game combined.

And the end of this year's Fall Classic and the start of the NBA season shows us part of the reason why: unlike baseball and basketball, the gridiron's most transcendent talents aren't Refrigerator Perry-sized pains in the rear.

After all, while Patriots quarterback Tom Brady assaults the gaudy single-season passing records set by Colts QB Peyton Manning, the defending Super Bowl champ, the best players in baseball and hoops, Alex Rodriguez and Kobe Bryant, are sabotaging their sports with selfishness.

As the Boston Red Sox were about to clinch their second World Series championship in 89 years, the agent for Alex Rodriguez, who may go down as the best baseball player of all time, announced that his client was opting out of the final three years of his New York Yankee contract to become a free agent. After the game, the Sox couldn't sip their champagne without answering questions about A-Rod. It was the coronation of an eight-month march: spring training, a 162-game regular season, seven straight post-season victories. And there was A-Rod crashing the party.

He's not leaving, either. Over the next few weeks, prepare yourself for blanket coverage of A-Rod's every move. Who's going to give him that $300 million? The Los Angeles Dodgers? The Angels? Could the Chicago Cubs really offer him an ownership stake in that team? Will the Yankees, who said they wouldn't negotiate with Rodriguez if he became a free agent, go back on their word and throw themselves into the A-Rod mix?

A-Rod talks a good game about wanting more than anything to win a World Series. But few would deny that the high-spending Yanks, who were prepared to offer him a $230 million, eight-year deal, give A-Rod a better chance of winning a World Series, every year, than any other franchise on the planet

But think A-Rod is full of it? Next to Bryant, he's an angel. Like Rodriguez, the Los Angeles Laker guard stops you in your tracks when he's on TV. The twisting layups, fadeaway jumpers — he's simply Jordan-esque. So it's a shame he makes it practically impossible to focus on and fully appreciate his athletic prowess. Here's a guy who might have won five or more titles by now if he could just share the spotlight — and the ball. But back in 2004, he pushed Shaquille O'Neal out of Tinseltown and got a max money contract, $136.4 million over seven years. And now that the Lakers haven't won squat since then, Kobe (surprise, surprise) wants to be traded.

That's provided, of course, it's to a team that has a legitimate shot at winning it all. Kobe can dictate those terms because he happens to be the only player in the entire league with a comprehensive no-trade clause. Kobe has made his intentions clear by sulking through the pre-season, and ripping apart Mitch Kupchak, the Laker general manager, and teammate Andrew Bynum, to a couple of college-aged kids in a parking lot (they caught the rant on video). During the NBA's opening week, there was Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on ESPN saying a trade for Kobe is "not going to happen." There were three members of the Chicago Bulls, Ben Wallace, Luol Deng, and Tyrus Thomas, hours before their season opener, tuning into the Kobe news, wondering if they were headed to L.A. No deal has been done yet, and for that — and the continuation of the gripping saga — we can all thank Kobe: the only way any team can nab the high-priced superstar is by trading away at least a couple of its best players, and the last thing Bryant wants is to end up in a situation as bereft of talented teammates as the Lakers.

While A-Rod and Kobe soil their sports, Brady and Manning have dominated football's spotlight for all the right reasons. Their Sunday tilt is being billed Super Bowl XLII and a half, and for once it doesn't feel like hype. No two undefeated teams have met this late in the season (the Pats are 8-0, Colts 7-0), and the game will likely determine which team gets the crucial home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs (where the two could very likely meet again in the AFC Championship Game). The field is a veritable video game for Brady right now. He is on pace to throw 60 touchdown passes, obliterating the record 49 that Manning threw in 2004. He's always been a selfless player; a few years ago Brady took a below-market paycheck so the Pats could surround him with above-market talent. While Manning's contract is much richer — $98 million, with a whopping $34.5 million signing bonus — he restructured it this off-season to save the Colts salary cap space. Manning's work ethic is universally admired, and he makes everyone around him a better player. And face it: though all those commercials overexpose him a bit, he is nothing if not likable.

I know the NFL has its share of problems, starting with a rap sheet longer than a Brett Favre bomb. Michael Vick and his dogfighting, Tank Johnson and his guns, Pacman Jones and his Vegas strippers, the Cincinnati Bengals and their voluminous arrests. But like it or not, in America the icons rule. With the Patriots and Colts so superior in the NFL right now, and Brady and Manning so much the face of those franchises, fans take a little pass on that other stuff. And just look at the other non-criminals at the top of their games. Old-man Favre, an all-time good guy, is enjoying a revival in Green Bay. LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers is all class. Heck, even Terrell Owens has behaved (so far) this year.

So, as T.O. would say,"get your popcorn ready" for Pats-Colts. And when you see another Kobe/A-Rod update on ESPN? Flip the channel to the NFL, college football, America's Next Top Model, anything else. When superstar athletes make more news off the field (or court) than on it, you know it's time to get your eye back on the ball.