THE STOCKINGS are hung in Rich Stadium. By late this afternoon, we'll know who gets the anthracite and who gets the NFL's version of the sacred vessel -- home-field advantage.
Big game? This contest is downright obese.
"This could be biggest sports event in Buffalo history," suggested Paul Snyder on the way home from watching the Bills beat the Giants last week.
Snyder owned the Braves when Buffalo was a fevered NBA town. He is a sports fan. He has been around here a long time. It's tough to argue against his point.
Biggest ever? Probably.
In the first place, for a city of rabid sports followers, where a large chunk of the population is obsessed with the Bills, there haven't been that many stop-the-presses athletic events held here.
"What about 1964? 1966?," asks the Secretary of HUD.
Jack Kemp may have left Buffalo for a job in President Bush's cabinet, but he's still keeper of the flame for the first great Bills teams.
Actually, as far as civic frenzy, the AFL championship games to which Kemp refers are the only true rivals of today's contest. The famous 1974 NBA playoff game between the Braves and Celtics, which ended with a whimper when Bob McAdoo was assessed a foul against Jo Jo White, was the sixth game of a seven-game series. Even if the Braves won, they still would have faced a difficult climax in Boston Garden.
The Sabres' battle with Philadelphia in the 1975 Stanley Cup finals was almost a case of too much, too soon. It would have been a major surprise had the young Buffalo team won. The famous overtime triumph over Montreal in the semifinals that year came with the series tied, two games apiece.
Up to now, it's obvious the premier events in Buffalo were the pair of AFL title games.
Yet when you consider the anticipation aspect, even those games don't equal this one.
In 1964, San Diego came to War Memorial Stadium as a one-touchdown favorite, the team that had demolished Boston, 51-10, in the championship game the year before. Buffalo won, 20-7, in one of the most memorable of all AFL games.
Nevertheless, a large portion of America was tuned out. For most sports fans, the Bills were champions of only 40 percent of pro football.
The game was the final event for ABC in its lame-duck year as the AFL network. The league had signed a major new TV deal with NBC, but it didn't kick in until the fall of '65.
Things were so casual in those days that the players' post-game party was held in the basement of a South Buffalo home. I took Chet Simmons, then head of ABC Sports, with me to the party and the players were ready to cook him. They had learned their winning shares would be a meager $2,000 because the network failed to come close to selling all its commercial time.
In 1966, the stakes were higher. The winner of the Bills-Kansas City game in War Memorial for the AFL championship went to the first Super Bowl.
But the American sports public was still skeptical about the AFL. The Super Bowl, which wasn't called by that name yet, didn't even sell out the Los Angeles Coliseum.
In contrast, every football fan in America has been waiting for today's game.
"All week, this game has been discussed in places like the Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House," says Kemp.
The 1964 AFL championship game drew 40,242 -- 2,000 fewer than a November game against Boston. The '66 title game drew 42,080 in expanded War Memorial, but there had been four larger crowds during the regular season.
Today, about double those crowds will cram Rich Stadium.
"I'm going to have to watch on television," says Kemp, who was a frequent spectator at Bills games in Buffalo and on the road when he was in Congress.
"Ralph Wilson invited me to several games this year, but I've just been too busy to come. I couldn't be happier about this season for my old friend, Ralph.
"This has to be one of the greatest seasons of his life, the way Jim Kelly played; the way the team matured; the leadership they demonstrated; the awesome defense."
In Giants Stadium last week, there were more than 10,000 no-shows. There haven't been that many for seven home games in Rich this season. There won't be many today, even though the game was sold out months ago and the TV blackout lifted.
I have a hunch the moments before kickoff today will give flesh to the expression, "the atmosphere was electric."
The first time I understood that "electric atmosphere" was more than a phrase was early in the 1964 season, when the Chargers played a Saturday night game against the Bills in War Memorial.
Buffalo had won its first two games. San Diego, with future Hall of Famers Lance Alworth, Ron Mix and coach Sid Gillman, and quarterbacked by veteran Tobin Rote, was to be the Bills' litmus test.
Minutes before kickoff, I stood in the Dodge Street tunnel next to running back Wray Carlton, who was in civilian clothes, recovering from an injury.
Normally, Carlton was among the Bills' most quiet and low-key players. But this night, he was almost trembling with excitement.
"Can you just feel this crowd?" he asked. "I never wanted to play in a game so much in my life."
You could feel it. So could the Chargers. Buffalo won, 30-3.
I suspect the atmosphere will be a lot like that today.