There undoubtedly has been plenty of self-congratulatory back slapping at the NFL offices over the decision to make Saturday's Patriots-Giants game available on CBS and NBC as well as the NFL Network.

The league's stance on enabling all homes with televisions to see the Patriots' quest for a perfect regular season is that this was done "in the best interest of our fans." That's the spin, here's the reality: This decision was done in the best interest of the National Football League.

At least it was if the NFL wanted to keep the government from nosing around its business.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. -- the man who helped keep the out-of-market baseball package on cable when it appeared headed exclusively for DirecTV last spring -- threatened to hold a Senate hearing if the NFL didn't agree to put the Patriots-Giants on for all to see and abandon the plan to air the game on a channel available in only about 43 million homes. The league also received other congressional pressure. But the tipping point for Commissioner Roger Goodell and Co., might have come from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the ranking member of the committee. The two threatened to go after the NFL's exemption from federal antitrust laws if it failed to make games on its network available to more viewers.

That wouldn't be an easy fight for Leahy or Specter -- the exemption means in part the NFL has the incredibly valuable tool of being able to sign television contracts for all 32 of its teams -- but Goodell is far too smart to want to engage in a high-stakes game of chicken.

Where does this latest development leaves the NFL's television venture? The league wants its channel on a basic digital tier; cable operators want it on a digital sports tier so those who want it can pay for it.

Having the rights to the game in which New England will try to complete the first 16-0 regular season seemed to be an incredibly valuable bargaining chip in the NFL's quest to get on major cable systems such as Charter Communications and Mediacom. (Comcast has the NFL Network on a digital sport tier, but the two sides have been feuding about the placement.)

It didn't end up that way.

This battle would be a non-issue except for the fact the NFL Network now carries a package of eight late-season games. Some have been duds, but the lack of distribution for the Nov. 29 game between Green Bay and Dallas caused a ruckus, and the possibility of the masses not being able to see the Patriots resulted in a firestorm.

By simulcasting Saturday's final telecast of the season on other networks, league execs buy themselves time to try to figure out how to solve this mess. More importantly, they also will get government officials to turn their attention elsewhere -- at least for the time being.

Is anybody watching?

The Timberwolves' 4-23 record means few television viewers are electing to watch the team on KSTC (Ch. 45) or FSN North.

The Wolves are averaging a 1.0 rating and 2 share through 14 games on FSN, and a 1.3 rating and 2 share in nine games on KSTC. (One ratings point equals 16,784 households.)

Nine of FSN's telecasts have failed to reach a 1.0 rating, including five of the past six and four in a row. Last Friday and Saturday, the Wolves had back-to-back telecasts on FSN and KSTC.

The team's come-from-behind victory over Indiana on FSN North had a 0.9 rating and its loss on Saturday at New Orleans had a dismal 0.5 rating on KSTC. That means 8,392 households were tuned into the game.


• So how come CBS and NBC will both simulcast the NFL Network's coverage of Patriots-Giants? Apparently, CBS had the option because this game was taken out of its Sunday afternoon AFC package. NBC, meanwhile, is the over-the-air rights-holder for prime-time NFL games.

• Fran Tarkenton, the former Vikings and University of Georgia quarterback, will be Fox's special pregame analyst for its coverage of the Sugar Bowl game between Hawaii and Georgia at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. That will be the first of Fox's four Bowl Championship Series games.

Judd Zulgad •