For years, they were a step ahead of the game: the two greatest coaching minds in professional football working together, toying with those who dared challenge their greatness. Bill Parcells, the master motivator, the psychological savant. Bill Belichick, the defensive guru, the unsung strategist.

Together, they led the Giants to two Super Bowls in five seasons. After the second title, Belichick got his due and received a crack at his first head coaching job, manning the Cleveland Browns. But, without his mentor at the rudder, the protege was seemingly in over his head. Surly with the media, unpopular with fans (primarily for benching the beloved Bernie Kosar in favor of Vinny Testaverde) and generally unsuccessful, Belichick spent five turbulent years in Cleveland but did not accompany the team when it moved to Baltimore.

However, in Belichick’s one playoff season — a harbinger of future success occurred — he beat Parcells. In the 1994 Wild Card round, Belichick’s Browns took out Parcells’ Patriots 20-13. Aside from an Opening Day romp by the Patriots the following year, that would be the last time the two would coach against each other.

Now, in 2003, the two coaches are engineering perhaps their finest feats to date and are, far and away, the two biggest stories in the NFL today, this side of Kansas City.

In his first season, Parcells has led a Dallas team in disarray prior to his arrival to first place in the NFC East. The reversal of fortunes has been nothing short of unthinkable — even Parcells’ most ardent supporters were cautious to ask for a grace period of at least a year during which he could remodel the team in his image. Not necessary. Led by Quincy Carter (yes, the same quarterback who found himself lagging behind the immortal Chad Hutchinson last season), the Cowboys have boasted a shockingly efficient offense to compliment a stingy defense. Parcells has his stamp all over this team.

Meanwhile, Belichick, two years removed from a Super Bowl of his own (we’ll get back to that in a second), has had to manipulate his entire 53-man roster and then some to get his team out of the blocks to the tune of 7-2 and breathing room in the AFC East. After a 31-0 loss at Buffalo to start the season and the loss of almost every important player on both sides of the ball to injury, Belichick has shown an uncanny ability to take the pieces available to him (using 40 different starters) and put them in a position where both they and the team will be successful.

When they square off Sunday night, there will be more interweaving subplots than there are in a “Seinfeld” episode.

Let’s get back to where we left off. After Belichick’s tenure with the Browns ended, he did what was expected and rejoined Parcells. With Belichick back in his comfort zone as defensive coordinator, the Patriots reached the Super Bowl — in the reunited duo’s first season. The two of them together are about as fair as the Yale Dining Services regulations.

The brilliance of the tandem was on full display in 1996. Parcells played mental games with a number of his players, most notably Chris Slade, an outside linebacker who Parcells continuously sidelined on key plays down the stretch of the season. Slade got the message, and Parcells unleashed him with a vengeance in the playoffs. Slade played an integral role in Belichick’s schemes, which limited the opposition to a whopping nine total points in the two AFC playoff games.

But, in the two weeks between the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl, Parcells managed to provide enough of a distraction to cost his team a legitimate shot at winning the game. Through his buddy, the late Will McDonough, Parcells leaked a story that he would be leaving the Patriots to coach the New York Jets. Sure enough, after the Packers handled the Patriots 35-21, Parcells was heading to New York. Well, technically New Jersey. (If the Nets and Devils bear the Jersey moniker, why do the Jets and Giants — who play in the same sports complex — pretend they’re from New York? Let’s get real here.)

But that’s where the drama just started. Pats owner Bob Kraft demanded huge compensation to let Parcells out of his contract, and the Jets tried to skirt this by naming Belichick head coach and Parcells “special consultant” — until he was free to be head coach — at one of the most ridiculous press conferences ever held. Fortunately, the NFL saw through this puppet scenario and allowed Parcells to be head coach right away. But for Belichick, the idea of being a pawn in the Parcells’ game had reached a breaking point.

Each time Parcells came to coach in New England for the next three seasons, the “Tuna Bowl” fever reached frantic heights. Fans were unable to forgive their former savior for deserting them in the fashion that he did — putting himself above the team before the most important sporting event of the 1990s for New England sports fans.

For the next three years, the two of them took a Jets team that had been 1-15 the year before their arrival and made it into AFC Championship Game material. When Parcells called it a “career” after the 1999 season, once again Belichick was named head coach at perhaps the second most ridiculous press conference of all time. But Belichick had decided he had had enough of being in the shadows. Following Parcells, he could never make a name for himself. So, after becoming the only person in history to be named head coach of a team twice and never coach a game for it, Belichick decided to risk his fortunes in –gasp! — New England. The irony was frightening.

What happened next was straight out of a sweet Disney movie about redemption and individuality and all that meaningful stuff — Belichick again pulled a quarterback switcheroo but this time parlayed it into a magical Super Bowl season in 2001, which means that now Belichick has won a Super Bowl without Parcells, but the great mentor cannot say he has ever even been to a Super Bowl without Belichick.

So Sunday night, Tuna Bowl fever again hits New England. The mentor and the protege — who have grown estranged since Belichick left Parcells at the altar in early 2000 — square off in Foxboro for the first time in over eight seasons with both guiding their teams toward potential playoff berths. Another Patriots win — a sixth straight overall and this one over Benedict Parcells of all people — would further help ease the pain of a deeply-scarred region.