The NFL television department got a lot of calls from the Boston area last week, the same calls that were blasting over the air on the all-sports talk station in New York. The gist of them was:

"Why do we have to watch the Patriots and Jets when we want to watch the Dolphins and Bills?"The reason is the policy that made the NFL what it is. It's called "protect the home market." In other words, when the home team is on the road - or has sold out its home stadium - it's televised locally no matter what.

In fact, there were 46,641 no-shows at Giants Stadium on Sunday as the Jets (5-10) beat the Patriots (1-14) 42-7. Some were probably out Christmas shopping; others may have driven to a sports bar somewhere to watch the Bills and Dolphins play for the AFC East title, a game that perhaps 75 percent of the country saw on home TV.

Chances are most of them didn't watch any football at all, unless they tuned in on the Giants and Cards at 4 p.m.

But the NFL policy remains intact - because it makes a certain amount of sense and rewards a team's most loyal fans, the ones who will watch it even when it's 1-13. Because it also ensures that if the Patriots ever are 13-1, they'll be televised no matter what.

"This is nothing new," says Val Pinchbeck, the NFL's vice president for broadcasting. "It's part of a longstanding policy that says the home fans get to see the home team."

In fact, despite predictions that some day there will be fewer games on free television, the NFL has been relatively steadfast in its desire to let home fans see the home team.

For example, Sunday's Seahawks-Broncos game, carried nationally on ESPN, was televised on over-the-air stations in Denver and Seattle, the latter because the game was a sellout at the Kingdome.

The same holds true for every one of the 17 games per season on cable.

Moreover, although the NFL doesn't like to talk about it very much - for fear of a headline that yells "NFL to Pay TV," - it's conceivable that some time this century, the ideal system will be in place.

It's a form of pay television that will allow fans in New York City and New England who want to see the Bills and Dolphins instead of the Jets and Patriots to dial in for a fee of $5, $10, $15, whatever, the same way they can dial up Mike Tyson or Evander Holyfield.

Who knows? There might have been some Bostonian or New Yorker in Miami this weekend who wanted to see the Jets play the Patriots.

The New York-New England dilemma is just part of the unpredictability of the NFL. CBS has Green Bay at Denver as its highlight late game next week. Instead of both teams being contenders, as the league anticipated at the start of the season, both are out of the playoffs.

By the same token, it would have been difficult to predict before the season that Buffalo-Miami would have been the biggest game this week.