From the NFC East, to the NFC West (back in the day), to the NFC and AFC North, rivalries run wild in the NFL (unlike the NBA). They are defined more by hatred than by any other quality – the games, no matter the records of either team and no matter the state of the league, always end up in slugfests: physical, tough wars of attrition that pit the wills of one team against another’s. An NFL rivalry is a special thing, because the battle for divisional championships means so much to each squad, both in getting into the Playoffs and the potential for a treasured bye week and home field advantage, which is so valuable in football. Normally, these rivalries, built up through the years by generations of diehard fans and their intense hatred of opponents who have inflicted particularly bitter defeats on their franchises back some time in the past, are long standing and divisional, augmented by the fact that teams (in a division) play each other twice a year, quite a large percentage considering there are only 17 weeks and 16 games in an NFL season. Giants – Eagles – Cowboys – Redskins (some of the most storied franchises), Steelers – Browns – Bengals (equally historical) and Vikings – Packers – Bears are some that jump to mind, and although the rosters have changed, it seems as though each player takes on the persona of their squad in their adherence to tradition, helping to maintain the bitterness and animosity that may have stemmed from a long-ago game which took place before they were even born.
But even though divisional rivalries, which are the most common simply because they are renewed every season, are always entertaining, the ones which truly stand out are those which have been borne out of Playoff battles and excruciating losses in the Postseason, because they up the stakes and amplify the determination. For this very reason, as it stands today there is no bigger rivalry in the NFL than Colts-Patriots.
The Colts-Patriots battle has been going on for almost a decade now, and although it is steeped in loads of Postseason history and physical fights, the allure of their rivalry still hinges on the antithesis between both squads. On one hand, there is glamor athlete Peyton Manning, who was the son of an NFL quarterback and drafted first overall in 1998, burdened with being the sole anointed savior to a struggling but once proud franchise which at one time boasted Johnny U as their QB. On the other side, there is rags-to-riches Tom Brady, a sixth round pick at #199 overall who only started because of a freak injury to Drew Bledsoe, the incumbent franchise guy, and really wasn’t thought of as a long term solution for the Pats in 2000. Although the roles have been reversed (Brady is now the glamor guy with his supermodel wife, whereas Peyton is seen as the blue collar workaholic and perfectionist), there were always major difference between the teams, both in philosophy and in styles.
From the “dirty” Patriots with Rodney Harrison, the emotionless and seemingly cold-hearted Bill Belichick who descended from the Parcells coaching tree, and a focus on cold weather grudge matches that revolved around conservative offense (before Brady was good), complex and physical defenses, and toughness, there was a contrast to the Colts, an indoor dome team which boasted finesse, speed, and lots of points, as they ran a constant no-huddle on offense and a Tampa 2 on defense (with defensive line emphasis on speed and pass rush over 3-4 ferocity and bulk in the middle) which stemmed from their “good citizen” coach Tony Dungy who descended from the Chuck Noll coaching tree. Both teams were equally amazing in their own right.
The rivalry really began in 2003. Although the teams had played one another before that time (with Brady and Manning at the helm), it wasn’t until 2003 that things became exciting and also testy. Both teams entered the game in Week 13 at identical 9-2 records, and the Patriots jumped out to a 31-10 lead, threatening to turn the game into a laugher. But Manning stormed back, and eventually trimmed the deficit to 38-34. After forcing a punt, Manning got the ball back late in the 4th quarter with a chance to win the game, and with his heroics led the team down to the 1 yard line. On fourth down, still a yard out from the end zone and with no time outs left, the game boiled down to a final play, which was an Edgerrin James run away from Willie McGinest, who refused to be limited by his knee injury moments earlier and tracked down James, stuffing him for a loss and securing the Pats win. It was as big of a heartbreak as there could have been for the Colts – and the start of a fierce rivalry.
And it continued slowly for the Colts as the “rivalry” was often one sided in favor of New England. Later in the 2003 season, during the AFC title game, the Colts met the Patriots once again, but this time in Foxboro. They were massacred by the Pats, whose defense seemed to befuddle Peyton Manning to no end, coercing him into throwing 4 picks and 3 to Ty Law, helping the Pats advance to the Superbowl and leaving the Colts once again falling short.
On opening night in 2004, they battled again in Foxboro, where it was an offensive display. But trailing 27-24 late in the fourth quarter, Manning had the ball and a chance to lead his team to overtime or even a win. However, on the crucial final third down he was sacked for 13 yards by McGinest, leading to a long 48 yard field goal attempt from Mike Vanderjagt, who missed it and again left the Colts oh-so-close. The Pats were in the Colts’ heads.
In the Playoffs in 2004, they were matched up in the 2nd week of Postseason play, but again the Pats prevailed, neutralizing Manning and making the two time MVP winner look disoriented and uncomfortable in holding him to only 3 points. Manning fell to 0-7 in Foxboro while Brady improved to 7-0 in the Playoffs. Edge James summed it up for Indy when he admitted “I don’t have a clue.”
It wasn’t until November 2005 that the Colts exorcised their demons and defeated New England in Foxboro, winning 40-21 and leaving the Patriots at a middling 4-4 record. The tide was turning.
In 2006, Peyton and the Colts rolled through Foxboro again, winning 27-20 and maintaining their perfect 8-0 record while intercepting Brady 4 times, rendering the previous three time Superbowl champs ineffective. And although it was only a regular season game, it showed great poise and toughness from a Colts team once thought to be mentally weak.
Later in the season, during the Playoffs in the AFC title game, the Colts would complete the transformation from little brother to peer, as they got another shot to right the Playoff wrongs from seasons past against the Patriots. Down 18 points in the second quarter at home, Manning led Indy all the way back, winning the game 38-34 and completing the largest comeback in conference title game history. They would go on to capture their first Superbowl for Manning, who did his part to stoke the conversation about the best big game quarterback in the league.
After New England rebounded and in 2007 went on their historic run, they were nearly spoiled in midseason by the Colts, who led 20-10 in the fourth quarter. But this time Brady drove his team back and won the game 24-20, and the back-and-forth of the rivalry was cemented.
In the latest installment of the rivalry, the Colts faced the Patriots at Indy in November 2009, and although New England led by as many as 17 points, the Colts would come back (again). And at a crucial juncture of the fourth quarter, Belichick decided to go for the first down on a fourth and two, even though they were backed up on their own 28 yard line. Calling a short pass in the flat to Kevin Faulk, the offense came up a half yard short of the first down marker and left Manning nearly two minutes and all three timeouts to score the winning touchdown, which he did with 13 seconds remaining to take the lead and eventually the game, 35-34. Another epic clash.
Over the years, the games between the Colts and Patriots have had everything you could ask for in a rivalry – the close scores, the shootouts, the competitiveness, the wins by both teams, the high stakes of the Playoffs, the epic comebacks by both teams, and have routinely featured two of the greatest quarterbacks of this era and two of the greatest coaches. They were always David vs. Goliath, Good vs. Evil, Offense vs. Defense, Toughness vs. Finesse, and the dichotomy of their systems which have been starkly different in process but equally effective in results have only added to the intrigue that always surrounds a Colts-Pats duel, no matter the time of year.
Hopefully, the 2011 Playoffs will add another chapter to the rivalry.