— Pretend you’re a college professor, teaching a course called “American Football 101.” The course is designed for foreign students, those with little or no knowledge of the sport we love so much.
Homework assignment No. 1: Watch Sunday night’s game, Patriots versus the Colts, on NBC. Sit back, take notes and enjoy. Quite simply, it’s the best we have.
It isn’t the longest-running rivalry in the NFL, not even close, and it probably isn’t the fiercest in terms of player and fan hostility. But no two teams over the past decade have played the game better and smarter than the Patriots and Colts, and you’re liable to witness a classic whenever they meet.
It’s great because the teams are great. Although it lacks the romance of, say, the ancient Bears-Packers rivalry, the Patriots and Colts represent what the league is all about. This is time-capsule stuff. They feature high-tech, high-scoring offenses, led by Canton-bound quarterbacks with contrasting styles and identical objectives: They’re in it for the jewelry, not the glory.
Tom Brady has three Super Bowl rings, Peyton Manning one. In head-to-head showdowns, it’s Brady seven, Manning three, including a 2-1 edge for Brady in playoff games. They will be remembered as two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play, and it’s a treat when they’re on the same field. It’s like Montana and Marino. Bird and Magic. Jeter and A-Rod (every day in the Bronx).
This is all you need to know about Patriots-Colts:
Since 2000, the Colts have won a league-best 109 games. The Patriots have 108. How amazing is that? The most victories in a decade is 113, held by the 1990s 49ers, and there’s a good chance the Patriots and Colts will top that.
“An all-time great rivalry,” Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said this week.
The most remarkable thing about the Patriots and Colts, non-divisional foes who will meet for the seventh straight season, is that the game always means something. They’re always contenders, seemingly immune to a clunker season. They defy the parity laws of the NFL. They’ve combined for 11 playoffs appearances in the past six seasons, the lone miss occurring last year when the Brady-less Patriots narrowly missed the postseason with an 11-5 record.
This time, the Colts are 8-0, riding a 17-game regular-season winning streak — four shy of the record held by … do we need to mention the team? Manning is hot, carrying a team decimated by key injuries. Brady is hot, having recaptured his pre-knee surgery form.
Brady has 16 touchdown passes, five interceptions.
Manning has 16 touchdown passes, five interceptions.
“It’ll be a great, great game, maybe another classic,” said Jets linebacker Larry Izzo, a member of the Patriots from 2001-2008. “The one thing you always know is that it will be a 60-minute game.”
The rivalry has shifted over the years. From 2001 to 2004, the Patriots dominated. The prevailing storyline was the man in Manning’s head: Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who befuddled the Colts’ quarterback with diabolical defensive schemes.
Manning has suffered some of his worst games against the Patriots, including playoff losses during the 2003 and 2004 seasons. The lowpoint was January 2004, when he was intercepted three times by Ty Law on a cold day in Foxborough. Law & Co. beat up the Colts’ receivers so much that day that Indianapolis president Bill Polian blew a gasket, leading to a rule change that limited contact on receivers.
Manning finally broke through with a magnificent game in November 2005, but the true moment of vindication didn’t come until January 2007, in the AFC Championship Game. That was when he stood up to Belichick and Brady, conquering his demons with a game-winning, 80-yard touchdown drive in the final three minutes. Manning rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit, handing the Patriots one of their worst defeats — ever.
“We probably could’ve put him back a couple of years if we had won that game,” Izzo said of Manning.
Lately, the Colts have owned the rivalry, having won four of the past five meetings. They switched coaches, from Tony Dungy to Jim Caldwell, but not much else has changed. The Colts are still a Manning-driven team. The Patriots, though, have evolved from a defensive-oriented team to a wide-open passing attack under Brady.
Most of their defensive stalwarts are gone. Tedy Bruschi. Richard Seymour. Mike Vrabel. Rodney Harrison. Asante Samuel. And, of course, Willie McGinest, who stopped the Colts with that famous goal-line stand in ’03. Now this is Brady’s team, as much as it always has been Manning’s team in Indianapolis.
So pay close attention, class. You’re going to see something special. The best part? When they walk off the field late Sunday night, every player and every coach will be thinking the same thing:
We may see these guys again in January.