FOXBOROUGH — For more than a decade, it was an incomparable rivalry crafted in NFL heaven: the Patriots and the Colts.
All three times they met in the playoffs prior to last night’s showdown at Gillette Stadium, the winner went on to win the Super Bowl.
Quarterback Tom Brady led the Pats to back-to-back (2003 and 2004) NFL titles after beating Peyton Manning and the Colts in the 2003 AFC Championship and a 2004 Divisional Round playoff game — both on New England’s turf.
Manning paced the Colts to a Super Bowl crown in 2007, powered by a dramatic comeback win over the Patriots in the AFC championship game that January in Indianapolis after trailing by 18 points.
Nothing has topped the Pats-Colts rivalry over the past decade — or perhaps throughout the history of the NFL — when it was Brady against Manning.
During the years in which these two future Hall of Famers dueled (2001-2012), their teams were the winningest NFL franchises. They combined for four Super Bowl titles while representing the AFC in the big game in seven of the 11 years. The Patriots won three of the five Super Bowls they competed in. Ex-Pats star kicker Adam Vinatieri, who booted the field goals that were the winning margin in each of the three wins — two of them in the last second — has four title rings because he defected to the Colts eight years ago. With Vinateri getting booed on his return trips to Foxboro, that’s helped to spice up the rivalry.
So have the gamesmanship and genius of Pats coach Bill Belichick and ex-Colts general manager Bill Polian, both who have been reviled by the opponents’ followers.
For the most part, it was Brady and Manning who created this special rivalry. The two star quarterbacks won six NFL MVP awards — four by Manning and two by Brady. While Brady had the edge (8-4) in the dozen times they faced each other head-to-head in the playoffs and the regular season, seven of those games were decided by a touchdown. And there were some classics — like New England’s 38-34 victory in 2003 that ended with the Patriots’ gallant four-down goal line stand at the 2-yard-line to deny the Colts the winning touchdown in their own stadium.