By Mark E. Vogler
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.
Or the most criticized call of Pats Coach Bill Belichick’s head coaching career in 2009, when he gambled that his team — with a six-point lead in the closing minute — could pick up two yards on a fourth down situation from the Pats’ own 28 instead of punting the ball. The Pats failed to get the first down, giving the Colts great field position on New England’s 29-yard line. Manning threw a one-yard touchdown with 13 second left in the game. Matt Stover kicked the point for the victory.
How fortunate the sports fans of New England and Indianapolis were to witness such an era of greatness — the clash of Titan teams that were clearly the best and perennial favorites by the experts in preseason football power rankings or the odd makers in Las Vegas. What a run it was for both teams, until 2011 when Manning sat out the entire season after neck surgery. New England made it back to the Super Bowl that season, while Manning would never take another snap as the Indianapolis signal caller.
After a 2-14 season, the Colts took a chance by drafting Andrew Luck to become Manning’s successor. And Luck has had tremendous success in his first two years, leading Indy to consecutive 11-5 seasons with playoff appearances. Last season, he broke several major record for rookie quarterbacks in league history, including most passing yards, wins and game-winning drives.
Luck showed his potential to become the NFL’s next great quarterback in the playoff game that earned the Colts last night’s match-up with Brady and the Pats. Down by 28 points to the Kansas City Chiefs, Luck threw four touchdowns and scored another on a fumble recovery for a 45-44 win — the second largest comeback in NFL playoff history. After two seasons, he’s also tied with Denver Broncos quarterback legend John Elway has having the most wins (14) in his first 20 games.
But Luck didn’t get off to a great start in his first game against New England in November 2012. He threw two interceptions that were run back for touchdowns in a 59-24 loss to the Patriots.
Meanwhile, Manning, who signed with Denver after being released by Indianapolis, has flourished during his two years with the Broncos. His 2013 season was the best any quarterback has had in NFL history. He broke Brady’s touchdown record by five as well as Drew Breeze’s record for most passing yards while putting Denver in the record book as the highest-scoring offense ever — better than the 2007 Patriots team that went 18-0 before losing a heart-breaker to Manning’s brother Eli and the Giants in the Super Bowl.
While Manning’s season lifted the Broncos to the best record in the AFC and home field advantage through the play-offs this year, he did lose to Brady for the second year in a row since signing with Denver. In that game, the Pats overcame a 24-0 deficit and went on to win 34-31 in over time.
The football experts were predicting and hoping for another Manning-Brady showdown in Denver next week, with the right to go to the Super Bowl on the line. This scenario could only dull the shine of the sterling Pats-Colts rivalry.
But Luck had his chance to say something about that last night. With Brady signed for and expecting to play at least another two years for the Pats and the Colts scheduled to face New England at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the talented, young quarterback will have a chance to duel Brady a few more times. If Luck and Brady shine in future games, this will solidify the Pats-Colts rivalry as a marque match-up.
Going into last night’s game, the Pat enjoyed a 47-29 edge in series that dates back to 1970 when the Patriots played in Boston and the Colts were Baltimore’s storied football franchise. Both teams were rivals in the AFC’s Eastern Division. While the Pats seemed to have dominated the series, the games have been competitive — half of them decided by a touchdown or less. The Colts moved to Indianapolis in 1984 after winning three NFL titles and later moved into the AFC South Division in 2002. That’s when the former division rivals really became rivals.
Mark E. Vogler is a reporter for The Eagle-Tribune and a Patriots season ticket holder since 1994. E-mail him at email@example.com.