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The NFL Rivalry That Means Something

November 21, 2010

On Jan. 21, 2007, Peyton Manning led the Indianapolis Colts back from an 18-point deficit, driving 80 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown with only minutes to play, to defeat the New England Patriots 38-34 and advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in his career. And so the best single-era rivalry in NFL history was born.

The Patriots and Colts were nominally rivals before the 2007 AFC championship game – their regular-season battles were nationally televised affairs and the Manning-Tom Brady quarterback debate was already in full swing – but the Colts’ fall victories in Foxborough in 2005 and 2006 had all the significance of the pre-2004 Red Sox winning a few Sunday Night Baseball games in Yankee Stadium in mid-July. The matchup was stuck in Russell-Chamberlain mode, and with Brady and the Patriots forever Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics and Manning and the Colts forever Wilt Chamberlain and whatever team he played for (see what I did there? Very clever, I know), Patriots-Colts’ games served primarily to enable analysts to tell us that, in The National Football League, great defense beats great offense. The individual games remained intriguing because the teams were so good, but the rivalry at-large was stale. But the Colts’ victory in January 2007 changed all that.

The NFL in the 2000s belonged to Indianapolis and New England: The Colts won 115 regular season games and the Patriots won 112, which is nearly a game a season more than the No. 3 team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots and Colts won four of 10 Super Bowls, a figure that doesn’t do their dominance justice. New England won in 2001, 2003, and 2004; Indianapolis won in 2006. But if Rodney Harrison dislodges Eli Manning’s pass from David Tyree’s helmet (or the Pats’ defensive line wraps Manning up, or any of about a million other things), 2007’s on that list, and 2005 (Ben Roethlisberger somehow tacking Nick Harper at midfield) and 2009 (That onside kick to begin the second half) aren’t far behind. One can obviously employ the Tuck Rule in the other direction, and writing a revisionist history isn’t the point here, but for all the talk of NFL parity, Indianapolis and New England (and to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh) have figured in nearly every momentous play of the last decade’s postseasons.

And the central figures have been Brady and Manning. A recent NFL Network special ranked Manning as the eighth-best player of all time and Brady as the 21st – among quarterbacks, Manning was No. 3, behind only Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas, while Brady ranked No. 7, with Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, and Brett Favre (!?) separating him from the Colts star. Montana and Unitas generally occupy the top two spots of QB lists, so Manning reaching the third spot – ahead of both the game’s elder statesmen and the ’90s cluster – likely speaks to the degree to which he’s dominated his era, earning 4 MVP awards and 5 first-team All Pro selections. Brady has only one of each, both from 2007. In a way, the two are competing on opposite tracks: Manning’s surpassed Favre and Dan Marino on the statistical dominance ladder, whereas Brady’s perfected the “champion” model originated by Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw. Perhaps fittingly, the other’s presence will likely keep either from ever passing Montana (3 first-team All Pro selections and 4 Super Bowl rings) as Brady has kept Manning from Super Bowl trophies and Manning has kept Brady from individual accolades.

But it’s simplistic to frame Brady as the playoff success guy and Manning as the regular-season statistics guy. Manning actually has a slightly higher postseason QB rating (albeit one largely acquired by beating up on Denver in the first round while Bill Belichick had the week off to scheme ways to force Manning into four-interception games), and Brady’s the one who threw for 50 touchdowns in a season and quarterbacked the highest-scoring offense in league history. Brady’s 14-4 playoff record finds itself frequently tossed into conversation against Manning’s 9-9 mark, but the comparison isn’t especially fair – Brady missed the playoffs with a mediocre 9-7 team in 2002 and only has 7 overall seasons as a starter, while Manning entered the postseason without much hope of advancing in 2000 and 2002 and has reached the playoffs three more times than Brady. On the flip side, it’s unclear to what degree Manning has benefited from superior receivers. While Indianapolis’ ability to weave in players such as Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie certainly reflects positively on Manning, stars such as Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne never went to different teams, while most Patriots’ receivers eventually did, with poor results – see Deion Branch in Seattle. When Brady finally received decidedly above-average receivers, he responded with 2007.

Instructively, Brady’s NFL Network top 100 bit was read by Derek Jeter, the athlete perhaps most similar to Brady. The four-minute segment was mostly mush – plenty of the he’s-a-competitor-who-just-wants-to-win line that’s saturated stories about both players for years – but it reinforced the chief mantra behind both the Patriot quarterback and Yankee shortstop: They’re perfect athletes, from their on-field performances to their Madison Avenue appeal. Ray Lewis, reading Manning’s bit, spent the better part of the segment analyzing how Manning threw a perfect pass to Dallas Clark for a crucial first down in the 2006 divisional playoffs. The stated message: “This guy works his ass off.” Of course, it’s Manning who was the No. 1 overall pick and handed a starting job and Brady who was picked in the sixth round and only got his chance because of injury, but that story has been so ingrained in the Brady narrative by now that it furthers the Brady-as-quintessential-American-superstar motif and subsequent backlash. Manning’s the technocrat; Brady’s the one who makes it look easy. (An enterprising Steelers fan might choose this moment to add a third persona to the ring: Ben Roethlisberger, the rugged – take that however you like – leader, with more Super Bowl rings than Manning and passing stats comparable to Brady. For now, I’ll simply posit that he’s much better than Bradshaw ever was.)

But the rivalry extends beyond the quarterbacks. From 2002-2008, Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy offered about as sharp a coaching contrast as the NFL provides: At their respective bests’, a workaholic defensive genius faced an unquestioned leader of men; at their worsts’, a sadistic cheater faced a pretentious moralist. Belichick won’t be serving on presidential councils anytime soon, while I doubt it’s ever occurred to Dungy to videotape another team’s signals. Belichick fairly joined Manning on most writers’ decade All-Pro teams, and his grouchy demeanor and patented sweatshirts only added to the acclaim he received from his mastery of Manning in 2003 and 2004 and ability to withstand staff defections. But the only reason Dungy’s proselytizing is remotely acceptable is his Super Bowl championship – tarred by playoff failures in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, Dungy did beat Belichick and did lead a team to a championship. With Jim Caldwell now in charge, the Colts no longer have a counterweight as dynamic as Belichick, which really is a pity, but with Caldwell resembling Dungy in so many other ways, it’s not a sea change.

The Belichick/Dungy contrast mirrors a larger difference in organizational philosophy. The Patriots have constantly been the ones pushing the envelope – cutting Lawyer Milloy right before the 2003 season, trading for the enigmatic Randy Moss, strategically trading players before they hit the open market. Some of these differences arise because the Colts have simply drafted better, and therefore had less incentive to make radical personnel moves to compensate, but I also think the Colts’ organization wouldn’t be too receptive to going for it on fourth-and-2 from its own 28 or trading Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour before the start of the 2009 season.

Ultimately, their respective paths from 14-0 starts most clearly delineate between the two franchises. The 2007 Patriots, to quote world-famous Pats fan Bill Simmons, were on an “Eff You” mission from the moment Spygate became a story. Brady said the team had a desire to “kill teams.” They scored 52 points against a helpless Joe Gibbs. They couldn’t NOT go for the perfect season, and they didn’t, winning a very competitive game against the Giants to move to 16-0 and set up their playoff run. In 2009, the Colts faced the same decision – and chose the exact opposite route. Fortunately, both teams finished the postseason identically, so we don’t know which approach was “better.” But we did learn that the chance to be the greatest team in NFL history meant something to New England – and that it meant nothing to Indianapolis. Once the Colts decided, rightly or wrongly, that going for 19-0 would harm their Super Bowl chances, the decision was made. Belichick will likely always maintain that he went for 19-0 because he felt it put his team in the best position to claim that 19th win, and that may be true, but I think the allure of an undefeated season played a role, too. I hope it did.

The Patriots-Colts rivalry isn’t predicated on mutual hatred and a plethora of cheap shots: It’s not Steelers-Ravens – it’s more Lakers-Spurs. Bad blood exists between the teams – the Colts likely remain bitter about the Patriots’ defensive tactics in those Foxborough snow wars; the Patriots probably smirk that Bill Polian successfully pushed for rule changes in response. But the rivalry hasn’t been marred by Joey Porter cheap shots; it’s a rivalry not because the teams hate each other, but for a much better reason: Each team has stood in the way of the other winning championships. New England’s currently winning the rivalry, claiming “the only stat that counts” 3-1 as well as a 8-5 overall edge and 2-1 postseason margin since Brady’s ascent in 2001. They were the team of the 2000s. But the Colts have the advantage in regular-season wins and have had elite, championship-caliber teams more often. Their recent domination of the rivalry was so complete that pangs of fear struck ever Patriots’ fan the moment Indianapolis closed to 31-21 on Sunday. No matter that the Patriots were still 10 points ahead, with the ball. So when the two teams met in Foxborough yesterday – and for as long as the faces of the rivalry remain Brady and Manning – they engaged in a battle that transcends one game or one season: They’re fighting to win an entire era.

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From → November 2010

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