The New England Patriots defeated the Indianapolis Colts, 31-28, last night in the latest installment of one of the most heated rivalries in all of sports.
It's another notch in Bill Belichick's belt, whose team takes a 6-5 lead in the head-to-head series since the Colts relocated to the AFC South following the 2001 season. The Pats and Colts have met eight times in the regular season, and three times in the postseason.
The two best teams of the decade have combined for four Super Bowl's, five MVP's, and a collection of the NFL's most entertaining games ever. Tom Brady even made his first career start against the Colts after the injury to Drew Bledsoe, and proceeded to win his next six games against Indy. Each game in the series has held a special significance for both teams, and their seemingly annual get-togethers are often used as a determinate for how their season's will end.
But where does the importance of Sunday's game rank among the past 11 match-ups? Read on to find out.
The Patriots were still picking up the pieces from their Super Bowl loss to the Giants, and then Tom Brady tore up his knee.
New England, with Matt Cassel at quarterback, still battled against a good Colts team, but the loss of firepower was too much to overcome.
Manning was his usual efficient self, throwing for 254 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots stayed close all game but two dumb mistakes by Jabar Gaffney (dropped touchdown) and David Thomas (15-yard penalty) prevented them from holding on to the lead.
Vinatieri kicked a 52-yard field goal to give the Colts the lead late in the fourth quarter and the Patriots couldn't muster the strength to comeback. The loss ultimately kept the Patriots from making the playoffs that season, despite having the most wins ever for a non-playoff team. If only Brady was playing.
New England entered this game in familiar, yet unexpected, territory. With a 7-2 record the Patriots had the best record in the NFL and were among the Super Bowl favorites, a position that football pundits never would have predicted prior to the season.
The injury-riddled Colts, meanwhile, were clinging to a one game lead in the AFC south with just a 6-3 record, far short of where most experts expected Indianapolis to be by this point of the season.
With a win the Patriots could solidify their candidacy for the Super Bowl and keep up with the 8-2 New York Jets. The Colts, on the other hand, could prove that they still belong among best teams in the league and were worthy of more than just a wild card berth.
New England surged to an early lead, and was on top by as much as two touchdowns at various intervals. Midway through the fourth quarter the Patriots held a 31-14 lead and seemed guaranteed of a victory, but no lead is ever safe when playing against Peyton Manning.
Manning (396 yards, 4 touchdowns) battled back with two quick scores in a matter of minutes to shrink the lead to 31-28. He was leading the Colts on another drive into Patriots territory, but James Sanders spoiled the party by intercepting a deep Manning pass with 31 seconds left and securing the victory.
Brady (123.1 QB rating) was brilliant, and Manning (three INT's) choked when it mattered most. It doesn't look like this will be Indy's year, but it may very well be New England's.
Adam Vinatieri, the Patriots hero and best ever placekicker, signed with Indianapolis in the offseason. His two field goals helped the Colts stay undefeated by defeating the Patriots for the second season in a row.
New England, coming in to the game having won four straight, had a chance to contend in this game. But Tom Brady's four interceptions, including a game-ending one by Cato June, spoiled a potential upset.
Both teams showed they belonged in the upper echelon of NFL teams, but the Colts were on a different level this week.
Manning and the 8-0 Colts finally got what they've been waiting for—a win over the New England Patriots.
The Patriots defense was banged up with Richard Seymour out and cornerback Randall Gay playing at safety, and Manning absolutely carved them up. He threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns in a momentous performance.
Tom Brady did all he could to keep the Patriots in the game (265 yards, 3 TD's), but a porous defense made it impossible to keep up with the high-octane Colts.
The Patriots opened the 2004 season against the Colts in a highly anticipated match-up, and neither team disappointed. But don't tell that to the defenses—each team gave up over 400 total yards.
Indianapolis held a 17-13 halftime lead before Tom Brady turned on his engines and threw two touchdown passes in the third quarter to put the Patriots back in the game. The Colts seemed poised to snatch the victory but two big plays crushed their chances.
First, Vince Wilfork recovered a fumble in the Patriots own end zone after the Colts had driven deep into New England territory. Then as Manning was leading another comeback drive, Willie McGinest sacked him and pushed Indianapolis back to the Patriots 33-yard line.
Vanderjagt whiffed on a 48-yard field goal, his first miss in 43 attempts, and the Patriots held on for the win. It was a disappointing start for the Colts but business as usual for the Patriots, who rattled off their 16th consecutive win.
The Colts rolled through the Denver Broncos in the wild card round, putting up 49 points. But against the Patriots defense Indianapolis was stifled once again and held to only three points.
The New England offense chugged along behind Corey Dillon's 144 yards on the ground and Tom Brady's 144 yards through the air. The defense did the rest of the work, forcing three Colts turnovers and limiting Indianapolis, one of the league's most potent offenses, to only 276 total yards.
The Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship for the second consecutive year. The Colts lost in Foxboro, again, and Manning fell to 0-7 against his arch rival. No question at the time about which team was the NFL's best.
The Patriots came into the 2007 season bitter about the way their last one ended (with a heart-crushing loss in the AFC championship game). But this time they had a new weapon—Randy Moss.
Moss was acquired in the offseason to give Tom Brady some toys to play with, and he took full advantage of Moss in knocking off the Colts.
Both teams entered this game undefeated but the Patriots were on another level. The Colts led 20-17 as late as midway through the fourth quarter, but it didn't matter. Nobody on the Colts defense could contain the Brady-Moss connection, which exploded for 145 yards and a touchdown. Brady threw three touchdown passes for the ninth straight game, an NFL record.
This highly anticipated game capitalized an unbelievable Patriots season. New England became the second team ever to finish a season undefeated, and all the Colts could do is watch. The Patriots were once again atop the NFL universe, at least until the Super Bowl anyway.
The Colts had four chances to take the lead late in the fourth quarter from inside the Patriots 2-yard line, and they couldn't do it. The Patriots defensive line led by Willie McGinest stuffed Indianapolis running back Edgarin James and preserved the win.
New England rushed out to a 31-10 lead by the third quarter, including a 92-yard kickoff return by Bethel Johnson right at the end of the half. But Peyton Manning and the Colts fought back to tie the game in the fourth quarter before a Tom Brady touchdown pass to Deion Branch brought the score to 38-31.
The Colts were just inches away from stealing this one but the New England defense held strong. It was the defining moment of the Patriots season to that point, and helped push them to an NFL-best 10-2 record. The Patriots never looked back and steamrolled past the rest of the league on the way to their second Super Bowl title.
Manning entered the game nearly perfect, having thrown eight touchdowns and zero interceptions in two playoff wins over Kansas City and Denver. But he met his match in Law, who intercepted the Colts quarterback three times to lead the Patriots to a startling victory.
Manning turned the ball over four times and was also sacked four times as the Patriots made the Co-NFL MVP look decidedly average. The game would have been a blow out if not for New England's struggles at the goal line, settling for five field goals.
It was the 14th straight win for the Patriots (the most since the 1972 Miami Dolphins) and a momentous statement game. NFL pundits assumed the great Manning would pick apart the Patriots defense, but instead Manning had one of the worst games of his professional career.
This game erased all doubts that the Patriots were the best team in the NFL, and raised questions about whether Manning would ever be able to win a big game. It was the true Super Bowl of the season and New England was the overwhelming winner.
Call it brave. Call it stupid. Call it whatever you want. It's still a loss.
Bill Belichick made the decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Patriots 28 yard line with just over two minutes left in the game and New England clinging to a 38-34 lead. But Brady's pass to Faulk fell short and the Colts took over and scored the winning touchdown as time expired.
Belichick was trying to make a statement against the 9-0 Colts: that the road to the Super Bowl still had to go through New England. But Manning and new coach Jim Caldwell got the last laugh with this one.
The Colts trailed by as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter after Brady and the Patriots offense carved up the Indy defense to the tune of over 450 yards. Yet Manning fought back and stayed close enough just to bother Belichick, whose team fell to 6-3 and essentially forfeited any chance of a No. 1 seed.
Who knows where each team would be today if this game had gone differently.
It seemed like fate had Manning's number. For the third time in four years, the Patriots met the Colts in the playoffs. But this time Manning prevailed, and led his team to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots held a commanding 21-6 lead at halftime and seemed poised for a return to the Super Bowl after a two year absence. But the Colts fought back, trying the game mid-way through the fourth quarter on a Vinatieri field goal and then taking the lead on a Joseph Addai touchdown run.
Brady had the ball late and a chance to crush his rival, but he threw an interception and Manning was spared. The Colts stayed undefeated at home and finally got the Patriots monkey off their back.
It was a turning point in the rivalry, a transition of power from the Patriots to the Colts. But the battle for NFL superiority was hardly over. A new chapter had simply begun.