INDIANAPOLIS – In a season of 1-0 focus, this one feels just a tad different.
And Frank Reich knows it.
It’s Patriots Week.
“There’s no doubt you feel that,’’ he said last week. “Obviously I don’t get out a whole lot in the community, especially in the season when fans are most passionate about it. But having been here before as an assistant coach, you really feel how important that is to this organization and to our fans that the history of this rivalry with New England is real. It’s palpable.
“I don’t want our players to get too caught up in that. I do want them to understand that it is a big deal here.’’
It’s been a big deal since the Colts and Patriots shared residency in the AFC East. That specific relationship ended in 2002 when the NFL expanded and realigned. New England remained in the AFC East, but the Colts moved to the AFC South.
The rivalry reached an entirely different level when each franchise found its transformational quarterback.
The Colts used the first overall pick in the 1998 draft on Peyton Manning, who was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in August as a member of the Class of 2021.
The Patriots’ fortunes turned on the 199th overall pick in 2000. There’s a place in Canton for Tom Brady, but only after he decides he’s finished delivering wins and world titles to Tampa Bay, the same way he did in New England.
During the Manning/Brady years, the Colts and Patriots were among the NFL’s flagship franchises, and their showdowns must-see TV.
But since Manning’s last season on the field with the Colts in 2010, the series has tilted heavily towards the Patriots. They’ve won the last eight meetings, including a pair in the postseason in Foxboro: a 43-22 second-round blowout in 2013 and a 45-7 pummeling a year later in the AFC Championship game.
Reich isn’t likely to tap too deeply into the Colts-Pats history, and for good reason. Indy has faced New England just once since he’s been head coach (a 38-24 loss in ’18), and only about one-third of that roster remains.
Linebacker Bobby Okereke will step on the field for a 45th career game Saturday and make his 30th start. But like many of his teammates, he’ll face the Patriots for the first time when they visit Lucas Oil Stadium.
One of the NFL’s youngest rosters probably is more focused on the here and now than the what-used-to-be.
But Okereke also realizes it’s more than just another game.
“Being part of the organization, I feel like it’s good to know the history and kind of feel how the fans are feeling, how everyone in the building’s feeling,’’ he said. “But it’s another game, it’s another opportunity to go 1-0, and we know where we’re sitting with playoff potential.
“We’re just juiced up coming off this bye.’’
Here’s a quick refresher course on some of the top moments from the Colts/Patriots history:
2006 AFC Championship Game
It remains the signature moment in the Indy era. Jeff Saturday gave an inspirational “It’s our time’’ speech, and the Colts promptly fell behind 21-3 in the second quarter when Asante Samuel returned a Manning interception for a touchdown.
What followed was the greatest comeback in a conference championship game. Saturday and defensive lineman Dan Klecko scored touchdowns that produced second-half ties, and Manning directed a seven-play, 80-yard fourth-quarter drive capped by Saturday’s pancake-block of Vince Wilfork that opened a gaping hole for Joe Addai’s 3-yard TD with 1 minute remaining.
Marlin Jackson’s interception of Brady with 16 seconds left sent Indy to Super Bowl XLI. It was only fitting the path to South Florida required stepping over the Patriots.
Hello Tom Brady
Week 3 of the 2001 season was expected to be another authoritative step for Manning and the Colts. They were coming off a 45-24 win over the New York Jets, and a following 42-26 drubbing of Buffalo, and their third game would be against a 6th-round draft pick making his first NFL start. New England saw its season rocked in week 2 when Drew Bledsoe suffered a lacerated kidney against the Jets when he was whacked by Mo Lewis.
Welcome to the Tom Brady era. He didn’t exactly give a glimpse of what was to come – 13-of-23, 168 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions – but the Patriots rolled the Colts 44-13 and would go on to win the first of six Super Bowls with Brady.
Sometimes, the name just sticks. Fourth-and-2 just sticks.
Brady and the Patriots withstood a late Colts rally at Lucas Oil Stadium – a 34-14 fourth-quarter lead had shrunk to 34-28 – and faced a dicey situation with just over 2 minutes remaining. It was fourth-and-2 at the New England 28-yard line. What to do? Punt and give the football back to Manning, who was wearing out the Patriots’ defense? Or give Brady a chance to convert and seal the game?
Bill Belichick opted for Door No. 2.
Brady hit running back Kevin Faulk with a pass on the right side, but he juggled the football and was stopped just short of the line-to-gain by safety Melvin Bullitt. Had Faulk secured the football, it would have been a first down.
Given a very short field, the Manning-led offense did the rest. Manning completed the comeback by hitting Reggie Wayne with a 1-yard TD with 13 seconds remaining.
The ol’ Fake Punt Game’
Again, sometimes the description says it all. There might be a worse play in the Indy era, but it slips our mind.
In week 6 of 2015, the Colts trailed 27-21 and faced a fourth-and-3 at their own 37 late in the third quarter. Coach Chuck Pagano decided it was time to pull a fake punt out of his playbook, hoping to either catch the Patriots substituting or draw them offside with a hard count. It blew up in his face. Epically.
As nine players shifted wide right, near the sideline, Griff Whalen moved to center and Colt Anderson positioned himself to take the snap. As a few seconds ticked off, two Patriots reacted by crowding over Whalen. Instead of calling timeout and getting out of the play, Whalen snapped the football to Anderson, who was smothered for a 1-yard loss.
New England used the short field to drive for the game-sealing touchdown.
Two things about the play. First, even if Anderson had picked up the first down, it would have been negated by an illegal formation penalty on the punt team. Second, Whalen never practiced the play during the week. The normal player in that situation, safety Clayton Geathers, suffered an injury earlier in the game.
The coaching staff should have pulled the plug on the play.
2003 AFC Championship Game
The Colts were white-hot heading into their first conference championship appearance since 1995. In blowout wins over Denver and Kansas City, Manning was 44-of-56 (78.6%) for 681 yards and nine TDs. Hunter Smith punted exactly zero times.
Then, everything went Poof! on a cold, snowy evening in Foxboro. Indy’s first four possessions: interception, interception, safety, lost fumble.
The Patriots got physical with the Colts’ receiving corps – general manager Bill Polian believed they were allowed to get too physical – and Manning suffered four interceptions, three by nemesis Ty Law.
And Smith? His first punt attempt in the postseason resulted in a safety when Justin Snow’s snap sailed over his head.
2014 AFC Championship Game
Perhaps you prefer we call it Deflategate. The Patriots dominated Andrew Luck and the Colts. Luck finished with 126 yards, two interceptions and a career-worst 23.0 rating. Indy was overwhelmed 45-7.
But it’s what transpired after the game that’s etched in history. The NFL investigated allegations the Patriots deliberately deflated footballs used in the championship game, and came down hard. Brady was suspended four games while New England was fined $1 million and had to forfeit two 2016 draft picks.
2004 AFC Divisional Game
Another magical season ended in bitter disappointment in Foxboro. Manning set an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes and a club mark with 4,557 yards. Edgerrin James rushed for 1,548 yards. Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley became the first trio with 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown seasons. In a 49-24 first-round playoff win over Denver, Manning passed for 458 yards and four TDs and Wayne set a club playoff record with 221 yards and two TDs on 10 receptions.
The Patriots weren’t impressed. They took a 6-3 halftime lead and slowly pulled away with Brady’s 5-yard TD pass to David Givens and Brady’s 1-yard run. Indy’s offense went nowhere. Ten possessions resulted in six punts, one Manning interception, two lost fumbles and a Mike Vanderjagt field goal.
Brady was just so-so: 144 yards, one TD. The difference-maker was Corey Dillon, who gashed the Colts for 144 yards on 23 rushes.
Manning vs. Pats, Episode 1
Manning’s first trip to Foxboro was forgettable. In week 2 of 1998, the Colts were handled 29-6 and Manning looked very much like what he was – a rookie making his second start. He suffered three interceptions, two by Law, and Law set the tone for Manning’s long afternoon by returning a first-quarter interception 59 yards for a touchdown.
Manning’s bottom line that day: 21-of-33, 188 yards, one TD, three interceptions, a 51.1 passer rating.
Breakthrough at Foxboro
The weight of the Manning-led Colts falling short in Foxboro increased with each passing season. It reached five straight losses, and the fifth – a 27-20 setback in the ’04 opener – contributed to the rematch in the second round of the playoffs taking place in Foxboro, not Indy.
Relief came in week 9 of ’05. It came in the form of a 40-21 drilling of the Patriots during which the Colts remained unbeaten at 8-0 and Manning and his offense were hitting on all cylinders. Manning passed for 321 yards and three touchdowns, James rushed for 104 yards and one TD, Harrison had nine catches for 128 yards and two TDs and Wayne had nine catches, 124 yards and one TD.
Never had unbeaten teams met this late in a season. It was week 9 of 2007, and it was the 7-0 Colts vs. the 8-0 Pats in the RCA Dome.
The game lived up to the hype.
Manning’s 1-yard sneak gave the Colts a 20-10 lead with 9:42 remaining, but Brady delivered TD passes to Wes Welker and Kevin Faulk during the final 8 minutes. The Patriots clinched it by snuffing out two final Indy drives with sacks of Manning.
Manning passed for 225 yards and one touchdown while Addai became the first Colt with 100-plus rushing yards (112) and 100-plus receiving yards (114) in the same game. Brady finished with 255 yards and three TDs. Randy Moss had nine catches for 145 yards and one TD.
No perusing of Colts/Patriots history would be complete without mentioning the deal that never materialized.
Josh McDaniels agreed to replace fired coach Chuck Pagano in early February 2018, and the Colts even announced a press conference would be held to introduce the hiring. Then, McDaniels informed general manager Chris Ballard he had changed his mind.
Clearly miffed – probably stronger than that – Ballard explained things to the local media.
“Unquestionably, we were disappointed and surprised,’’ he said. “We had agreed to contract terms. We had an agreement in place. We followed all the rules, did everything right. Two interviews . . . very confident that we were going in the right direction.
“Very confident Monday evening and Tuesday morning. As you can see, we had a plan in place because we made an announcement that Josh was going to be our head coach. I got a call Tuesday evening saying he had decided to, he had changed his mind and was going in a different direction.
“We’ll keep moving forward.’’
As Ballard ended his press conference that day, he offered one of those lasting sound bites.
“Thank y’all,’’ he said. “The rivalry is back on.’’
Less than a week later, Ballard hired Reich.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.