INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It’s that week. Colts vs. Patriots week.
Mention one team in the other’s market, and duck. Emotions – OK, hatred – run deep.
Has Andrew Luck ever caught wind of such strong anti-Patriots’ sentiment when he’s out and about in downtown Indy?
“Hate’s a strong word,’’ he said Tuesday, smiling and chuckling at the thought. “But you hear fans share their disfavor with the Patriots. And when appropriate, that’s a fun thing about sports.
“I think it’s OK to have rivalries. It’s OK to get behind your team and feel a little animosity towards another team.’’
This isn’t just another team. It’s the Patriots.
“There are certain games on the schedule that you highlight,’’ said Adam Vinatieri, the 45-year old kicker who’s been on both sides of the NFL’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys.
He mentioned squaring off against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. And he mentioned the Patriots.
“They’re all meaningful,’’ Vinatieri said. “But some games just hold a touch more.’’
Colts vs. Patriots escalated into one of the NFL’s premier rivalries in the early 2000s. From 2001-09, they represented the AFC in six of nine Super Bowls. The Colts set an NFL record with seven consecutive seasons with at least 12 wins (2003-09). The Patriots topped them last season with an eighth straight season with at least 12.
Frank Reich was part of the Colts’ coaching staff from 2006-11. He witnessed everything up close.
“Great rivalry,’’ he said. “Some really meaningful games, big-time games. Two really good football traditions. Great quarterback play, just great team play.’’
Colts vs. Patriots has given us indelible memories, snapshot moments that remain sharp.
Any meaningful montage would include the Fake Punt in 2015 (thanks Chuck Pagano), DeflateGate (2014 AFC title game), 4th and 2 in 2009 (thanks Bill Belichick), Battle of the Unbeatens in ’07 (the Patriots left Indy that way), The Fake Injury Game in ’03 (hope you’re feeling better Willie McGinest) and The Assault Game (2003 AFC title game in Foxborough when Patriots DBs mugged Colts’ receivers and infuriated Bill Polian, and led to stricter coverage rules).
From Indy’s viewpoint, the leading highlight would be the Most Significant Game in Colts History (2006 AFC title game; next stop Super Bowl XLI).
Anyone remember Tom Brady’s first career start? Sept. 30, 2001 in Foxborough against the Peyton Manning-led and 2-0 Colts. Brady gave no glimpse of what was to come – 13-of-23, 168 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions – but the Patriots rolled anyway, 44-13.
Last but not least, there’s Josh McDaniels leaving the Colts and general manager Chris Ballard at the altar in February. It was McDaniels’ decision to renege on his agreement to succeed Pagano as the Colts’ head coach that led to Ballard’s drop-the-microphone moment.
The rivalry is back on.
“I think we all heard that,’’ Luck said, again smiling broadly. “I chuckled. I’ve grown to know Chris very well. From day 1, I really appreciate him. He’s been honest and communicative and I think a great leader for this building.
“That was his authentic-self coming (out), and that made me happy. I love when you get to see authenticity from people, especially your leaders in this building.’’
The only downside to Ballard’s from-the-gut reaction? Now it’s up to his players to make Colts vs. Patriots a legitimate rivalry once again.
“Certainly my experience (is) we’ve come up on the short end,’’ Luck said. “That’s not fun. We’d like to flip the story, in a sense.’’
The Colts last win the series came in 2009. Remember 4th and 2? Belichick’s failed gamble from his own 28-yard line with 2 minutes, 8 seconds remaining and the Patriots leading 34-28 gave Peyton Manning life. Manning capitalized with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 13 remains to play for a 35-34 victory.
Since then? Seven consecutive losses, and too many haven’t been competitive. The Patriots have outscored the Colts by an averaged of 40.7-21.7 during their recent dominance.
“We’re not hiding the fact what’s happened in the past,’’ Luck said. “But it is a new year. We’re excited for the game. We know New England is a really good team. Yeah, sure, we need to start winning. Absolutely.’’
Luck realizes that starts with him. In five starts against Belichick, including the playoffs, he’s completed just 52.6 percent of his passes with 10 interceptions, nine touchdowns, and a 67.9 passer rating. He’s had at least two TDs four times, but suffered at least two interceptions on three occasions.
In the 2014 AFC title game at Foxborough – yes, DeflateGate – the Patriots manhandled the Colts 45-7. Luck endured one of the worst games of his career: 12-of-33, 126 yards, two interceptions, a career-worst 23.0 passer rating.
“I certainly have thought a little bit about my own experience,’’ he said. “How much stock do you put into it? That was a long time ago.
“I’d like to think I can go out and be a better player. Protecting the football is always huge. On the road against a defense like this and you don’t want to give their offense any more opportunities than they will get.’’
Mention Colts vs. Patriots in the Indy locker room and you were likely to get a shrug. Not because no one understood the importance of the game, but because very few players have any experience to draw on in the rivalry itself.
Only six players who saw action the last time the Colts and Patriots met in 2015 remain on the roster: Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Anthony Castonzo, Jack Doyle, Clayton Geathers and Vinatieri.
Only one has been with the Colts when they’ve beaten the Patriots: Vinatieri, in the ’09 game.
Rookie running back Nyheim Hines’ impressions of Colts vs. Patriots goes way back.
“I have seen the rivalry when Peyton Manning was here and just all throughout the years,’’ he said. “Personally I’m excited to go up to Foxborough. Rich tradition up there and really excited to see what it is to go out there and see great people play.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.