Here's what I wrote after the Colts defeated the Patriots earlier this season:
"The table's been set for a classic AFC Championship battle in the RCA Dome. The invitations have gone out and the media are all invited.
Let's just hope they remember to bring the disrespect."
You can expect my psychic hotline commercials to begin airing any day now.
But on a more serious note, this Sunday the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts will be meeting in the playoffs for the third time in four years. New England has won the previous two post-season match-ups, but since then, the Colts have managed to pull out two victories of their own. When you factor in the Brady/Manning rivalry, Adam Vinatieri pulling a Benedict Arnold, and the trip to the Super Bowl that's on the line, it's pretty clear that the stage is set for an epic battle.
Over the years the prevailing theme surrounding the Patriots/Colts rivalry has been a near unanimous favoring of the Colts by the media. It seems that each time, everyone fools themselves into thinking that Peyton Manning's stats can beat Tom Brady's ability to flat-out win. They discount the fact that in the NFL, defense often trumps offense. And they completely forget that New England is coached by Bill Belichick and that the Colts, well, aren't. So every time the Colts are the worldwide favorite, and every time the Patriots end up coming out on top.
Until last time, that is. (I'm throwing the 2005 meeting out the window for now, as the Patriots were just injury ravaged beyond repair.) This season, it seemed like a collective light turned on inside of everyone's head and the Patriots were now the unanimous pick to win. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 13 times, shame on me", seemed to be the general theme. So what happened? Brady ended up laying a turd on the carpet while Peyton Manning came off as the superstar everyone had been proclaiming him to be for all those years.
This lead me to develop my "disrespect" corollary which states that the New England Patriots are highly likely to drop the ball when favored, and a mortal-lock to win when disrespected. It's an interesting situation, and one that requires a delicate balance. Win too much, and the Patriots start feeling the love and ultimately stumble. Struggle just enough, and everyone discounts the Pats, fueling the "disrespect" fire that causes them to play at that super-human level. Thankfully, unlike last time, it seems that most people are back on the Colts bandwagon.
This year the Colts started off with an impressive 9-0 start and then followed it up with a lame 3-4 finish. Their defense was in shambles and Peyton Manning was starting to unwind. Heading into their game against Kansas City, a lot of people had the Chiefs pulling the upset. What happened? Well the Colts managed to dismantle KC, and then went into Baltimore and shocked the world. All the while, their so-called crippled defense let up only one touchdown the entire time. Now they've got home field advantage in the AFC Championship and a giant chip on their shoulder. Can't you see why the media is hyping this team up? I mean, my Patriots should be pretty scared heading into this game, right?
Oh, I did forget to mention that the Colts themselves have only scored one touchdown this post-season as well. And I also left out the fact that Peyton Manning has five interceptions. And, oh yeah, Kansas City's game plan consisted of stubbornly running the ball against a stacked line all day. And Baltimore, not known for its potent offense anyway, managed to bail out the Colts' D with two red zone turnovers as well. When you add those facts into the equation, suddenly the Pony's aren't looking so formidable after all.
Look, I'm not saying that the Patriots have played perfect football. They definitely haven't. New England let the Jets hang around all day in the Wild Card Round until some very fortunate turnovers let them pull away. They also got the better end of several San Diego mental meltdowns that clearly helped propel them to victory. Tom Brady has looked downright shaky at times as well, and I'm 95% sure that he's nursing some kind of injury. So to rag on Indy's flawed play is definitely the pot calling the kettle black.But with everybody heaping praise on the Colts, somebody has to point out that both teams have their weak points. With all the hype surrounding the Colts' defense and Peyton Manning destiny, you'd think the Pats were lining up against the '85 Bears.
I've been saying for months that whoever wins the Super Bowl this year is just "the tallest midget at the circus". It was the same situation last year, as clearly evidenced by the Steelers' victory. There is just currently no dominant team in the NFL. The 2003 and 2004 Patriots, Colts, and Eagles would have all probably gone 16-0 and won the Super Bowl this year. The genuinely well-built team just doesn't exist right now. So whoever wins is going to be flawed. But despite the fact that both Indianapolis and New England are flawed, there are some glaring differences between how the two have played in the playoffs. And it's these differences that make it so unfathomable how everyone can be picking the Colts.
1. The Jets are clearly better than the Chiefs
2. The Chargers are clearly better than the Ravens, and clearly, clearly better than the Colts. (You can make the argument that the Ravens are better than the Patriots, but we didn't rollover like a lame dog and die during a home playoff game, so I'm not buying it.)
3. The Colts backed into the AFC title game. The Patriots seized their spot.
It may have been sloppy and full of some questionable decisions, but that divisional match-up against San Diego was the second toughest game I've ever seen the Patriots play. (The first was Super Bowl XXXVIII.) I said that there were no dominant teams in the league this year, but the Chargers were as close to one as you can get. I knew the only way the Patriots were escaping this game was by keeping it semi-close and then somehow making a game-changing play or two. And true to the Patriots time-tested script, that's exactly what happened.
San Diego may have had the league MVP, the undefeated home field record, and more talent overall. But at the end of the day, the Patriots saw past all those big intimidations and dissolved them by doing "the little" things that have come to define this team's success. You can say what you will about the messy turnovers that ultimately did San Diego in. And you might be tempted to call the Patriots lucky for recovering as many as they did. But you'd be wrong, because luck just can't explain the fact that every time there was a loose ball, New England came up with it. Calling those recoveries luck is discounting the effort and pure desire to win that made the Patriots fight to get them. When Tom Brady threw that apparent "game-ending" interception, Troy Brown was able to wrestle the ball from his opponent because he flat-out wanted it more. He refused to lose.
It's that sheer determination to win that fuels those classic Patriots final drives. When the stakes are the highest, this team shines the brightest. The fourth quarter of last Sunday's game featured a 14-13 score. Heading into it, I was completely calm. I kept asking myself, in the fourth quarter of a close game, do you want Marty Schottenheimer and Philip Rivers, or do you want Belichick and Brady? It wasn't a hard question to answer. And it won't be difficult to decide this Sunday either when Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning are added to the equation. I don't care how much talent you have or how many accolades people throw upon you. When it comes down to the wire, I'm throwing my hat in with the Patriots every single time. Which brings me to the fourth difference between these two teams:
4. The Patriots just win.
The Patriots are 12-1 in post-season play during the Brady/Belichick era, that sole loss coming courtesy of horrendous officiating. I honestly believe in my heart of hearts that had the refs allowed that game to stay close, the Patriots would have pulled another miracle win out of the Mile High air. But petty arguments aside, it's a time-tested fact that the Patriots win when it counts the most. Everybody knows it. They were preaching it from their desks on Sunday night. "Never pick against the Patriots in a big game!" But of course on Monday morning that Peyton Manning stat sheet managed to brainwash them again. They started touting Indy's rejuvenated defense. They started throwing around terms like "team of destiny". And all the while, the New England Patriots waited in the shadows, soaking it all in. What can I say? I asked for disrespect.
Thank you for not letting me down.
Saints over Bears
Colts over Patriots
Toilet Bowl XLI:
Colts over Saints