No contest: NFL’s best rivalry is Patriots-Colts

On Oct. 8, 2000, the Indianapolis Colts visited the New England Patriots. While no one knew it at the time, it was the birth of a rivalry that would help define the NFL over the next decade.

It gets renewed Sunday afternoon in Foxborough, the latest installment in what has become a remarkably longstanding, newsworthy, star-powered series between two highly successful clubs. Once again both teams (Pats 7-2, Colts 6-3) meet midseason near the top of the AFC standings.

A decade ago, there was no sign of what would come.

Peyton Manning(notes) was 24 years old, yet already a budding star, leader of a team that expected to contend for a Super Bowl title. On the opposite sideline Bill Belichick was a second-chance head coach who, in his first year with New England, was trying to avoid the mistakes that doomed his regime in Cleveland. His team entered the game just 1-4. Tom Brady(notes) was a rookie third-stringer (he would attempt just three passes all season), anonymous to all but the most devout of fans.

There were other soon-to-be household names on both teams though: Bruschi, Harrison, Vinatieri, Edgerrin, McGinest, Faulk and others.

The Patriots harassed Manning into three interceptions that day and sprung the upset, 24-16. Two weeks later – both teams played in the AFC East at the time – Indy returned the favor.

The Colts would go on to a 10-6 playoff season. The Patriots went just 5-11 but planted the seeds that would produce a Super Bowl title the next season, the first of three that decade. The Colts would win it all after the 2006 season and both teams lost Super Bowls during the decade.

Through it all they’ve been staring at each other. Rivalries like these can’t be created. Once the Colts left the AFC East in 2002, there were no divisional ties. Boston and Indianapolis aren’t geographically close and have little in common. This isn’t Packers-Bears or Cowboys-Redskins.

While the Patriots and old Baltimore Colts had a longstanding history, this developed organically based on mutual excellence, respect and, indeed, the recognition that the other team represented the most considerable hurdle on the way to the title.

In a sports world where so much is contrived, marketed and spun, the Colts and the Patriots is as real as it gets. Whether you root for or against either or both of these teams, it’s worth appreciating the uniqueness of this 10-plus year relationship.

Sunday will be their 15th meeting in the Manning/Belichick/Brady era. They’ve played 11 regular-season games, which have often gone down in November amid great records and great hype. New England holds a 6-5 lead in regular-season matchups and a 2-1 advantage in three epic and emotional playoff games, two of them AFC title games.

“It really has been like a division game,” Manning told reporters on Wednesday. “We have played them every year since 2003, sometimes twice a year.”

At times this has been a bitter competition. This week, though, everyone expressed appreciation for the other team’s success and the opportunity to participate in the series. All these years later, nostalgia is setting in.

“It’s been a great rivalry for a lot of reasons,” Brady told reporters. “We’ve played so many meaningful games against them. … I think whenever you have the opportunity to play teams that have been as good as they have been over the years, it’s always a great challenge for us. You kind of look at them and say, ‘Ok, well, how do we measure up against a really good team?’ ”

The Colts-Pats have been punctuated by big plays, bigger stars and over-the-top storylines. There was New England’s Willie McGinest(notes) with a goal-line stop in 2003. There was Indy’s Jeff Saturday(notes) pancaking Vince Wilfork(notes) (aka “The Block” in Indiana) and springing Joseph Addai(notes) for the game-winning TD of the 2007 AFC title game. There was Ty Law(notes) picking off Manning three times in one playoff game. There was Manning leading scoring drives on six of the Colts’ final eight drives in another.

There have been controversies over whether the Patriots were purposely mucking up their field to slow the Colts’ receivers in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs. Conspiracy theories were hatched that the Colts were pumping crowd noise into the old RCA Dome during the battle of unbeatens in 2007 (dubbed Super Bowl 41 ½). And allegations, which actually resulted in NFL rule changes, that the Pats’ defensive backs were too physical with the Colts’ receivers. Even in the spring the teams have seemingly jockeyed for draft position against each other.

There was Belichick going for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 29 in Indy in 2009. There were Patriot fans mocking Manning with “cut that meat!” chants (from a Visa commercial) in New England and Colts fans riding Randy Moss(notes) unmercifully in Indy. When Manning set the NFL record for touchdowns in a season at 49 in 2004, Brady came back in 2007 and put up 50.

It’s been back and forth and back again. The coincidental November games have served as the unofficial start to the stretch run of football.

“They always seem to mean something,” Brady said.

Brady recalled a 2001 start against the Colts as his most memorable. It wasn’t just because it was his first starting assignment in the NFL or that New England won 44-13. It was compelling for Brady because it made him feel like he belonged.

“I remember meeting Peyton before the game,” Brady said. “I was surprised he knew me, as a matter of fact. He said, ‘Hi Tom. I’m Peyton,’ as he was out there warming up, which I thought was pretty cool.”

A decade later they’ll be back in Foxborough, atop the standings again, all eyes on them again. They all know each other now, the NFL’s best rivalry still cranking on all these years later.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Nov 18, 2010