Something historic is happening, and Dwight Freeney can feel it. Last week, he broke into a wide smile when he heard a visitor mimicking an NFL Films clip Freeney might hear in 20 years.
"Throughout history, NFL fans have witnessed great feats in battle," the visitor said in Cosellian tones. "And in 2007, none was greater than when Dwight Freeney and the Indianapolis Colts engaged in epic combat with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots."
It was all Freeney could take before he busted out laughing.
"Man, I hope it is like that when we look back on it," Freeney chuckled. "Hopefully it does stand that test of time. I'm in the rivalry now, so it's hard to really see that, but I hope we can be part of that whole NFL Films tradition. That would be something."
Indeed, this rivalry is well on its way. Even now, it's not hard to envision the Colts-Patriots rivalry becoming an integral part of the fabric of NFL history. Entering only its seventh year of championship implications, it's already become the best faceoff since the turn of the millennium. Not only has it featured players headed for iconic status – Brady, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison among others – it has produced four Super Bowl titles in the last six years.
And like most rivalries, it carries countless subplots. You have two coaches who, if they were described in Biblical terms, would likely be illustrated as Cain (Bill Belichick) and Abel (Tony Dungy) – coaching brethren with a social and (arguably) a moral divide standing between them. You have two quarterbacks defined by their statistical success as well as the number of fingers toting championship jewelry. Indeed, Manning and Brady are the fulfillment of what Joe Montana and Dan Marino could have been had Marino won a Super Bowl.
Beyond the coaches and the quarterbacks, you have a kicker in Adam Vinatieri who has won a combined four championships with both franchises, and a Hall of Fame-bound wide receiver in Randy Moss who has yet to win his first. Two top notch defenses, two elite passing attacks and two undefeated teams that make Sunday's game more grandiose than any previous regular season contest.
And perhaps that is what characterizes this rivalry. While we can look back at other period rivalries and count Hall of Fame players and championships and fully understand the greatness that was, the winning shared between these two franchises is what tells us it's special right now.
Indeed, it only truly became a rivalry last year, when Indianapolis exorcised its demons and beat New England on the way to a Super Bowl ring. But once that AFC Championship fell in the Colts' favor, every Indianapolis-New England matchup before it and every one after it became a little bit richer. Indianapolis' win and championship helped elevate every Patriots-Colts game into a league holiday. The kind of game that other players watch, carrying the kind of implications that other players envy.
"I haven't been here for all those great games and matchups in the rivalry, but people around the NFL are cognizant of it," Patriots tight end Kyle Brady said. "Years down the line, I'm sure this is the matchup people will recall – how these really are the classic games of this era."
Since 2001, when New England won its first Super Bowl, the Patriots and Colts have played nine times, including three playoff tilts. The Patriots hold a 6-3 edge, including a 2-1 postseason advantage. Not surprisingly, in all three of the playoff games, the team that won went on to capture a Super Bowl ring.
So based on history, Sunday's outcome could very well be a prelude to something bigger and better down the road.
"I know once we're all old and gray, we can sit back and actually watch how we've helped change the game and brought the game to new levels," Colts safety Bob Sander said. "The guys we played against, the Super Bowls we went on to win – you appreciate them now, but you appreciate them a lot more when you are old and you can sit back and realize what you did."
As Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork put it, "This goes down in history. Little do you know that history is being made all the time. Every time you take that field, you have that chance that 20 years from now, the film will pop up and people will be talking about that being the turning point for a team and a season. You never know what part of history you're in. But I know there is going to be some history to this."
And that is more than enough to make this the greatest rivalry of this decade.
Looking back, here are the greatest championship-shaping rivalries for each decade dating back to the dawn of the Super Bowl:
They both had their moments before the '90s, Dallas owning the NFC in the '70s and the 49ers owning the conference in the '80s – sparked by that little moment known as "The Catch." But it wasn't until the '90s when the two storied franchises clashed at a time when they were both highly successful. The franchises combined to capture four Super Bowl titles this decade, with Dallas owning a 3-1 advantage in Lombardi Trophies. But two aspects truly defined the rivalry: It featured two of the greatest players in NFL history, and three straight memorable NFC Championship games (1992-1994).
Everyone remembers the iconic NFL record holders in Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, and the other Hall of Famers like Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and future inductee Deion Sanders (who played for San Francisco in 1994 and Dallas from 1995-1999). But there was also an ample cast of characters who not only made the games great, but also rounded out rosters that typically featured Pro Bowl talent in the double digits. It's worth noting that these were two of the last great teams that transitioned into the salary cap era, and were able to stock loads of talent that was eventually lost in free agency – a fact that led to the rivalry fizzling out as the decade progressed.
But in the time that it did last, there were quality players whose greatness is largely overlooked now, like Ricky Watters, Ted Washington, Ken Norton Jr. and Mark Stepnoski and many others. And then there were the talented players who would later become infamous for character issues: Charles Haley, Nate Newton and Bill Romanowksi.
The rivalry had its most significant moment at an early point: the 1992 NFC Championship game. Playing on the road, Dallas upset San Francisco 30-20 and went on to blow out the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. It was a moment that signaled a changing of the guard. A young Dallas squad officially established its identity, knocking off a San Francisco team that had dominated the NFL in the regular season. And it signaled the beginning of the end of a 49ers dominance that had stretched back to the early 1980s. San Francisco was entering its twilight, while Dallas was just stepping into its prime.
1980s: SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS VS. NEW YORK GIANTS
The 49ers and Giants captured five Super Bowls in the '80s, and met four times in the playoffs during the decade-long rivalry. Not surprisingly, the winner of three of those four playoff games went on to win the Super Bowl (San Francisco in 1981 and 1984, and New York in 1986). While it was a series that featured some of the greatest players in history in Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Lawrence Taylor, the coaching staffs involved may have been even more impressive.
The rivalry was typically marked by a battle of wits between Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells – the decade's greatest offensive mind versus the decade's greatest defensive mind. The two men couldn't have been more different, with Parcells cutting the abrasive, emotional figure while Walsh played the role of the intellectual. In many ways, it was the '80s version of Belichick versus Dungy: two men held in the highest esteem, but for vastly different reasons.
Even the assistants under Parcells and Walsh carved out impressive careers after cutting their teeth in the rivalry. The games featured a bevy of bright minds that would go on to distinguish themselves after Parcells and Walsh moved on. Among those coaches: Belichick, Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, Tom Coughlin, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis.
In reality, many of the playoff games didn't live up to the hype of the rivalry, with all four postseason meetings decided by double-digit margins, including San Francisco's 38-24 win in 1981 and the Giants' 49-3 landslide in 1986. The rivalry spilled over into 1990, with the two teams dominating the NFC in the regular season on the way to San Francisco's 14-2 and New York's 13-3 finish. That included an unspectacular 7-3 win by the 49ers in the regular season.
The follow up to that season would be a classic NFC Championship game that changed the direction of both franchises. A hard fought 15-13 road win by the Giants propelled New York and quarterback Jeff Hostetler to a Super Bowl win that would ultimately signal the beginning of the end of Phil Simms' career with the Giants. But the game will always be remembered for the vaporizing hit that Leonard Marshall put on Joe Montana in the fourth quarter, incurring a broken hand and other injuries that would knock Montana out of the 1991 season and ultimately end his career in San Francisco.
The numeric greatness alone defines this rivalry. Nineteen Hall of Fame players and five Hall of Fame coaches and executives took part in this historic grudge match in the '70s. And they were represented on both sides of the ball, from Gene Upshaw, Fred Biletnikoff and Ted Hendricks to Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Franco Harris and many others. And the two franchises defined winning, combining to capture 11 division titles, six AFC championships and six Super Bowls (four for the Steelers and two for the Raiders).
In many ways, these are two of the cornerstone franchises that were the last to define the tough, brutally grinding nature of the game, before Bill Walsh's West Coast system began to reshape how the game was played in the '80s. And each franchise had a true disdain for the other – something that manifested itself in bloody confrontation on the field. The physical nature was punctuated by cornerback George Atkinson, who knocked Lynn Swann out in both 1975 and 1976 with punishing (and some say, dirty) forearms to the head.
A major part of the mutual hatred was stirred in the playoffs, where the Steelers and Raiders met a staggering five straight seasons from 1972-1976. That resulted in the playoff loser from the previous season always gunning for the other the following year. It got particularly ugly from 1974-1976, when Pittsburgh and Oakland met in the AFC title game three straight years. The winner of all three of those contests went on to capture the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh twice and Oakland once).
The staple moment in the series was Harris' "Immaculate Reception" in a divisional playoff game in 1972. The catch, which has since become an almost Biblical story amongst the two franchises, bounced off a colliding Frenchy Fuqua and Jack Tatum and into the hands of Harris. The resulting 60-yard catch and run for a touchdown catapulted Pittsburgh to a miraculous 13-7 playoff win in the waning moments of the game. Although Pittsburgh would lose in the AFC championship to Miami that season, Harris' catch set the tone for what would be an amazing bout for both franchises.
LATE 1960s: GREEN BAY PACKERS VS. DALLAS COWBOYS
It wasn't necessarily the greatest rivalry of the '60s, but it was the greatest rivalry when the Super Bowl was in its infancy. And though it wasn't known at the time, it was a rivalry that had massive implications for the winning team. With the AFL still shaping up as the weak sister to the NFL, the "true" championship game took place when the best two NFL teams faced off for the right to pound whoever the AFL advanced to the Super Bowl. And in both Super Bowl I and II, the two best teams in pro football were Green Bay and Dallas. The Packers barely squeezed by the Cowboys in both years before rolling over Kansas City and Oakland, respectively, in the Super Bowl.
Historically, Green Bay's wins were epic in scope, largely because they extended a pre-Super Bowl run of dominance that largely would have faded had it not been for those two Super Bowl wins. Had it been Dallas that won those two games, we would likely be looking at Dallas as unquestionably the best Super Bowl era team in NFL history. And some players from those losing Dallas teams would likely be far more appreciated historically – guys like Cornell Green, Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan and Don Perkins.
Moreover, the legend of Vince Lombardi might actually belong to Tom Landry – and we might be calling the Lombardi Trophy the Landry Trophy. Forty years later, the names from those Green Bay-Dallas tilts still resonate with NFL fans. Beyond the two legendary coaches, the games featured 12 Hall of Fame players, including Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Paul Hornung, Bob Lilly and Mel Renfro.
And though there were only two pivotal playoff contests between the two franchises, they produced one of the two best games in the history of the NFL: the 1967 NFL Championship game, known as The Ice Bowl. The historic nature was a combination of the two most talented teams in football, the championship in the balance and the ridiculously difficult conditions. Played at Lambeau Field, the game temperature was minus-13 degrees, with a wind-chill of nearly minus-50. It remains the coldest game played in NFL history.
Beyond the conditions, the game lived up to its hype, with Green Bay taking a 14-0 lead, but then falling behind 17-14 by the middle of the fourth quarter. In what was arguably the defining drive of his career, Starr drove the Packers through the elements and finished off a 68-yard scoring drive with a 1-yard plunge into the end zone with only 16 seconds on the clock. The Packers would win 21-17 and go on to capture the Super Bowl, after which Lombardi would retire and Green Bay would have secured an epic place in NFL history.