The office of the Commissioner must be thanking its lucky stars for the Colts and the Patriots right now. In a league dominated by parity, the Colts and Pats have both found a way to rise above the competition and face off against one another at a higher level. As a combination, the Colts and Patriots are the indisputably the best the NFL has to offer.
The issue for me, however, has always been the storyline. Abstractly, objectively, it's possible to just sit back and appreciate the games the Colts and Pats have put on as technically elite football. But these games don't happen in a vacuum, and in a league as central to the national spotlight right now as the NFL, the social and cultural issues that surround the games can become as important as the play on the field. And sometimes, as we've seen in the Patriots' case, they can become more important.
A history of the rivalry
The Patriots began their dynasty era as decided underdogs, heavily predicted to lose in their Super Bowl appearance against the Rams in 2001. When they upset the Rams, it was looked upon as a fluke, and the Patriots didn't do much to dissuade that argument with a relatively lackluster season in 2002.
When the Patriots returned to the postseason, and earned another ring in 2003, the predominant storyline was one of debate about whether or not they were for real. There was also a subset of endless arguments, from the national press to the local talk shows, about whether or not Tom Brady was truly a standout quarterback or if it was "the system".
I vividly remember the playoff game the Patriots played against the Colts that year. The Colts, like the Rams, were an offensive juggernaut that was heavily favored. Like the Rams, they were beaten by the Patriots, but before the game, not only were the national pundits boldly predicting Colts dominance, but so were the Colts themselves. This was the year of the infamous "they better start making our rings now" comment.
This was the year I began to dislike the Colts.
Especially since, in every team comparison, Peyton Manning was compared favorably to Brady in every dimension. I began to feel, however irrationally, that Peyton Manning was robbing Tom Brady of rightful credit.
I began to dislike Peyton Manning.
In 2004, the Patriots and Colts once again faced off, this time in the divisional round of the playoffs, and once again, the Colts were favored to win. Once again, their gaudy offense was cited as the trump card. Also, the dirty, cheating Patriots defensive backs were no longer going to be allowed to mug the poor, defenseless Colts wide receivers thanks to Bill Polian's spearhead of the 5 yard chuck rule in the 2003-2004 off-season.
Oh, yes. The dirty, evil Patriots storyline was alive and well even then.
Even though the Colts changed the rules, the Patriots still beat them that year. They went on to upset the Steelers in similar fashion, and with their third ring, they began to earn praise from the broadcast booth.
The 2006 AFC Championship Game: the storyline shifts
But lo and behold, the next time the Patriots and Colts faced each other in the postseason, last year's AFC Championship Game, the Colts were once again the favorites, despite the fact that Peyton Manning had spent the last four years choking in every big game he played.
When Indy finally managed to pull it out in the latter half of the game, I did expect their homers in the booth to be celebrating. But the storyline that emerged still startled me.
After five years of predicted Colts dominance, the Colts finally got a chance to face the Patriots indoors, at home, against a Patriots squad that some felt had no business even being in the game in the first place, once again with the force of the national predictions behind them, and finally, in the game's final minutes, they managed to beat us by four points.
Suddenly, the Colts were America's Team and their defeat of the Patriots was an upset for the ages. I even heard the Colts compared to the Red Sox and the Patriots to the Yankees, an analogy that even now threatens to make my head explode.
From the side of admitted Patriots bias, I thought that rather than recast the Colts as a scrappy, plucky bunch of underdogs fighting the good fight against the Evil Empire, the analysis very well could have been (and probably should have been) that a repeatedly favored, talent-loaded team finally managed to pull out their long-predicted win. Making them not the underdog, but chronic underachievers.
But it didn't happen. Sort of like how Boston Red Sox fans, 86 years without a championship, suffered under the media-created Curse of the Bambino, while the Chicago White Sox went even longer without a championship, and never had a similar mythical storyline applied to them. It's anybody's guess how these decisions are made.
It's clear that Bill Belichick, to the rest of the nation, is an unlikable character. Like the dirty, evil Patriots meme, this is not an unprecedented concept: former Globe football columnist Ron Borges clearly had an ongoing personality conflict with Belichick throughout the first three Super Bowl seasons, even going so far as to make ridiculous predictions about the team simply because they were negative. Something was up there behind the scenes--that much became patently obvious.
But to most football fans in Boston, Ron Borges was a laughingstock. To a football audience across the country, the talking heads on CBS, NBC, FOX and ESPN are where they get their information about teams. And it seems that here, the way the Patriots and Bill Belichick come across, the way they deal with the press, has swung the storylines in their opponents' favor.
Now we come to 2007. And the "underdog" storyline that so infuriated me last year has been given new life by Camera-Gate and the ridiculous gnitpicking of late about running up the score. The storyline that was applied to the Patriots as a model franchise of choirboys has been amended, and the upcoming battle with the Colts is now being cast, straight-facedly, as a battle of Good vs. Evil. And I'm sure you can guess who's on the "evil" side.
I will say this: the team's image and press relations are a part of Bill Belichick's job. They are also a part of his job he obviously doesn't care about, and now his team's image is suffering the consequences. If he's to blame for anything in this situation, it's that.
But the rest? The Patriots as the Evil Empire and the Colts as lovable underdogs? Forget about Belichick and whether or not he's a jerk. Why does Tom Brady not warrant some respect? He's on pace to smash the single-season touchdown record this year, something that was covered with Peyton Manning in 2004 as if he was discovering the cure for cancer, but Brady's running up the score. Peyton Manning was the best thing since sliced bread when he was breaking records, but this year, Bill Cowher feels justified in intimating that someone is going to deliberately hurt Tom Brady if this whole, you know, winning thing keeps up.
This has led me to further, perhaps irrational resentment (okay, more like deep-seated hatred) of the Colts. But objectively, the Colts, like the Pats, have found a way to beat a system that's working to keep everybody at .500. Unlike in baseball, football teams work with a salary cap; neither the Colts or Patriots has been given any resource not available to the rest of the teams in the NFL. Both have simply made excellent personnel decisions, whether coaches or players, and both have instituted intelligently designed systems that let them rise above the rest of the fray.
So how come only one of them gets credit?
Showdown in Indy--the Pats fan perspective
Call me naive, but I live in a world where if someone beats you, you try to improve. You don't "go Gilooly" as I've heard it put.
I think Bill Belichick lives in that world too. I think he is devoted to football for football's sake. His interpersonal skills may leave something to be desired, but to retreat from improvement and unflagging effort to improve at any point, for any reason, goes against absolutely everything that the Patriots dynasty has been built upon. To suggest that such a retreat should happen is to insult the very real work and dedication every player on the Patriots roster has put in to be better than their opponent, by acting like it's something they've just been handed.
For whatever reason, that's exactly what's happening. And so we find ourselves facing off against our rivals in what should be a celebration of football at its highest echelons. But rather than appreciate what we're seeing, people would rather focus on cults of personality and whether or not everybody gets a cookie.
The thing Patriots fans have to fall back on, as demands we apologize for our team's success continue, is the fact that every year so far, when the dust settled, the better team has been left standing, and great football has been played. All the yammering in the pregame show doesn't change what happens after kickoff.
But I have to say, this year, more than any other, I can't wait until that clock starts ticking, and we can focus on what's real.
P.S. I want to also point out that it appears at least one member of the press sees things as I do: Eric Wilbur in this must-read piece on Boston.com.
If you're interested in even further Colts-Pats recommended reading, I'm aggregating choice articles and posts over here.