Seriously, at what point do we get the friggin Lions and the useless Cowboys off the usual Thanksgiving Day plate of NFL games and get Patriots v. Colts as an annual Turkey Day game. Is there a more anticipated game each and every year? Does this game not always generate the best TV ratings? Would you rather see (arguably) the two best franchises in the NFL the last ten years, or a Cowboys team that has won one playoff game since Bill Clinton's first term in office?
November football is defined by the Patriots and Colts, regardless of record. Everyone else is the undercard.
There will be plenty of time tomorrow for Matt Grecco to dive into the guts of his Thursday previews. for this little post, we talk about the legacy of Pats v. Colts. Many are unwilling to admit this, but the New England v. Indianapolis rivalry is the biggest in professional sports. Yankees v. Red Sox, Celtics v. Lakers, Browns v. Steelers, Chiefs v. Raiders, Cubs v. Cardinals, Rangers v. Islanders, Duke v. UNC, and even Indiana v. Purdue are all secondary to a modern rivalry that has helped put pro football on top as THE game for American audiences.
It all starts with the quarterbacks. Peyton Manning is the greatest QB of his generation, and possibly the best ever. Even though Tom Brady has two more championship rings, people today do not talk about Brady as being in the same class as Peyton. For one, Peyton has an NFL record four league MVPs. For years, Patriots fans scoffed at such accolades, saying championships made one player better than the other.
This argument goes out the window when you consider that Terry Bradshaw has four rings.
But what has made Brady v. Manning so special is not solely the fan rivalry. I mean, all of us could debate until the end of time the merits of both players. What has been especially enjoyable for someone like me to watch is seeing all the false myths Pats fans held onto in regards to Peyton Manning blow up in their faces. Now, when I talk to most Pats fans about Manning and the Colts, I don't get the usual 'He's a Chokah!' vomit tossed in my face.
Today, for the most part, Pats fans given Peyton the respect he's always deserved much the same way we Colts fans have always respected Brady. Of course, going 5-1 against the Patriots over the last five years certainly can go a long way to changing people's perceptions of a player and a team. It also helps when you see both players, who are fast friends, show mutual respect towards one another.
One of the funniest stories I've ever read regarding Brady was his first meeting with Peyton. I remember that game well as a fan. The 2001 Colts were facing a Patriots team the week after Drew Bledsoe had his chest crushed by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. Starting in his place was this nobody kid from Michigan who was drafted in the sixth round. PFT elaborates [emphasis mine]:
Brady wasn’t a particularly well known player at the time, while Manning was already a two-time Pro Bowler, so Brady thought it was sort of unnecessary for Manning to tell him his name.
"My first start came against the Colts," Brady said. "And Peyton came over on our
field and said, ‘Hey, Peyton Manning.’ And I said, ‘no shit.""
Since that first meeting, Brady said, he’s come to admire Manning as both a person and a quarterback.
"I’m always keeping up on Peyton," Brady said. "We talk from time to time and I have a lot of respect for him as a player, for the role model he is, the way he carries himself, the way he leads his team, the way he’s a representative for the league."
In many ways, both players represent two sides of the same coin when it comes to how one can 'make it' in the NFL. Manning comes from a family with deep roots in the NFL. His father was a great QB in his day (better than Bradshaw). His brother, Eli Manning, is a top tier NFL QB. Like Eli, Peyton was drafted #1 overall, which (along with tens of millions of dollars) comes the burden of carrying an entire franchise on his shoulders. no player has come into the NFL with more expectations than Peyton Manning. Every little mistake has always been scrutinized. Every instance when he is shown to be human demonized.
Remember Bradshaw acting like an ass on FOX after Manning spoke about his offensive line following the playoff loss to the Steelers?
Remember when people said he couldn't beat [insert team name here]?
Remember when he couldn't win a 'big game?'
Remember after seeing him do so, the definition of a 'big game' kept changing?
Thirteen years later, the man has won a ring, four league MVPs, a Super Bowl MVP, and will likely retire holding every meaningful passing record in the books. Defensive coordinators fear his name. Future Hall of Fame coaches like Bill Belichick don't talk about matching wits with people like Jim Caldwell. They talk about matching wits with Manning.
While we have seen many other #1 overall picks bust out (with names like David Carr, JaMarcus Russell, and Tom Couch) Peyton Manning is a rare example of a highly touted player actually delivering on his hype.
Contrast this with Tom Brady, who is a living symbol of how vital the NFL draft is after the first round. Prior to Brady, fans and media alike did not give two craps about who their team drafted in later rounds. Today, fans talk about how some kid from such-and-such state college in Nowheresville, CA could be 'the next Tom Brady.'
Brady came into this league without anyone expecting him to amount to anything, including the people who drafted him. Brady was always seen as someone who could, if he were lucky, work his way into the back-up role for Drew Bledsoe. He was the equivalent of Curtis Painter for the Patriots back then. Heck, at the start of the season, he was the equivalent to Tom Brandstater due in part because Bledsoe was (at that time) the unquestioned starter and his back-up was Damon Huard.
But, in typical Tom Brady fashion, he worked his ass off to not just become better than Huard and Bledsoe, but better than just about everyone else playing.
Consider that, prior to Tom Brady falling into his lap, Bill Belichick was considered a joke as a head coach. He wasn't viewed any different in 2001 (before Tom Brady developed into a championship-winning QB) as Eric Mangini of the Browns is today. Now, people talk about ole Bill in the same breath as Hallas, Lombardi, and Landry.
Prior to working with Peyton Manning, former-Colts coach Tony Dungy had a reputation for knowing nothing about offense.
Great QBs have a knack for making the people around them look very, very good.
As we gear up for yet another November meeting between the Patriots and the Colts, I really hope everyone here takes a second to appreciate just how amazing and special this rivalry is. Ten years from now, both Peyton and Tommy will be retired as players. The rivalry will change, and possibly dilute back to what it was before 18 and 12 strapped on helmets and directed no-huddle offenses to glory.
Like all great things, this rivalry will, one day, end. We should all enjoy it, every last bit of it, while it is still here.
Go Pats! Go Colts!