Last decade, the Indianapolis Colts versus the New England Patriots was perhaps the greatest rivalry in the NFL, mainly driven by the Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady quarterback matchup.
The Patriots knocked the Colts out of the playoffs twice early on in Manning's career, and his Colts later got revenge by defeating New England in an AFC Championship game. It became a matchup of the league's best team against the league's best player, as the Patriots had a streak of three Super Bowls in four years at one point while Manning had a streak of four MVP awards in seven years. But before all of that, the Patriots and Colts were teams trying to turn their franchises around.
The Colts got a head start when they drafted Manning in 1998, and the next year they went 13-3. The Patriots, meanwhile, started to turn things around in 2000 when they drafted Brady and hired Bill Belichick as head coach.
Belichick's first season in New England didn't go too well, however, as the Patriots went 5-11 in his first season. They split the season series with the Colts that year (the two teams were in the same division back then), but with Manning and the Colts on the rise Belichick and the Patriots knew that they must account for their division opponent. So Belichick and his staff spent time in the offseason preparing for the Colts.
The MMQB's Jenny Vrentras recently posted a very interesting interview with Rex and Rob Ryan, and the two told a story from the 2000 season. Rex was a defensive line coach with the Baltimore Ravens and was preparing to coach in the Super Bowl, while Rob was a linebackers coach with the Patriots (who had obviously missed the playoffs). Rex mentioned how he remembered calling Rob up and discovering that Rob Ryan was still in the office despite the fact that the Patriots hadn't played in weeks and wouldn't play again for months. The Super Bowl hadn't even happened yet, but Rob Ryan was in the office working on a project for Bill Belichick: studying the Colts.
REX: I’m the defensive line coach. We talk as twins do, well it used to be every day, but it was a couple times a week. We’re practicing, doing all the preparation, before the Super Bowl. There’s no bigger game than the Super Bowl. So I’m going home, and I’m calling Rob, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ He is in the office. Now, his team hasn’t played for five weeks.
ROB: Right, we have the worst team in football. We’re 5-11.
REX: He’s doing some project for Belichick.
ROB: Oh yeah. On the Colts. And we got to them pretty good the next season; we mastered them pretty good.
VRENTAS: You were the studying the Colts for next season in January?
So there you have it: Bill Belichick and his staff spent a lot of time studying the Colts, and it's likely that they did so for all of their upcoming opponents. They likely focused more on the Colts because of the fact that Indy was in their division and because Peyton Manning presented such a tough challenge to defend, and they started that project in January following the 2000 season. It seemed to work for them, as the following season the Patriots defeated the Colts twice: 44-13 at home and 38-17 on the road. That 2001 season was the last time the two were in the same division, but it started a six-game winning streak against Manning and the Colts before things finally turned around in 2005 with a Colts victory.
Every team does a lot of preparation for opponents in the offseason, but starting those projects before that year's Super Bowl had even taken place just goes to show the high level of attention and meticulous preparation that has helped the Patriots become one of the models of consistency in the NFL. It seems Bill Belichick always finds ways to outsmart his opponents, and that starts with a lot of work put in during the offseason - even if its as simple as tasking linebackers coach Rob Ryan with studying the Colts in January for the upcoming season.