Since Tom Brady became the quarterback of the New England Patriots back in 2001, the franchise has had a number of worthy adversaries over the years. From Jason Taylor and the Miami Dolphins to Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos, teams and players have come and gone, but no rivalry was more fierce on the field than the one between Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Pats and Peyton Manning, Bill Polian and the Indianapolis Colts.
The teams have squared off ten times during the regular season and three more in the playoffs during the past decade, almost all of them with either a birth in the Super Bowl or conference championship game, or potential home field advantage on the line. There's been sniping over the rules, incredible comebacks, dominating performances, and memorable late game heroics.
The rivalry has been one of the biggest in the AFC and, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers, they have dominated the league over the past decade. Unfortunately, this great rivalry, and one of the greatest eras in NFL history may be coming to an end.
Team architect and Colts vice chairman Bill Polian and his son, general manager Chris, were fired today after the team competed one of the worst seasons in franchise history by going 2-14. Manning, who is coming off neck fusion surgery that cost him the entire season, told ESPN that he was shocked by the move:
Bill and I and Chris Polian has been here the whole time, too, had a great ride with tremendous highs and it makes me very sad that this ends on such a negative note.
The historically poor season does have a silver lining though, as the team now has the number one pick in the 2012 NFL Draft in its back pocket. Experts believe that the Colts will use that pick to select Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as an heir apparent to Peyton Manning.
Earlier this season, Peyton's father Archie Manning acknowledged that, should the Colts select Luck with the number one pick, there might not be enough room on the roster for both, as Luck appears to be ready to play right away and won't need a year to be mentored.
I don't think it'd necessarily be great for either one. I think Andrew's the type of mature player ... he can walk right in [and play as a rookie].
Should the Colts select Luck, who completed his final college season on Monday night with an epic performance in the Fiesta Bowl in a losing effort against Oklahoma St., the writing may be on the wall for Manning, whose career is far closer to the end then the beginning. Should Manning be released or traded, a little part of all Patriots fans will leave with him.
It's likely that Manning and the Patriots will tangle at least a few more times before his career is over, as he's expected to make a recovery. But, as with players like Joe Montana, who finished his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, it won't feel quite the same to see him in a different uniform.
Manning was alternately a player that Patriots fans loved to hate and one who struck abject terror into their hearts. The electricity in the crowd for the 2003 AFC Championship Game and 2004 Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium, both dominant Pats wins, was incredible. The fans stuck their chests out, sure that Bill Belichick's defenses were simply too much for Manning to overcome.
After the latter, then general manager Bill Polian complained publicly about the amount of contact Pats DB's were allowed to make with Colts receivers, eventually lobbying successfully to change the rules to favor his team. A move that only enraged Pats fans, but also proved to them that the Manning and the Colts couldn't beat the Pats on the field.
Then there were also the dark times. In the 2006 AFC Championship Game, history looked poised to repeat it self with the Pats leading 21-6 at halftime before the defense faded down the stretch and Manning put on a show for the ages in the fourth quarter, rallying the Colts to a 38-34 win, followed by Manning's first and only Super Bowl win.
It's been a back and forth affair between the two great franchises, but Patriots fans will always point to their three Super Bowl trophies during the rivalry as the true barometer of which team won this battle.
As we look toward the future, it's entirely possible that Andrew Luck and the new regime in Indianapolis will grow to be a great rival of the Patriots in the near future. Luck reminds many of John Elway with his ability to beat you both with his arm and his legs, and he also brings to mind the man he may be replacing. Luck was largely given the same freedom to call his own plays the Manning enjoyed the last several years in Indianapolis. His potential in the NFL seems almost limitless, and he'll instantly make the Colts playoff contenders again with a few tweaks to the roster.
But make no mistake, the rivalry that defined the Tom Brady era of the franchise was centered around Peyton Manning, Bill Polian, and the Colts franchise. Even those Pats fans who loved "The Manning Face", hated his Sprint commercials, and despised the way Polian constantly tried to manipulate the rules to benefit his finesse driven team, they'll have to admit that the league won't be quite the same anymore when the Patriots line up against the Colts and don't see any of the same faces that battled them tooth and nail for the last decade with so much on the line.