FOXBOROUGH — Patriots safety Devin McCourty courteously answered questions about the lore and allure of the Patriots-Colts rivalry. But he spoke about the epic clashes from the Peyton Manning era like he was discussing something he had read about in a history book.
He could have been talking about the French Revolution or the fall of the Berlin Wall. McCourty faced the Manning iteration of the horseshoe helmets just once (2010) and never in the playoffs.
In a league where success whithers away like a desiccated flower, it’s a testament to just how remarkable the run the consecrated coupling of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have authored that they have spanned one Indianapolis epoch to another.
Indy has reconstructed its team in an entirely different image, that of Andrew Luck, and Brady and Belichick are still standing in their way.
The Patriots are the AFC’s team of right now. The Colts are the team of tomorrow. That’s why if the Patriots lose Sunday’s AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium to Indianapolis 2.0 it will be the worst playoff loss of Brady and Belichick’s esteemed partnership, a span of 19 playoff wins, five AFC Championships, and three Super Bowl titles.
That’s right, the worst.
Certainly, there have been more soul-crushing losses. Nothing will top the sheer emptiness of blowing a perfect season in Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants. There have been more disappointing playoff losses. Losing to Vociferous Rex and the New York Jets in the 2010 AFC divisional playoffs was a kick in the teeth. There have been more embarrassing losses — a lifeless and Wes Welker-less New England team getting smoked at home, 33-14, by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 playoffs.
But given that the Patriots are in the AFC title game for the fourth straight year, the (cross your fingers) health of tight end Rob Gronkowski, the ticking championship biological clock of Brady, the presence of cornerback Darrelle Revis, and their sheer dominance of the Colts, losing this game would be a disaster.
There was never any shame in losing to the Manning Colts, which the Patriots did only once in three playoff games.
|Jan. 19, 2002||Divisional||OAK||16-13, W|
|Jan. 27, 2002||AFC Championship||at PIT||24-17, W|
|Feb. 3, 2002||Super Bowl||STL||20-17, W|
|Jan. 10, 2004||Divisional||TEN||17-14, W|
|Jan. 18, 2004||AFC Championship||IND||24-14, W|
|Feb. 1, 2004||Super Bowl||CAR||32-29, W|
|Jan. 16, 2005||Divisional||IND||20-3, W|
|Jan. 23, 2005||AFC Championship||at PIT||41-27, W|
|Feb. 6, 2005||Super Bowl||PHI||24-21, W|
|Jan. 7, 2006||Wild Card||JAX||28-3, W|
|Jan. 17, 2006||Divisional||at DEN||27-13, L|
|Jan. 7, 2007||Wild Card||NYJ||37-16, W|
|Jan. 14, 2007||Divisional Round||at SDG||24-21, W|
|Jan. 21, 2007||AFC Championship||at IND||38-34, L|
|Jan. 12, 2008||Divisional||JAX||31-20, W|
|Jan.20, 2008||AFC Championship||SDG||21-12, W|
|Feb. 3, 2008||Super Bowl||NYG||17-14, L|
|Jan. 10, 2010||Wild Card||BAL||33-14, L|
|Jan. 16, 2011||Divisional||NYJ||28-21, L|
|Jan. 14, 2012||Divisional||DEN||45-10, W|
|Jan. 22, 2012||AFC Championship||BAL||23-20, W|
|Feb. 5, 2012||Super Bowl||NYG||21-17, L|
|Jan. 13, 2013||Divisional||HOU||41-28, W|
|Jan. 20, 2013||AFC Championship||BAL||28-13, L|
|Jan. 11, 2014||Divisional||IND||43-22, W|
|Jan. 19, 2014||AFC Championship||at DEN||26-16, L|
|Jan. 10, 2015||Divisional||BAL||35-31, W|
Sure, the Patriots squandered a 21-3 lead in the 2006 AFC Championship game in the greenhouse environs of the RCA Dome. But that Patriots team started Eric Alexander at linebacker and had Reche Caldwell as Brady’s top target. Those Colts had beaten the Patriots earlier that season at Gillette with Brady throwing four picks.
There would be ignominy in losing to Indianapolis this time, despite the proclamations from the Patriots this week that the Colts have morphed into the 1972 Miami Dolphins since New England used them as doormats in a 42-20 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium on Nov. 16.
Jim Irsay doesn’t own these Colts. The Patriots do.
In three meetings against Indianapolis since Luck arrived, the Patriots have scored 59, 43 and 42 points and defeated the Colts by an average of 26 points. Last year, they dispatched Indianapolis, 43-22, in the divisional playoffs at Gillette Stadium.
Both the Giants in 2007 and the Jets, who beat the Patriots in the teams’ first meeting in 2010, had previously proven they could be competitive with the Patriots.
The Patriots haven’t just beaten the Colts. They’ve terrorized them on terra firma. [Insert Patriots running back here] has run all over Indy and ended up on the Sports Illustrated cover.
Last year, LeGarrette Blount was a coverboy after he ran for 166 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. New England ran for 234 yards and six touchdowns on 46 carries in the playoff win.
The Patriots left tread marks again in November. Jonas Gray ran 37 times for 201 yards and four touchdowns, as the Patriots gashed the Colts for 246 yards and four touchdowns on 44 carries.
Still, Belichick is right not to underestimate the Colts. In Belichickian fashion, the Colts and coach Chuck Pagano squeeze every ounce of toothpaste out of their talent tube.
Indianapolis has the framework of a championship team. It’s just the inside still has a “pardon our appearance” feel.
Their offensive line is patchwork. They’ve haven’t had a running back reach 100 yards in a game all season.
The days of pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (out for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon) screaming out of the blocks like Usain Bolt to harass quarterbacks are over. T.Y. Hilton is the most underrated wide receiver in the league. But Father Time and injuries have the estimable Reggie Wayne running a career out route.
Luck leading the Colts to the AFC title game in his third season is like LeBron James leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs in his fourth year and getting swept.
You have the Next Big Thing completely outmanned against its long-standing gold standard.
If you could genetically engineer a quarterback you would end up with Luck. Like his predecessor, he has an NFL pedigree (his father Oliver was an NFL quarterback). He has a howitzer for an arm. He can run. He has a Stanford-honed beautiful mind.
But just like Manning, Luck has been befuddled by Belichick.
Luck has thrown six touchdowns and eight interceptions against the Patriots. He also has a fumble. He has completed 53.8 percent of his passes.
The Other 12 is a great player, but this season Luck committed 22 turnovers, the second-most in the league behind Jay Cutler’s 24.
The stars have aligned for the Patriots to reach their sixth Super Bowl and attempt to win the ever elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy.
They’re at home. The Big Three of Brady, Gronk and Revis is healthy. They have a made-to-order matchup.
Cementing a 10-year title drought by losing a third straight AFC title game to a Colts club they’ve dominated would be Fort Foxborough’s most epic fail.