In my early years of being an NFL fan, one of the things that was a constant part of life was hating the Indianapolis Colts. The only reason I did so was because I was a New England Patriots fan and they were the biggest obstacle to my team being the best. Having started to follow the NFL (& Patriots) in the 2000 season and really beginning to pay attention in 2002; that was the first rivalry I learned about because we were bombarded with the Brady vs Manning storylines every season. I took special joy watching Bill Belichick ***** slap Peyton Manning in the playoffs as the Patriots went back to the Super Bowl and when they lost in the AFC Championship game, I was gutted. Still to this day my friends make fun of me for how intense my hatred for the Colts was at that time.
After Manning won Super Bowl XLI against Chicago (one that Patriots fans have to consider as one of the ones that got away) something changed. To me Pats-Colts was still the premiere rivalry in the NFL, but it had changed from a blind hatred to a begrudging respect. Maybe I had matured or something, who knows, but in the last few years I had learned to respect what Manning and Brady were to the game and was able to appreciate seeing two all time legends going head to head. In 2008 when Brady missed the season after being “Pollarded” I realised just how special this rivalry was and last season, when Manning was out with his neck issue, I actually missed seeing the rivals going at it because after all, how many of these contests do we have left? Every year it was the biggest regular season game on the schedule, a guaranteed ratings hit for CBS, NBC or ESPN, whoever was lucky enough to hold the broadcast rights for it and it was one game I made sure I would never miss because, despite my newfound respect for Manning, I still wanted the Patriots to kick his ass in twelve difference directions and leave him battered and bruised.
When Manning left the Colts that rivalry looked like it had died as most assumed the Colts were a few years off being a contender while Andrew Luck grew into his role as the next NFL great, by which stage Brady would either be off the Patriots and possibly retired as well. Based on what we have seen in the preseason, Luck vs Mallet may not quite have the same cache either as it would be a very one sided rivalry, sort of like Manning vs Schaub/Carr. However, the Colts are somehow relevant again after one absolutely awful season and the Patriots are still the Patriots, making this Sunday’s game something to really look forward to. We get to see Brady, a surefire, first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, possibly the greatest of all time, going against Luck a young player, still finding his feet in the league who is already playing better than half of his peers. Sure he’s made some rookie mistakes but you can’t question the skills of the kid based on what we have seen so far and it certainly shapes up to be a great matchup to look forward to over the next couple of seasons at least while Brady is still in his prime. Even with the competitiveness of two 6-3 teams facing off in a national feature game, this rivalry still feels like it’s lacking a bit of fire to it and I think it is mostly to do with the fact that the Colts are such a good story for everyone to enjoy this year.
I’ll admit to being a sucker for a great, Cinderella storyline in sports. Watching the Patriots go through the league the way they did in 2001 when I was still learning about the team and the NFL in general was great. When the Saints returned to New Orleans in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina I couldn’t help but be caught up in the emotion of the season as they were playing for their city, not just the team. Despite not knowing much or caring about the Cardinals prior to 2008 I was as big a fan as anyone in Australia when they faced the Steelers in the Super Bowl that year, it is just so much fun getting behind those teams that are overcoming more than their opponents to be successful. The Colts this year are like that team with several great off-field storylines to make them this year’s national sweetheart team. Gone were front office villains (at least in New England) Bill and Chris Polian as was head coach Jim Caldwell who was part of the old Dungy regime. In their places were Ryan Grigson as the new GM and Chuck Pagano as the head coach bringing about a new era in Colts football. Luck was drafted to be the new face of the franchise and is having a great rookie year so far. This Colts team that I used to hate so strongly is gone and now you have a young team full of players that do not have name recognition yet but they are on their way to earning it.
Finally you have the biggest factor as to why this Colts team has been adopted by many as their “if my team can’t win it…” team, Chuck Pagano is battling Leukaemia, a real ***** of a disease to have. While it may seem callous to suggest, Pagano’s illness could prove to be the catalyst for this team’s success this year. It gave the team something to galvanise around and something real to play for, they want to do well for their coach and give him some joy during this dark period in his life. Having seen the effect something like this can have last year with the Patriots wearing their MHK patch honouring Myra Kraft, there is something to be said for a team having something extra to play for. While the theme for this year of “Chuckstrong” is probably a little bit too close to a certain cyclist’s campaign given recent news events the idea is fantastic. When Pagano gave his emotional locker room speech a couple of weeks ago, that pushed everyone over the line and gave them a reason to love the Colts and what they are doing this year. Pagano’s cool, calm determination to work his way back from his adversity has rubbed off on his team this year and they will no doubt be a contender thanks to his team’s determination to win for him.
Because of all of those factors, this weekend’s Colts-Patriots game has taken on a completely different context to that of the last decade where there was a blind hatred and a desire to see the Colts get their faces smashed into the dirt. While I still want the Patriots to win, I feel like all of these factors make it impossible to hate the Colts this year. It’s certainly a weird place to be in as a Patriots fan, not hating the Colts but in a way, it’s also kind of cool seeing a former rival become a sympathetic figure that has plenty of support behind it. While I would be lying to say I was spiritual in any way, shape or form, if the Colts win this weekend, I will start to believe there is something special going on with this team. Of course I am still backing the Patriots to get up, but I think every other week I will have a fraction of my attention focused the way of the horseshoe to see how they are going.