INDIANAPOLIS — The calendar has turned to February, and the New England Patriots are still playing football.
That's not surprising, of course, given that the Patriots tonight will be playing in their third straight Super Bowl — and their ninth big game since the 2001 season overall.
That's nine Super Bowl appearances in 17 seasons. In a league that features 32 franchises, 16 in each conference, there has been more than a 50-percent chance the Patriots will have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl over almost a two-decade span.
These are facts that might be tough to hear — or downright maddening — for Indianapolis Colts fans, but they're important pieces of context to what the team has been up against since the turn of the century.
If you're the Colts (or any other AFC team, for that matter), for the better part of 20 years, you've known that if you want to accomplish your ultimate goal of hoisting that Lombardi trophy at the end of the season, you're going to have to somehow get by the Patriots down the stretch.
Indianapolis was more than capable of keeping up in the first decade of the 2000s. The Colts avenged two playoff losses to the Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 seasons by defeating New England in a wild 2006 AFC Championship Game, propelling Indy to its championship in Super Bowl XLI. The Colts then closed out the decade with two straight regular season victories over the Patriots.
In other words, Patriots-Colts was appointment viewing.
But it's been all New England since that time.
Since 2010, the Patriots have won all eight of their contests against the Colts, including two playoff matchups — the most recent of which occurring in the 2014 AFC Championship Game.
In 2017, the Colts hired a new general manager in Chris Ballard, who immediately began reconstructing the roster with the hope of re-igniting Indy's tradition of sustained success.
From afar, in his various roles with the Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs, Ballard was well-aware of the Colts-Patriots rivalry. But even then, Ballard couldn't quite grasp some of the collective groans from Colts fans when one of his first acts as the team's GM was to trade the team's starting tight end, Dwayne Allen, and a sixth-round pick to New England in exchange for a fourth-round pick.
At the time, Ballard recently admitted, he "didn't get the rivalry here in town."
"I mean, look: I traded with them right away, trade Dwayne Allen to them. Like, I came in here and our working relationship had always been really good with New England," Ballard said recently in an appearance on "The Dan Dakich Show" on 1070 The Fan. "We trade Dwayne Allen, and the sky is falling. 'They've traded with the Patriots?' I'm like, 'What's the big deal? I mean, they're just like any other team in the league.'"
Then came the Josh McDaniels saga.
Almost a year ago to this day, on Feb. 4, 2018, the Patriots were defeated by the Philadelphia Eagles, 41-33, in Super Bowl LII. Two days later, the Colts announced that McDaniels, the Patriots' offensive coordinator, had agreed to terms to be their new head coach, with an introductory press conference set for the next day in Indianapolis.
Early that evening, however, McDaniels called Ballard to tell him that he was having a change of heart; he was going to stay with the Patriots.
In a press conference the following day, Ballard explained what had happened with McDaniels, and what the mindset of the franchise was moving forward.
But with the session with reporters wrapping up, Ballard said, almost in passing, "The rivalry is back on."
"After the incident with Josh (McDaniels), to see our fans, the passion that they have for the rivalry with New England, I got it," Ballard said last week. "Like, I got it."
We know the story from there. The Colts would end up hiring former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich to be their next head coach, and he would turn in a 10-6 record in his first season and lead Indy to its first playoff appearance in four seasons.
The irony, of course, is had the Colts, who defeated the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, been able to overcome the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round, they would've taken on the — you guessed it — Patriots in the AFC Championship Game once again.
Ballard acknowledges there's still a ton of work left to be done before the Colts can get back to where their series against the Patriots can even be considered a "rivalry" once again. After all, New England did defeat Indy, 38-24, back in Week 5 this past season.
But it's hard to dispute that the Colts are, at the very least, on the right track.
"I'm all in with the rivalry. Damn right," Ballard said. "We've gotta make it a rivalry. I mean, the rivalry's back on, but we've gotta make it a rivalry. They've been whippin' our ass here for a while. We've gotta make it a rivalry."