INDIANAPOLIS – It seems like it happens every year. The schedule-maker spits out New England and Indianapolis onto the NFL slate, and it usually is slotted in a prime spot during the season.
Whether it is in Foxborough or Indianapolis, the matchups have lived up to the advanced billing. Sometimes the contests have exceeded even the most unreasonable expectations, and the last six contests have been decided by an average of 3.7 points a game.
For the first time since 2004, the teams will not be meeting during November. This year's encounter finds the Colts traveling to Gillette Stadium on the first Sunday in December.
"Obviously, there have been a lot of great games, and there have been a lot of hard-fought games," said Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell. "(The series) has had, probably, a different face on each and every one, because dynamics have changed. Whether we played there or here, and what was at stake for the particular game, there was always this time of year, typically, a lot at stake. That's what I think made the rivalry so intense, because both teams had typically played extremely well during the early part of the year and that was a very key game, just in terms of sort of setting the pace for the playoffs, where you're going to be seeded and things of that nature. It was always big, but it (New England) was a team laden with a lot of playmakers, so it was always pretty exciting."
When most Colts fans look back on the rivalry, many point to the AFC Championship game on January 21, 2007. The Colts had lost their two previous playoff matchups with the Patriots, in the AFC Championship game after the 2003 season and in the Divisional Playoffs the next year.
Late in the first half of the title game, it looked the same script from the two previous playoff games was going to be followed. The Colts fell behind, 21-3, but a late field goal by Adam Vinatieri brought the home team within two scores just before intermission.
The Colts would come out firing in the second half, scoring on their first two series and tying the game at 21. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would answer with a touchdown drive of his own.
Looking to tie the game back up at 28, the Colts caught the break they needed when running back Dominic Rhodes fumbled at the one-yard line, center Jeff Saturday pounced on the ball for his first career NFL touchdown.
It was time for the Colts defense to step up and stop the potent Patriots offense. Indianapolis limited New England to field goals on the next two possessions, then forced a final three-and-out to give the offense one last crack down by three.
Manning led the offense on an 80-yard drive in just more than a minute, capped off by running back Joseph Addai's three-yard touchdown run with one minute to go.
For defensive end Dwight Freeney, the weight had been lifted and that game sits atop all the others in this rivalry for him.
"AFC Championship. Definitely my favorite moment and all the way to the Super Bowl," Freeney said. "I think that was definitely when we went out there and finally beat the Patriots in the playoffs."
Vinatieri had been a component to many winning moments with New England. He was with the Colts this time.
"The AFC Championship game for sure. That was a lot of fun," Vinatieri said. "Obviously, the team that wins that game gets to go to the Super Bowl, and that was kind of a big thing this organization needed to get that win to kind of get that monkey off their back for a lot of years. For sure that would be the one."
That game was the last time the two have met in the playoffs, but they have met the past four regular seasons as well.
Once again in 2009, the Colts would face another comeback against the Patriots, this time with their 8-0 record on the line.
Down 34-21 with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Colts cut the lead to six on an Addai touchdown run.
The Patriots then tried to run out the final two minutes, but the Colts held on third-and-short. On fourth-and-two from the Patriots' 28-yard line, running back Kevin Faulk was held to one yard on a reception, giving the Colts possession one more time.
Three plays later, Manning found wide receiver Reggie Wayne for a touchdown and kicker Matt Stover's extra point completed the comeback for the Colts.
Colts veteran long-snapper Justin Snow has been a part of 15 Colts-Patriots matchups, with his favorite coming in 2009.
"I'm sure everybody is going to the say the AFC Championship game," Snow said. "The last time we played here (2009), that was a special game just cause us coming back and winning."
Guard Mike Pollak joined the Colts in 2008. His first game against the Patriots came when the Colts were 3-4 in his rookie season. Indianapolis desperately needed a win to create momentum for the season, and they grinded out an 18-15 victory to start a streak of nine consecutive victories to end the year.
"Probably my rookie year, playing against them the first time," Pollak said of his favorite moment. "Just knowing the history behind the matchup and just being a part of it (is memorable). Then the next year in 2009 when we had the comeback, that's one of those games you will never forget."
Even with the Colts struggling at this point in the season, neither side will be taking things lightly on Sunday.
"It's one of those games where it's obvious that the rivalry is there," cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "Let's just say that the rivalry is so intense that nobody is going to take it easy on anybody, no matter what the situation is. That's just how rivalries go, and we're going to have our hands full. Tom (Brady) being Tom (Brady) once again, (Rob) Gronkowski is doing a tremendous job (and with Aaron) Hernandez, Deion Branch and Wes Welker, you've got a list of targets that (Tom Brady) can go to. (They have a) tremendous offense, and I think their defense is…playing way better than what I think they were playing in the first (half) of the year. It's going to be another tough match-up."
Caldwell has seen every one of the Colts-Patriots games since 2003. Like any head coach, he would refrain from spending time living in the past. He is aware of what the games have meant to the viewing public and to the followers of each team. The past games have held great significance.
"There have been a lot of great games, a lot of great challenges up there," said Caldwell. "We've battled against them and played hard and played well. We've been disappointed also. Down here, we've had some great, great matchups, some come-from-behind victories. There are a lot of them that stick out in my mind. I don't know if I want to label one, but there are a lot of them are very, very good."