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Best game in town

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  November 10, 2009 11:49 AM

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Christopher L. Gasper

With apologies to Harvard and Yale, Patriots vs. Colts is now The Game.

It has reached rarefied air among rivalries, going beyond a much-anticipated matchup and becoming, like all great rivalries, a measuring stick for both teams and their iconic quarterbacks -- Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

If you listened or read the quotes of Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his Colts counterpart, Jim Caldwell, you'd believe that Sunday's game at Lucas Oil Stadium between the Patriots and Colts is a big game only because it's the one they're playing this week.

That Jedi mind trick might work on your players because they get paid to believe your spurious spin, but you can't downplay this rivalry for the rest of us, not when it's the best one on the New England sports scene right now.

No, I'm not suffering from amnesia. I realize that the Red Sox and newly-minted World Series champion Yankees haven't disbanded their franchises or ceased their crusades for baseball hegemony. I can't wait for Kobe and the Lakers to come to the parquet in January, but nothing surpasses Patriots-Colts right now in the rivalry rankings for the region.

There are currently few things in sports more enjoyable than watching the rivalry within the Patriots-Colts rivalry between Brady and Manning, who enter Sunday's game with identical touchdown and interception numbers (16 TDs, 5 INTs) after eight games. Their star power and willpower in leading their teams and the fact they only meet once during the regular season makes the game must-see TV. Just ask NBC.

Spare me the fatigue of 18 games of pink-hat pouting and pinstripe paranoia; the Patriots-Colts regular-season matchup has more meaning than Sox-Yankees in the grand scheme of the teams' seasons. The Red Sox and Yankees play 18 times a season. The Patriots and Colts play twice a season max, if we're lucky and get a playoff rematch.

With the Denver Broncos losing last night to drop to 6-2, the same record as the Patriots, Sunday's game between New England and 8-0 Indy could determine who has the inside track for home field advantage in the playoffs. It also will determine who has the psychological edge if the teams meet up in the playoffs.

By comparison, the Red Sox won their first eight games with the Yankees this season, ended up even with them in the season series (9-9) and it didn't matter. They still lost the division by eight games.

There are similarities and links between the Red Sox-Yankees and Patriots-Colts rivalries. The Red Sox have even consulted with Colts president Bill Polian, who recently admitted that the video tribute the Colts did to former running back Edgerrin James this season was based off the electronic encomium the Sox served up for Pedro Martinez when he returned to Fenway with the Mets.

Like Sox-Yankees, the rivalry was once one-sided.

The Patriots used to own the Colts, winning six straight matchups, including two playoff showdowns, from 2001-05, but Indy has won four of the last five meetings with New England, including last season's Brady-less affair at Lucas Oil Stadium.

On the Indianapolis Star website this week there is a video link that recaps the Colts 38-34 win in the 2006 AFC title game, a game in which the Colts rallied from a 21-3 deficit to exorcise the ghosts of Brady and Belichick and then went on to win the Super Bowl.

In Indianapolis, the win is regarded the same way New Englanders view the Red Sox overcoming a 3-0 deficit to vanquish the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series.

It might be a tough pill to swallow for Patriots fans to have their team compared to the Yankees, but it's not totally off base. The Patriots are the destination veteran players (Junior Seau, Shawn Springs) go to when they're in search of a ring like the Yankees. They're also trying to return to their presumed rightful spot atop the sport, like the Yankees.

The rivalry even has its own Johnny Damon in Adam Vinatieri, who played 10 seasons for the Patriots and delivered two of their three Super Bowl championships this decade with game-winning kicks and then fled Foxborough after the 2005 season to sign a five-year, $12 million deal with the Colts. Sadly, Vinatieri won't be playing on Sunday because he is out after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last month.

Like Red-Sox Yankees and any truly epic rivalry the Patriots and Colts bring out the best in each other and respect each other.

"There is a respect in this one," said Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas. "It's not like the Baltimore-Pittsburgh thing where it's nasty. With this one it's, from the coaches to the players, more of a respect factor, respecting each other's game and understanding that both teams play very well."

Don't believe the coaches. Believe the hype. Patriots-Colts is not just another game.

If it were just another game then two years ago after the Patriots rallied from a 20-10 fourth-quarter deficit to snap a three-game losing streak to the Colts and hand them a 24-20 loss, former Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour wouldn't have called it "probably one of the most satisfying wins since I've been here."

If it were just another game, then Colts president Bill Polian wouldn't have jumped for joy in the elevator of the old RCA Dome like a school girl after the final seconds of the 2006 AFC title game ticked away.

It it were just another game, then last season with Brady on the shelf and a keep-away offensive game-plan, Belichick wouldn't have burned a timeout in the third quarter to challenge that the Colts had too many men on the field and then on the same drive gone for a 2-point conversion with his team up 12-7 with 7:48 left in the third quarter.

It's not just another game. It's the best game in town.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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