On February 7, only days after Super Bowl LII, Colts general manager Chris Ballard closed a stunning press conference with strong words: “The rivalry is back on.”
“The rivalry is back on” ??
Colts GM Chris Ballard with the ? walk-off pic.twitter.com/X4KHGdAWuH
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 7, 2018
It was a reference to the ongoing competition – on and off the field – between the Colts and Patriots, the latest iteration of which had left Ballard’s Colts bereft of a new head coach.
Josh McDaniels, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, wasn’t going to become the next head coach in Indianapolis, despite having previously agreed to do so. It was a dramatic reversal of what appeared to be a done deal only hours before.
This last-second twist was just the newest episode in a rivalry that’s produced almost as much backroom intrigue as it has compelling football over the years.
As the Colts prepare to return to Gillette Stadium for the first time since the AFC Championship game in 2015 – the same game that started the Deflategate controversy – here’s a look back at the history of the rivalry.
The Patriots’ defense was so effective, it led to officiating changes.
Both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have deep connections to the Colts. Belichick’s first job in football was working for the then-Baltimore Colts in 1976.
For Brady, his first career start in the NFL came against Colts. The largely unknown quarterback guided the Patriots to a 44-13 win. As the Colts were a divisional opponent at that time (prior to the 2002 divisional realignment), the Patriots went on to beat Indianapolis again that season.
It wasn’t until 2003 that the rivalry was truly born. After a wild Week 13 matchup in which the Patriots won 38-34 due to a goal-line stand, the two teams met in the AFC Championship game.
Played at Gillette Stadium, the normally prolific Peyton Manning was shutdown by Belichick’s defense, throwing four interceptions in a 24-14 loss.
The Patriots swept the regular and postseason games against the Colts again the next season, though the 20-3 playoff win produced the first off-field drama of the rivalry.
In response to the Patriots’ physical approach to defending Colts receivers, then-Colts president Bill Polian “prodded” the league’s competition committee. The result was a change in how defenders were called for contact with receivers after five yards.
By Jan., 2007, the Colts finally gained a measure of revenge. This time in Indianapolis, Manning orchestrated a comeback against Brady’s Patriots in the AFC Championship, 38-34.
Virtually every game the two teams played in this era was decided by a touchdown or less. This peaked in 2009, when an infamous Patriots failure on 4th and 2 led to Manning completing another comeback in Indianapolis, 35-34.
Notably, howerver, Manning’s 2009 win was (through 2018) the last time the Colts have beaten the Patriots.
Patriots-Colts was at the heart of Deflategate.
After Manning’s neck injury ruled him out for the entire 2011 season, the Colts went 2-14 and an era ended in Indianapolis. The following offseason, Manning left for the Broncos, and the Colts selected Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft.
For the first time in a decade, the two teams didn’t meet in 2013. Yet the following season, the earlier pattern of a regular and postseason matchup resumed.
Having dominated the Colts 43-22 in the regular season (a game in which Patriots running back Jonas Gray rushed for four touchdowns), the teams once again met in the AFC Championship game.
One of the most bizarre controversies in recent NFL history was born from the game (which the Patriots won, 45-7). Hours afterward, with the Patriots headed to yet another Super Bowl, Bob Kravitz reported that the NFL was investigating possible tampering with footballs.
Breaking: A league source tells me the NFL is investigating the possibility the Patriots deflated footballs Sunday night. More to come.
— Bob Kravitz (@bkravitz) January 19, 2015
From this tweet, a multiyear drama that became known as “Deflategate” ensued. Tom Brady, who was accused of knowingly orchestrating the illegal deflation of footballs (making them easier to grip), was eventually suspended four games for his alleged involvement.
The source of the complaint against the Patriots (and the under-inflation of footballs) came from the Colts. Then-general manager Ryan Grigson was later identified as the person who notified the league.
Unfortunately for the Colts, the actual games played against the Patriots in this era were one-sided. Since Manning’s 2009 comeback win, the Colts have been 0-7 against the Patriots (including the playoff matchup).
The trend was highlighted by a single play: The debacle of a fake punt that the Colts tried (and failed) to execute during a 34-27 loss in 2015.
— NFL (@NFL) October 19, 2015
Josh McDaniels ended the rivalry’s detente.
The Colts and Patriots haven’t played since 2015, with Indianapolis failing to make the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.
In that span, Grigson – Deflategate’s “patient zero” – was fired by the Colts. Ballard was selected to replace him, and worked to thaw relations between the two teams. Under his direction, the Colts and Patriots completed the first trade between the teams in 32 years in 2017.
The detente continued when New England traded backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett to the Colts in exchange for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett.
And Ballard appeared to be heading for a bigger prize in early 2018: Hiring a Patriots assistant to become the next Colts head coach. McDaniels was seen as the choice, and reportedly agreed to terms with Ballard.
As late as the evening of Feb. 6, the Colts were still under the impression McDaniels was coming to Indianapolis. Yet behind the scenes in New England, a change of heart was happening. In meetings with Belichick and Robert Kraft, McDaniels was persuaded to stay.
That night, hours after the Colts had tweeted out a welcome to McDaniels as “our new head coach,” ESPN reporter Adam Schefter broke the news:
Stunner: Patriots’ OC Josh McDaniels has decided NOT to accept Colts’ HC job and will remain with New England, sources told ESPN.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 7, 2018
Ballard’s press conference the next morning, instead of welcoming McDaniels, was used explaining what had just happened. It ended with his now-famous “the rivalry is back on” quote, which – true to form – fans promptly made t-shirts out of.