By Robert Weintraub
On Saturday, the Colts and Patriots will play for the 12th straight season, an NFL record for non-division opponents. The two franchises have waged many an epic battle -- 13, to be exact -- since 2003. With the 14th get-together just ahead, it seemed like the right time to take a look at the previous baker's dozen and rank them, of course, because that's what we do.
13. Patriots 59, Colts 24
Nov. 18, 2012
Nine of the 13 games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The game last year, Andrew Luck's debut in the series, was, uh, a little less competitive. Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes, while Luck threw three interceptions (two returned for scores), as the Patriots demolished Indy. This one is perhaps best remembered for an extra point, New England's last of the game, during which Rob Gronkowski suffered a broken forearm, setting the stage for a year and a half of unrelenting surgery and ill fortune for the Gronk.
12. Colts 40, Patriots 21
Nov. 7, 2005
After being squashed by the Pats in another playoff failure in Foxboro 10 months earlier, the Colts came to New England ready to erupt. Peyton Manning's three touchdown passes, two of them to Marvin Harrison, allowed Indy to bury some awful memories of Gillette Stadium, at least temporarily. Super Bowl talk once again commenced around the Colts, but they would be upset at home by the Steelers come January.
11. Patriots 31, Colts 24
Dec. 4, 2011
This game came during Indy's Lost Year, when Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky piloted the SS Manning into the shoals and the first overall pick in the draft. Orlovsky made his first start on this day, and his tremendous stat line -- 30-of-37, 353 yards, two TDs -- was deceiving. Indy trailed 31-3 after three quarters, thanks to a trio of Gronkowski scores. But the Colts scored three times in the final 15 minutes, forcing New England to recover an onside kick to ice it. Had the Colts completed a miracle comeback, it might well have cost them Luck, so it was all for the best.
10. Patriots 20, Colts 3
Jan. 16, 2005
This playoff squashing of Manning's high-octane attack by the Patriots defense was, after the previous year's beating (see No. 5), practically a fait accompli. By this point, Bill Belichick was as deep into Manning's head as the creatures Kahn stuck in Checkov's ear in the second Star Trek flick (and not the shoddy remake of last summer). In sub-freezing temperatures, New England once again suffocated Indy, forcing three turnovers, holding the ball for 38 minutes and extending Manning's winless streak in Foxboro to seven. For fans of anguished bafflement, Manning's face was a Rembrandt.
9. Colts 27, Patriots 20
Nov. 5, 2006
But for a rare display of stout defense by Manning's Colts, the redoubtable Adam Vinatieri, having jumped ship for Indianapolis in the offseason, would have been the goat. In his first trip back to Foxboro, Vinatieri missed a pair of field goals, including a late one that would have cemented victory. But Indy's fourth interception of the game, by linebacker Cato June, allowed the Colts to escape with a win. The unbeaten Colts had picked off just five passes in the seven previous games, so the takeaway display was as unlikely as it was important.
8. Colts 18, Patriots 15
Nov. 2, 2008
A blah affair between the Brady-less Pats (he missed all but a single quarter of the season with a torn knee ligament) and the struggling Colts (they came into the game 3-4) was decided by the opportunistic or traitorous (depending on rooting interest)Vinatieri. The Canton-bound kicker hit a 52-yarder in the fourth quarter to provide the winning points. Matt Cassel drove New England into field-goal range late, but a bad personal foul penalty on tight end David Thomas kneecapped their chances. The Colts used the win as a springboard to right their listing season. Indy reeled off eight straight wins after this one to finish 12-4, only to by upset by the Chargers in the first round.
7. Patriots 27, Colts 24
Sept. 9, 2004
After constricting the Colts offense like an anaconda the previous January (see No. 10), the Patriots hosted Manning and Co. to open the '04 season. New England's opportunistic defense won the day once more. Tedy Bruschi had a goal-line pick early, and two huge plays late allowed the Pats to hang on to a slim lead. With just over three minutes left, Eugene Wilson forced an Edgerrin James fumble at the Patriots one-yard line. Indy got the ball back and drove into easy field-goal range. But Willie McGinest sacked Manning for a 15-yard-loss, resulting in a 48-yard attempt by Mike Vanderjagt, who had made 42 straight field goals leading up to this kick. He missed wide right, neatly summing up the one-sided nature of the rivalry in the early-2000s. It was New England's 16th straight win, en route to an NFL record 21. Oh yeah -- it won the Super Bowl again, too, beating the Colts on the way (see No. 5).
6. Patriots 31, Colts 28
Nov. 21, 2010
The Colts offense had sputtered for three quarters, but once Manning put it into overdrive by necessity (they were down 17 points), he almost stole the game. New England led 31-14 thanks in part to the heroics of Danny Woodhead, signed off the scrapheap a few weeks earlier. 'Lil Danny broke off a weaving 36-yard touchdown run and followed it up with a sensational hit on special teams. But the banged up Colts (five starters missed the game) rallied for two scores, and were driving to at least tie the contest late. Then Manning uncorked a howler of a throw -- the sort he usually saves for the postseason -- and was intercepted by James Sanders to ice the game for the Pats.
5. Patriots 24, Colts 14
Jan. 18, 2004
Manning threw for eight touchdowns and zero interceptions in his first two playoff games after the 2003 season, and Indy never punted in either contest. The Patriots had other ideas in the AFC Championship Game, intercepting Peyton four times (three by Ty Law). And when the Colts finally did send in the punt team, the snap sailed over Hunter Smith's head for a safety. But for some shoddy finishing by the Pats offense, this would have been a blowout. Instead, Adam Vinatieri kicked five field goals, besting Indy's output by himself. This game is mostly interesting for its legacy. The key to the Patriots dominance was its secondary, which channeled Jack Tatum and George Atkinson all game long, stopping just short of taking the implements to Colts receivers. In the wake of the defeat, an irate Bill Polian, the Indianapolis general manager and a cyclonic force in league circles, forced further tightening of rules for defensive backs, which has been greatly responsible for the explosion of passing numbers in recent years.
4. Patriots 24, Colts 20
Nov. 4, 2007
It was perhaps the most-hyped regular-season game to date. Two unbeaten teams collided at the RCA Dome in an ultra-intense affair. For three quarters the defending Super Bowl champs dominated the high-flying Pats, whose record-setting offense was scoring 41 points per game through the first half of the year. Indy led 20-10 midway through the fourth quarter after Manning snuck in from a yard out. But Brady unleashed a bomb that Randy Moss pulled down inside the five, setting up a score, and then hit Kevin Faulk for the go-ahead touchdown with 3:15 left. A strip-sack of Manning clinched the win for the Pats, who would remain undefeated all the way to the Super Bowl, when it all came apart in a shocking loss to the Giants. Belichick summed up the excellence of the game and the rivalry when he said afterward, "This was just a football game against the Colts. That's all it was." What a wordsmith.
3. Patriots 38, Colts 34
Nov. 30, 2003
The Colts and Patriots were AFC East rivals until re-alignment hit in 2002. Few of their divisional encounters were particularly memorable, but this game got the new era off to a flying start. New England, still in its "winning ugly and lucky" phase, was 9-2, and took leads of 17-0 and 31-10 at Indy. But Manning established a series trend of erasing big leads by storming back, throwing three touchdown passes to knot the game at 31. New England re-took the lead, and it was 38-34 in the final seconds. Indy drove down to the one-yard line, but was stopped on four cracks at the winning score. McGinest, who two plays earlier had limped off with a knee injury, snagged James in the backfield to preserve the stunning win, one that would establish the parameters of the next few meetings -- Pats defense > Colts offense.
2. Colts 35, Patriots 34
Nov. 15, 2009
The episode subtitled, "The One Where Bill Belichick Flaunted His Genius Status And It Blew Up In His Face." The 8-0 Colts seemed headed for their first defeat when Brady hit Moss for a short TD pass to make the score 31-14 early in the fourth quarter. But the hallmark of this series is that no lead is safe, and the Colts rallied to cut the deficit to 34-28. New England faced fourth-and-two with just more than two minutes left at its own 28-yard line. Belichick elected to go for it to put the game away, and a pass to Kevin Faulk came up just short. Given the opening, Manning had the Colts in the end zone in almost de facto manner, finding Reggie Wayne with the winning score with 13 seconds left. Billy B.'s decision set off a wild round of "numbers guys vs. hand in the dirt guys," which is almost as bitter a rivalry as the one between the Colts and the Pats.
1. Colts 38, Patriots 34
Jan. 21, 2007
When Asante Samuel returned a pick-six late in the first half, the Pats led the AFC Championship Game 21-3 and were seemingly headed back to the Super Bowl after an eon in the wilderness (one whole season). But Manning faced down his demons, putting aside the memory of previous postseason failures at the hands of the killer bees (Brady and Belichick), and led a memorable rally. He threw a TD pass to a defensive tackle (former Patriot Dan Klecko), and center Jeff Saturday recovered a fumble in the end zone as the Colts rallied to within 34-31. With 3:49 to go, Manning embarked on the drive of his career, leading Indy to the go-ahead TD with a minute to play. He then hid his head in terror as Brady tried to pull it out at the end. An interception by Marlin Jackson sent the Colts at long last to the Super Bowl, and the Patriots home to acquire some receivers for Brady to utilize. The Colts won the title, New England traded for Moss and Welker, and Brady threw for 50 touchdowns the next year. Basically a win-win.
In case you're wondering, because both teams won their respective divisions this season, the Colts and the Pats will play in 2014. And schedule rotation ensures another meeting in 2015, regardless of finish. May the two franchises meet into eternity!
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.