I hate the word hate, so I try to use it sparingly.
But it’s always been easy to, well, strongly dislike the New England Patriots.
There’s their smug coach, Bill Belichick. There’s the pretty boy quarterback, Tom Brady, although you can’t deny the obvious … he’s a Hall of Famer.
There’s their obnoxious fandom, the Chowderheads, who believe the sun rises over Cape Cod and sets over Pittsfield.
And of course, early on anyway, the Patriots also pretty much had their way with Peyton Manning and the Colts.
As Manning matured and Bill Polian assembled the weapons around him, the Colts flipped the one-sidedness of the series and turned it into the NFL’s best non-natural rivalry of the past decade.
The result was the two biggest home games in the Colts’ Indianapolis history: the epic 38-34 win in the 2006 AFC Championship Game at the RCA Dome, and the instant classic 35-34 comeback victory over the Patriots in 2009 at Lucas Oil Stadium when Belicheat, er, Belichick, had his team go for it—and failed—on 4th-and-2.
Those were hugely emotional because of the nature and consequence of the rivalry.
But what do you do when you love the enemy, not loathe him?
We’re about to find out. The Return of The One, also known as No. 18, is almost upon us.
Everyone has been looking ahead to Peyton Manning versus the Colts since the schedule was announced in the spring.
What we didn’t know then was that Manning would be putting together a season for the ages, even by his standards, and that the Broncos would arrive, most assuredly, unbeaten.
Slightly less improbably, the Colts will come into the game leading the AFC South.
You think NBC is happy?
But for longtime Colts fans, this is going to be difficult.
As has been pointed out before, it’s not beyond reason to believe that, had not Polian selected Manning over Ryan Leaf in 1998, the Colts could be in Los Angeles and there would be no Lucas Oil Stadium.
And without LOS, there are no continuing Final Fours, no Big Ten championship football game and certainly no Super Bowl.
Colts owner Jim Irsay never threatened to move the team, but the success of the Manning era made funding LOS far more palatable.
We thought Peyton would be a Colt forever. So did he. But circumstances changed. Manning’s neck injury and a horrid season cleared the way to draft Andrew Luck and rebuild the franchise.
Manning’s success as a Bronco notwithstanding, Irsay and the Colts did the right thing for the future of the franchise. Luck has been even better than advertised and with new GM Ryan Grigson’s inspired dealing and drafting, the Colts have put themselves back in the championship mix sooner than anyone could have imagined.
No one with a lick of sense can question how it’s played out—for both the Colts and Manning.
I still pull for Manning as a Bronco. And I would be delighted if he can close out his Hall of Fame career by winning at least one more Super Bowl. As long as it’s not at the expense of the Colts.
And therein lies the emotional dilemma many will be wrestling with on Oct. 20.
Do they dig that old No. 18 Colts jersey out of the closet and wear it to the game (as more than a few are still doing) or in front of the TV at home?
Or, do they stay with those new No. 12’s?
When Manning throws that first touchdown pass—and rest assured, he will throw a touchdown pass—do you cheer or groan? And what if that TD pass is to former evil Patriot Wes Welker?
In any case, LOS is sure to be roiling with emotion. For 14 years, Peyton Manning was the franchise and, to a large degree, he was the personification of Indianapolis.
But that was then. Manning plays for the other guys, so I hope our guys kick his tail.
And just think about this: What if they meet again in the playoffs?•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.