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The departure of Bill Polian and the possible end of the Patriots-Colts rivalry

01.03.12 at 1:16 am ET
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While new characters in the long-running rivalry will surely pop up sooner rather than later, the news that Bill Polian has been fired closes a momentous chapter in the decade-long rivalry between the Patriots and Colts.

After working as the GM of the Bills and Panthers, Polian came to Indianapolis prior to the start of the 1998 season. The Colts, who had the first pick in the 1998 draft, went with Peyton Manning, which started a turnaround that saw Indy go from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in 1999. And under Polian, Manning and coach Tony Dungy, they would become a perennial playoff entrant soon after that.

In many ways, their rise to power mirrored that of the Patriots. The two organizations were AFC royalty — in the nine seasons between 2001 and 2009, either the Patriots or Colts represented the AFC in the Super Bowl six times. They always provided great drama, a terrific study in contrasts. Indy was an offensive juggernaut playing indoors on the turf, while the Patriots were a defensive powerhouse that thrived in the cold and snow. That extended to the quarterback spot: Manning and Tom Brady became contemporaries, football’€™s version of Bird-Magic or Russell-Chamberlain.

The rivalry peaked between 2003 and 2007. Watching those games, it put you in the mind of great theatre: In 2003 and 2004, the two teams met in a pair of postseason classics, with New England getting the better of the Colts on each occasion. The Patriots also won two memorable regular season games those two years, with New England taking a narrow victory in Indy in 2003 and an equally dramatic win in the 2004 season opener.

For whatever reason, Polian enjoyed sitting in the press box during games, where his passion was on full display for the media. During the 2003 AFC Championship Game in Foxboro, Polian raged from the press box at perceived pass interference penalties that weren’€™t called against the New England secondary, at one point yelling, ‘€œThrow the (expletive) flag!’€ He was a member of the NFL’€™s competition committee, and that offseason, in a move that was widely perceived as a swipe at the Patriots, lobbied for stronger rules when it came to pass defense, cracking down on illegal contact and defensive holding, rules that have had a colossal impact on the game the last few years.

‘€œYou can’€™t deny that it took place in the championship game,’€ Polian told reporters two months after the game. ‘€œYou’€™ve got guys grabbing shorts and pulling guys down. But that’€™s not the reason for the rules (clarification). As I said in the committee meeting, that took it to its nadir, its zenith.’€

The Colts finally gained a measure of revenge in 2006, when they would win a postseason classic of their own, narrowly edging the Patriots in the AFC title game in Indianapolis and going on to win the Super Bowl. And the following year, the regular-season game between 8-0 New England and 7-0 Indy was a much-hyped affair that featured the latest in-season meeting between two undefeated teams in NFL history.

Over the last few years, things have cooled between the two sides. Polian has been extremely complimentary of New England’€™s team-building approach. And with the Colts’€™ struggles this season, the annual meeting between the two teams didn’€™t have nearly the same juice it held in years’€™ past — it was even flexed out of prime-time, an unthinkable prospect a few years ago. To paraphrase B.B. King, it appears that the thrill is gone when it comes to Patriots-Colts.

The last two seasons, the Jets have usurped the Colts as the rivalry of choice in New England. And with the uncertainty surrounding Manning’€™s health (as well as the future of the organization), it’€™s seems likely that they’€™ll have a new quarterback as well. If Polian’€™s departure is the first in a series of events that ends with the eventual end of the rivalry between the Patriots and Colts, it’€™ll close the curtain on some of the NFL’€™s best theatre of the last 40 years.

Read More: B.B. King, Bill Polian, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady
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