It is Rivalry Week at SB Nation, and today we are going to look at one of the best ones the NFL has ever seen — one that was built in the shadow of another but is equally fascinating.
Between 2001 and 2015, no matchup outside of maybe the Super Bowl captured pro football audiences quite like the regular battles between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time going head-to-head against each other in what would become the NFL’s defining rivalry of its time — one that saw Brady’s New England Patriots come away victoriously eleven times versus six wins by Manning’s Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos squads.
With all of its hype and grandeur, however, and the countless memorable moments it provided on both sides of the battlefield, Brady versus Manning did also overshadow an equally fascinating rivalry: the one involving Bill Belichick and Bill Polian.
It may not have started on January 27, 1991, but that date still marks the first notable meeting between Belichick and Polian. The setting was the biggest stage in the sport, Super Bowl 25 between the New York Giants and the favored Buffalo Bills. At that time, Belichick was working as the Giants’ defensive coordinator, with Polian having built the Bills’ roster as their general manager. But for all its might, the potent Buffalo offense failed to get any momentum going against New York’s pass-oriented defense.
The game plan, which is now displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was simple yet brilliant. It called for shortening the game by basically giving running back Thurman Thomas free reign to gain yards against a Giants defense that primarily presented 2-4-5 or 2-3-6 looks. Simultaneously, Belichick wanted his unit to be physical against the pass catchers whenever Bills quarterback Jim Kelly did decide to throw the football.
“I didn’t feel like we wanted to get into a game where they threw the ball 45 times,” Belichick would later say about his now-legendary plan. “I knew if they had some success running the ball, they would stay with it. And I always felt when we needed to stop the run, we could stop it. And the more times they ran it, it was just one less time they could get it to [Andre] Reed or get it to [James] Lofton, or throw it to Thomas, who I thought was more dangerous as a receiver, because there’s more space than there was when he was a runner.”
One element of this game plan would later make its return against another high-powered offensive attack: Peyton Manning’s Colts teams of the 2000s.
After Belichick arrived in New England in 2000, he began building a blue-collar unit that focused not just on playing sound fundamental football but also physically beating up their opponents. The then-St. Louis Rams, dubbed the “Greatest Show on Turf,” found this out first-hand when they ran into a defensive buzzsaw in Super Bowl 36. Not only did a young Tom Brady emerge on the way to the Patriots’ first championship, the team also fought its final two battles against the Colts while they were still in the AFC East.
The Patriots won both games in rather decisive fashion, which was a theme during the early years of what would soon become the Brady-Manning rivalry. Another theme: New England’s defense repeatedly stifling some of the best offenses in all of football — a throwback to the time Belichick’s Giants held the Polian-built Bills offense in check.
By 2003, history was repeating itself. Not only did New England beat the Colts on the road thanks to a last-second goal-line stand capped by a game-winning tackle by Willie McGinest, the team also destroyed Manning and company when they came to visit during the championship round of the playoffs two months later. The Patriots won that game with a final score of 24-14, in large part because Indianapolis’ quarterback threw four interceptions — three of which caught by cornerback Ty Law.
Unbeknownst at the time, that game would change the NFL.
Along the way, the Belichick-Polian rivalry was born (in case that hadn’t already happened 13 years earlier).
Watching his team repeatedly get bludgeoned by the Patriots’ defense, Polian threw a tantrum next to the Gillette Stadium press box that would still resonate a couple of months later. A member of the NFL’s Competition Committee, Polian and co-chairman Jeff Fisher — whose Tennessee Titans teams were thrown from the playoffs in similar fashion by the same Patriots team one week before the Colts — teamed up help make sure that the power balance would shift in the offense’s favor. Indianapolis and Tennessee, of course, had two of the best in the business at the time.
“I don’t really understand what we’re trying to do,” said Belichick at the time when speaking about the rule changes. “We sat in there and watched all the film. All the coaches were in there. When you put the films on and they say, ‘Here’s a violation.’ Clearly, it’s a violation. No problem. Then they put films on and say, ‘This is a violation.’ What did the guy do wrong? What do you want him to do? What is the violation? ‘Well, he can’t do this and he can’t do that.’ You’ve got a [referee] 25 yards away trying to determine that?”
Thus, the “Ty Law Rule” was born.
It may not have necessarily been a rule but more of a reemphasis: from 2004 on, defensive holding would be watched more closely moving forward to essentially eliminate the physical playing style which helped the Brady/Belichick Patriots go 4-0 against the Manning-led Colts teams between 2001 and 2003. But while Polian’s persuasive powers got him his wish, they did not help him and Indianapolis get past their arch nemesis just yet. In 2004, New England was as powerful as ever.
Twice the Patriots met the Colts that year, twice the Patriots won. The second of the two meetings, in the divisional playoff round, saw New England’s defense deliver a game for the ages. Manning, coming off an MVP regular season that saw him throw a then-record 49 touchdown passes, was unable to find the end zone even once all day. When all was said and done, the Patriots had won 20-3 and advanced to another conference championship game — and later to their third Super Bowl win in four years.
“I give the Patriots credit for what they did, I won’t go beyond that,” said Polian after the game. The tone from the other sideline, meanwhile, was more confrontational.
“We don’t talk, we play,” linebacker Tedy Bruschi said during a now-famous on-field interview immediately after the Patriots’ victory. “You come to Foxborough, it’s gonna be snowing, it’s gonna be cold. Come on in here! You wanna say all you want? You wanna change the rules? Change ‘em! We still play, and we win. That’s what we do.”
Once again Belichick had thwarted a Polian-built team that looked destined to make the Super Bowl. That there was no love lost between the two sides was obvious at that point in time, even though New England’s head coach never admitted so publicly. Polian, on the other hand, wore his hatred for the Patriots on his sleeve as became evident during the 2005 regular season — a game in Foxborough that Indianapolis won rather decisively with a final score of 40-21.
Not only did he rather boisterously celebrate his team’s victory, Polian also reportedly proclaimed that “there’s one set of rules for [Belichick] and one for everybody else” after the Patriots head coach had called a late timeout on a Colts two-point attempt. Later, with the game already decided in his team’s favor, the Indianapolis GM also seemed rather annoyed by a pass attempt from New England backup quarterback Doug Flutie.
“Break his leg!” Polian demanded.
From that point on, the rivalry no longer was as lopsided as it had been between 2001 and 2004. The Colts went on to beat the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game to pave the way to their first Super Bowl, with the the teams fighting numerous back-and-forth battles in the years that followed. It took until the 2014 season for one of the two organizations — Belichick’s Patriots — to again rule the pro football world and capturing the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
At that point, Polian was already ousted in Indianapolis: he was fired following the team’s 2011 campaign that saw the team go 2-14 while Manning was rehabbing from a neck injury.
In that sense, Belichick did get the last laugh. While Polian was unceremoniously let go, Belichick still reigns supreme in New England and has led the team to two more Super Bowl wins after 2014’s. But the long-time rivalry with his former Colts counterpart “dies hard,” as Polian himself later admitted — from him claiming he had had a first-round grade on Tom Brady in the 2000 draft to Belichick using the 2011 Colts as a cautionary tale for insufficient roster construction at the quarterback position.
Ultimately, however, Polian did get to appreciate Belichick’s success at least publicly.
“The way he put it all together, managed the game, created a game plan, and the way they adjust and tie all facets together — they’re in a league of their own in that regard,” Polian said in an Ian O’Connor book about the Patriots and their head coach. “And that’s all him. The coaching staff does exactly what he wants, and it works so well in terms of both strategy and tactics that it’s really amazing. I hate the term ‘cutting edge,’ because it isn’t; it’s really sound football and taking it to an organizational and strategic and tactical level we haven’t seen in the NFL.”