Sunday’s Patriots/Colts match-up has been dubbed Super Bowl 41 by some. The hyperbolic title probably seems fitting for those of you under 30 who can only remember these two teams waging epic battles. But for a lot of football fans born prior to the Carter Administration, it causes us the chuckle, because we can remember the “Stupor Bowl.”

That was the title given to the final game of the 1981 season between the New England Patriots and the then-Baltimore Colts. The Pats went into the game with a 2-13 record, the Colts a 1-14 record. To the loser went the spoils, the overall No. 1 pick in the draft.

For some reason (cheap beer?), 17,703 people went to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium the Sunday before Christmas to watch that game. The Colts gave up a staggering 533 points that season (33 points per game, guess a lot of opponents ran up the score), yet the Patriots still somehow managed only 21 points that day and lost, 23-21. Not that it really mattered who got the No. 1 pick, because both teams clearly demonstrated they didn’t know what to do with it. The Patriots drafted Kenneth Sims No. 1, the Colts drafted Johnnie Cooks No. 2, well ahead of the likes of Marcus Allen, Roy Foster, Mark Duper, and Andre Tippett.

Some pathetic teams donned the Pat Patriot and horseshoe helmets and played some pretty forgettable games over the next couple of decades. Rod Rust’s lone win as Patriots head coach was a 16-14 nail-biter over Indianapolis in Week 2 of the 1990 season. In 1992, the immortal Charlie Baumann kicked a game-winning 18-yard field goal in overtime to give the 0-9 Patriots their first of two wins in Dick MacPherson’s final year at the helm.

Until 2002, the Patriots and Colts both played in the AFC East, and it’s hard to imagine two division rivals in the NFL having a more ignominious history between 1981 and 2000. Things started to change in their last year as division rivals. Their first meeting that year, in Week 3, was Tom Brady’s first career start. The Pats won that one, 44-13. Three weeks later, they hooked up in Indianapolis and David Patten tied Walter Payton’s record by running, passing and receiving for touchdowns in a 38-17 New England drubbing.

With the Colts moving to the newly-formed NFC South, the two teams didn’t meet in 2002. Things really started getting interesting in 2003, though. In Week 13, the Patriots pulled off a dramatic goal-line stand and left the RCA Dome 38-34 victors. With that game and the 24-14 loss to New England in the AFC Championship game, Peyton Manning’s reputation of being unable to win the big one in college began to flare up again in the pros.

It would take him three more years to shed that image. The Patriots won two more times in 2004, on Opening Night and in the AFC Divisional playoffs, a 20-3 decision that, in my opinion, is still the definitive game of the Patriots “dynasty.” With a historically prolific offense, the Colts were the pick of many media-types to win that game, but the Patriot defense, as was symbollized in a play in which Tedy Bruschi literally ripped the ball away from Dominic Rhodes, dominated Manning, and then cried about how everyone was disrespecting the defending Super Bowl champs. Bill Belichick, we concluded, was in Peyton Manning’s head.

Manning turned the tables over the next two years, beating the Patriots twice at Gillette Stadium and leading one of the great comebacks of all-time in last year’s AFC Championship game. He went on to win the Super Bowl and permanently shed the choker label. Now, some are even suggesting Manning is in Belichick’s head.

This year, the rivalry has been turned on its head and, quite frankly, has been taken to absurd levels by the national media. The Patriots have the historic offense and the Colts (allegedly) have the superior defense. The Colts are the ones who are supposedly being disrespected now. The two teams are being cast in terms of “Good vs. Evil,” with some pundits stopping just short of accusing Belichick of drugging Peyton Manning before the 2003 AFC Championship. One writer went so far as to suggest everyone should root for the Colts on Sunday because Tony Dungy’s son committed suicide a couple of years ago.

In just over a quarter of a century, the Patriots/Colts rivalry has gone from an exhibition of sublime incompetence to a showdown fueled by ridiculous hype. Who could have seen this coming when all we had was the Stupor Bowl?


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