The first sign that Bill Belichick might have had a little something on Peyton Manning was way back on September 20, 1998 — long before Patriots-Colts was, well, Patriots-Colts. On that day, Belichick, then running the Jets’ defense, mixed up his personnel groupings and disguised his coverages (sound familiar?), befuddling Manning in a 44-6 Jets rout over Colts in the QB’s third pro game.
Of course, Manning wasn’t yet Manning either, and it would be a year and a half until Belichick assumed control of the Patriots.
More than a decade later, there’s this notion that the ultra-competitive and football-nerdy Manning and Belichick, whose Colts and Patriots, respectively, meet Sunday night for the 14th time since 2000, are accomplishing the NFL’s equivalent of splitting the atom. Or more aptly, that these two men — perhaps a modern-day reincarnation of Ali vs. Frazier or even Boris Spassky vs. Bobby Fischer — are just playing and thinking on a higher level than anyone else in the game.
Part of that is hogwash, of course; there are plenty of other brainy and successful coaches and players around the league. But since then the two teams have waged the battle of the decade in the NFL, and because Tom Brady and Manning never actually face off on the field at the same time, you could boil down the rivalry to Belichick vs. Manning.
Here are Manning's game-by-game numbers against the Patriots since Belichick took over:
|Game||Comp.||Att.||Comp. % ||Yards||Y/A||TDs||INTs||Sacks||Rating||Result|
Early in his career, Manning had trouble figuring out and beating Belichick’s defenses. There always would be an extra wrinkle or two, something Manning hadn’t seen the Patriots do previously — certainly not the game prior, probably not even that season and perhaps never before — in his legendary pre-game film study.
“The thing that Bill (Belichick) gave us to do was to create a lot of freedom by trying to disguise the coverage,” NBC analyst and former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said this week on a conference call. “I lined up at cornerback and Ty Law lined up at (strong) safety at times which really seemed to confuse Peyton.”
“That was one of the few things that New England did that we hadn't seen before,” NBC analyst and former Colts head coach Tony Dungy said. “That was very unusual with Rodney playing corner. Usually you come into a game with New England showing a lot of blitzes, five-man pressures and then in our game they decide to rush three and drop eight or vice versa.
“The thing from the Colts standpoint that we've always admired about the Patriots is they've been able to have a different game plan, even for a half sometimes. You have to be ready to adjust when you play New England.”
But in the past five matchups, Manning has adjusted — and has had the upper hand. He has won four of them, including the AFC title game in 2007, and has a 9-4 TD-interception ratio in those games compared to a 13-13 mark in Manning’s previous eight games against New England.
What will happen Sunday if Manning again busts a Belichick-brained scheme? Perhaps the quirky coach will pull a Fischer and just disappear for a few years.