I was a kid, naive. I saw an unstoppable offensive force playing a team that could barely score 20 points. I saw a team that hadn't punted in two games, that had a QB that had the best two game stretch in playoff history. I saw the scoreboard never stop whirring as that team sprinted up and down the field.
And then I saw them lose. I saw them get stopped. I saw the QB get harrassed, throw interceptions, get frustrated, see his offensive line give up numerous pressures, see his receivers never get open. I saw it all, and it changed my perspective about the dynamics of offense and defense, but it also was a game, a loss, that I could never get over. Until now.
12 years later, I saw the reverse.
There have been many painful losses in my sports fan lifetime of watching Peyton Manning. The 2003 AFC Championship Game is not particularly one of them. The Colts were mightily outplayed. There was no crushing moment we fans could turn to, like Vanderjagt pulling a field goal, or Kenton Keith bobbling a screen pass at the 2-yard line, or Gijon Robinson forgetting a snap count. No, there was just the memory of the Colts unstoppable offense get hounded and pounded into mistake after mistake in snowy Foxboro. However, it was my first real loss following Peyton Manning.
I can admit I am a bandwagon Colts / Manning fan. I started supporting him in earnest that year. I haven't stopped though. I'm not going to apologize for that. But I can trace my fandom back to that 2003 season, and the loss to New England was the end of that season, one that ended far before I was ready. The Colts ran roughshod over Denver and Kansas City in those playoffs, and then played a New England team that won tons of games by playing great defense, having Tom Brady not screw up, and doing all the little things. It was an embarrassing, undressing loss more than anything. And 12 years later I got to see Manning's team repay the favor.
While we Colts supporters heard line after line about Manning's superior weapons, we often pointed out Brady's superior defensive support. It took a long time, but he finally entered a playoff game with the superior defense, and boy as fun as it was for me to watch, I'm sure it was even more fun for Manning.
What the Broncos defense did to the Patriots offense was one of the best performances that I've ever seen. Their coverage was great, constantly pressing and jamming Edelman and Amendola, and basically coming within one alien performance from Gronk from shutting the Pats out. The front was incredible. Von Miller had a 'hall of fame' type game, Demarcus Ware had 7 hits. Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson were dominant inside. It was a team effort, all 11 guys and the defensive mastermind of Wade Phillips pulling the strings. It was amazing. It was also so new.
I now know how Patriots fans must have felt the week before the 2003 AFC Championship Game. The talk before that game was how the Patriots were ever going to stop the Colts offense. The Colts were a machine. They hadn't punted! Well, the Patriots fans were all stewing, knowing that the league's best defense could handle it. That the Colts would, indeed, punt. This was basically the reverse.
We spent the entire season watching the Broncos defense dominate opponents and keep a marginal offense in games. Much like the 2003 Patriots. We spent the season knowing that the Patriots offensive line had holes, much like the Colts in 2003 had a weakness in their physicality. We probably should have seen this coming. I did see this coming. I knew that the Broncos d-line would be able to get pressure on Brady, dominating a middling group of lineman. Playing the Broncos in Denver is much different than the Chiefs with a gimpy Justin Houston in Foxboro. Just like playing the Patriots in 2003 in a wintry mix from Hell in Foxboro was very different than the RCA Dome.
It was an out of body experience watching a team that so much resembled the first team I hated, but they also resembled the best aspect of those teams. Over the years, I grew a respect for the 2003-04 Patriots, especially that 2003 version that won because of a dominant defense supporting a clearly limited QB. The 2003 Patriots were special on defense. Their performance defensively in the 2003 and 2004 playoff wins over the Colts were stunning examples of the brilliant heights a defense can reach. And now I can appreciate them.
It will always be comforting knowing that Manning is now 3-2 in the playoffs against Brady, and 3-1 in AFC Championship Games. He learned and grew from those awful games in 2003 and 2004, and has paid Brady and Belichick back three times. But these wins also even out the memory of the 2003 game. I can rewatch it, appreciate the defensive mastery knowing that a dozen years later, I was able to watch the same dominance, just in a far more satisfying way.