"When you're in Indy, they look at it as a big rival, but when you're in the Boston area, the Colts are looked at as another team."
-- Matt Hasselbeck, former quarterback for the Colts and Boston College
The Indianapolis Colts might be just another team to the New England Patriots and their fans, but Thursday night represents more than just another game. It's the first time the teams have faced each other in New England since Jan. 18, 2015, when the Patriots defeated the Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship Game.
It was during that game that a chain of events was triggered by accusations that the Patriots had deflated footballs for a competitive advantage. After more than a year of legal wrangling, a Patriots Super Bowl victory and a four-game suspension for Tom Brady to start the 2016 season, Deflategate was put to rest.
In fact, the tensions thawed to the point that the teams made trades in 2017, with the Colts sending Phillip Dorsett and Dwayne Allen to the Patriots, who sent back Jacoby Brissett and a draft pick in separate deals. But that thawing came about only after former Colts GM Ryan Grigson, who was the first to notify the league of concerns about underinflated footballs, was replaced by Chris Ballard. Would the Patriots have traded with the Colts if Grigson were still GM?
Just when it seemed things had gotten back to normal, Josh McDaniels entered the picture, initially agreeing to become the head coach of the Colts after the Patriots lost Super Bowl LII in February. But then he backed out to remain offensive coordinator of the Patriots.
"The rivalry is back on," Ballard said at the conclusion of his news conference about McDaniels' change of heart, ignoring the fact that his team's seven-game losing streak against the Patriots might undercut the term "rivalry."
"I chuckled," Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said Tuesday. "I've come to know Chris very well. From day one, I really appreciate him. He's been honest, communicative and I think a great leader for this building. So that was his authentic self comment, and that made me happy. I love when you get to see authenticity from people, especially your leaders in this building."
Whether it's a rivalry or just another game on the schedule between an elite team and one finding its way, the status of the first game in New England since Deflategate adds a little spice to the prime-time matchup. We talked to several current and former members of the organizations about the lingering impact of Deflategate and the state of the rivalry.
It started with the Colts' concerns about underinflated footballs after they faced the Patriots on Nov. 16, 2014. Prior to the rematch in the AFC title game, Grigson, who wouldn't comment for this story, said he reached out to the league about those concerns. D'Qwell Jackson picked off a Tom Brady pass in the title game and wanted to save the ball for posterity, but a Colts equipment staffer thought the ball was underinflated and notified former coach Chuck Pagano. The case spiraled, ultimately reaching a federal appeals court before Brady agreed not to take it to the Supreme Court and took his four-game ban to start the 2016 season. He ended that season with another Super Bowl title and received the MVP trophy from Roger Goodell.
Bill Polian, Colts president and vice chairman 1997-2011, current ESPN analyst: "I don't think it was made into a bigger deal than it should have been. It was a big deal. It occurred in a championship game. There was a rule that was broken. The league investigated, and what took place after was up to the people involved. Patriots fans feel very strongly about it, and I'm sure people on the other side feel very strongly about it. It was not a big deal about nothing, no matter what anybody says."
Pat McAfee, Colts punter 2009-16: "I think anybody with a brain could figure out that Deflategate was turned into something that was much larger than it needed to be. If it was a close game and there seemed to be a chance that we could have won, I think it has a means for a conversation possibly. But the fact we got blown out and it carried into a year-and-a-half investigation with millions of dollars being spent on both sides, I think anybody with a brain would say it was blown out of proportion."
D'Qwell Jackson, Colts linebacker 2014-16: "Initially, I didn't know that was a thing. I thought it was a bogus story, but the more the story was out, the more I started looking into it and asking other people and asking friends of mine who were receivers and whatnot. It turns out it is a big deal, especially when the weather changes, and you're an outdoor team versus an indoor team. The gripping of the football and being able to throw the football and being able to catch a football. You don't want to catch a brick, opposed to something that's a little more spongy to catch. ... So it was somewhat of a big deal, but not as big as the media portrayed it. ... We got outplayed. Clearly, New England was the better team from the start of that game. We were in it initially, but the game got out of hand, and it wasn't because of a football. I wish I could say that, but they outplayed us in every phase. The football had nothing to do with the score."
Adam Vinatieri, kicker for Patriots 1996-2005, for Colts '06-present: "We lost the game. The season was over. It was a big deal for us because we were the team that reported it. But as players, we just lost to a better team. For me, I wished we would have just played better and won the game. Did it help them control the ball or catch it or not fumble? I don't know. I can't say yes or no. Maybe, but at that point, what was done was done. Not like we can go back in time and change anything."
Rob Ninkovich, Patriots linebacker 2009-16: "I just think that was completely ridiculous. People that love the Patriots, they are all in this area, and then there are a lot more people who hate the Patriots because of the fact they've been so good for so long. That particular situation -- take the balls out of it in the second half, and we completely destroyed them. And that was with 'properly inflated.' It just seems like there's always some type of thing that comes up because everyone wants to see the fall, whether it be turning in a football because it was underinflated. But then they pump it back up for the second half, and we put up another 20-something points."
Matt Hasselbeck, Colts quarterback 2013-15: "People don't know a lot about the mechanics of how that all goes down with kicking balls, quarterback balls, all of that. When they hear about stuff, talk radio freaks out. From a player's perspective, even today, I don't feel like many people feel like Tom Brady cheated. I think you almost feel the opposite. However he feels the football should be, that's how they should be. That's more of the vibe. I think what happened was it became a courtroom battle that made it bigger than what it should have been. It didn't help that the Patriots went on to the Super Bowl."
Rodney Harrison, Patriots safety 2003-08: "From a player's standpoint, and even talking to other players, I don't think it's even an issue. Maybe it's more of an issue for the coaches and the higher-ups and the people that have been involved in that. Maybe a little bitterness from Brady, I'm not sure. But most of the players? They're just trying to win one football game, and that's what they're focused on. They're not getting caught up in all the politics and nonsense that goes along with it."
Trading partners: Thawing of tensions
Vinatieri: "Football is football. I think if you hold grudges or hold certain things like that, you can potentially hurt your team. You have to do what's right for the team. If that's negotiating with people you don't want to, but if it helps your team, you do it."
McAfee: "I think with the success the Patriots have had over the years, you rarely see a player leave the Patriots without getting picked up somewhere else. It's just kind of the way it goes. If Bill Belichick thought a certain player was good enough to be on a team, you're going to get picked up elsewhere. It's also something to be said when the Colts get rid of a guy, they end up at the Patriots. It's a sign of respect both ways. Phillip Dorsett has become an important player for the Patriots with Julian Edelman out. Dwayne Allen has become another blocker for Tom Brady in the offense. I'm not really surprised. It's business as usual. But it is interesting with the way Colts fans just in their nature hate the Patriots and see players playing for both teams. Reggie Wayne ended up in New England for a little bit."
McDaniels' snub reignites the rivalry?
Luck: "I'll be honest, no, not personally [angry with how it went down]. I think -- and I've said this before -- I felt bad for Mr. Ballard, for Chris, for going up there and saying something and that something not happening. It felt a little like he was left at the altar, per se. But personally, no. ... It is what it is, and I am thrilled to be with Frank. I think everybody in this locker room is."
Ninkovich: "There's always been a history there, obviously going back to Peyton Manning and all the playoff games the Patriots and Colts played in. When that changeover happened, and it was Andrew Luck, there was still that Patriots-Colts rivalry, but we always had the upper hand. I can remember the playoff game where we just destroyed them. We've always had their number since Manning left. They can talk about 'Oh, the rivalry is back on' and all that stuff. But until Luck can come away with a win, I don't think there has been much of a rivalry."
Vinatieri: "I don't think of it anymore. It's so far removed that Frank is our coach. I'm happy he's here. He's leading us the right way. I think there's zero hindsight to think about the Josh stuff. It might hold something for fans at this point, but honestly, half the players in this locker room weren't even here when that happened last winter. It's not that big of a deal."
Hasselbeck: "When you're in Indy, they look at it as a big rival, but when you're in the Boston area, the Colts are looked at as another team. It reminds of B.C. and Notre Dame when I played at B.C. We would get up for Notre Dame, and Notre Dame didn't think anything of us. They thought USC was their rival."
Bill Belichick, Patriots coach, on the rivalry in general: "We haven't played them in a couple years, and very few of the players that were there the last time we played them are still there. [There are] very few coaches, so there is a lot of turnover in scheme, a lot of turnover in personnel. We've had a similar, not maybe as much, but we have had quite a bit of turnover ourselves. We have a lot of players on our team that haven't even played against the Colts, let alone these Colts. So it's a totally different game and totally different matchup. I don't think, honestly, that any of those games that were some classic heavyweight-type bouts really have much relevance to Thursday night."
Devin McCourty, Patriots safety 2010-present: "I mean, even when you look at their roster, because even looking, I was like, 'Dang, a lot of the guys from the last time we played them, they're not there.' Like, last time preparing, Dwayne Allen was a tight end we were talking about going against. He's on our team now. So that's how it is in this league. When you don't play a team for a couple years, you don't even think about a lot of the things that were current at the time because so much has changed personnel-wise -- for them, even coaching staffs. So I don't know. I'm sure that'll be, like you said, big leading up to the game, but I'm not sure how much the players will think about it."
Phillip Dorsett, receiver for Colts 2015-16, for Patriots 2017-18: "Not just saying it's another game, but it is. We know they're going to bring it. We know how they feel. We have to be able to match it."
Dwayne Allen, tight end for Colts 2012-16, for Patriots 2017-18: "I don't even think about it, honestly. It's game No. 5 this season."