Damn it, now what?
If last week provided New England with plenty of reasons to hate the Baltimore Ravens, still the most deplorable franchise in American sports, this week leading up to the AFC Championship game doesn’t quite deliver the same level of disgust with the Indianapolis Colts.
In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any at all.
Where’s the contempt? The spite? The lack of respect for an opponent’s enabling ways?
Well, this is no fun.
The Colts visit Gillette Stadium Sunday evening for the right to play for the Super Bowl, and Patriots fans are reduced to making fun of Andrew Luck’s beard. It’s all sort of embarrassing.
Unlike the Ravens, it’s difficult to pinpoint too much to dislike about the Colts, a resurgent group who play behind one of the game’s great, young talents at quarterback, and are led by a gregarious coach who overcame leukemia and is generally regarded as one of the most personable people in the entire NFL.
The Denver Broncos were supposed to be here, at least before they gagged at the sight of the Colts on Sunday. That’s the second-straight time that Bill Belichick has loaded up after losing to Peyton Manning in the AFC title game, only to miss playing the quarterback the following season. But even that version of the Broncos that we last saw could only summon so much hate. After all, if you like kicking puppies when they’re down, the Raiders fan application is on the side table on your way out.
And so, New England gets the Colts, and the region is just sort of collectively unsure of how to handle the burden.
It’s just easier when you have reasons for scorn, which is where the whiny Ravens fit in naturally, right on down to head coach John Harbaugh’s inability to figure out Belichick’s three shell game (“Come one, come all to the Patriots’ den of deception and trickery’).
With the Colts, there’s nothing, and that’s a problem.
Aside from owner Jim Irsay’s continued buffoonery, the Colts are a model organization of consistency, making a return to the AFC title game for the first time since the 2009 season, and the first time with a quarterback not named Manning since the 1995 season under newly-tabbed Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.
It’s a good team. They’re just not supposed to be here.
This is already posing to be a problem for Patriots fans, who were expecting Christmas morning come AFC Championship day, and have ended up with Flag Day in its stead. Leave it to Manning to screw up the proceedings.
It was supposed to be a rematch of last year, when the Patriots had to travel to Denver and lost out on a trip to the Super Bowl. This time it was supposed to be their house for Bill Belichick to break a two-game AFC title game losing streak against Manning. Short of that even, it was supposed to be the Pittsburgh Steelers coming into Foxborough, with Ben Roethlisberger heading an offense that might have given the Patriots defense fits - much like the Ravens - had it been allowed the chance.
In both cases, as there was with Baltimore, an important component would have been a natural byproduct: Fear.
Well, at least some level of it. Despite the bravado that would have naturally accompanied such showdowns, some level of doubt would have ticked in the heart of Pats fans across New England, knowing, especially after last weekend, that one play - one fumble, one dropped pass, one easy interception - could change fortunes in a hurry.
Fear keeps fans honest. It interjects humility and keeps you from being what you always preached to hate in the first place.
You might remember as the Patriots were preparing for the AFC title game following the 2001 season how a running story line through the radio waves, newspapers, and old Foxboro Stadium locker room was that half the city of Pittsburgh had already made reservations for the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The Patriots used that slight as motivation en route to victory at Heinz Field, and - whether it’s urban legend or not - it still resonates.
“You never disrespect anybody,” safety Lawyer Milloy said after the Patriots beat the Steelers, 24-17. Molloy had chastised the Steelers at a press conference the Friday before the game for talking about Super Bowl plans and overlooking the Patriots.
“You just make it hard on yourself. I’m just surprised the veterans on that team didn’t shut the younger guys’ mouths on that team. It was a momentum-builder for us. We rallied around that, and in the end we were the AFC champions.”
Under “Every day’s a day, one step forward, minute-by-minute” Belichick, there’s about a zero percent chance of any Patriots publicly looking forward to Glendale, Ariz. But the notion pervades every other outlet in New England, where the general assumption is that the Patriots will roll against the Colts come Sunday night.
The problem is, there’s little other way to look at it.
How can fans inspire fear where there is nothing but confidence? All week, fans will go around with a preamble they really don’t believe. “Well, the Colts…look what they did in Denver, so we can’t discount them…” knowing full well that every football sense you have tells you that it’s OK to assume New England will win, and win big.
The Colts were good in Denver last Sunday. The Broncos were simply much worse.
There is nothing to be afraid of in regard to the Indianapolis Colts.
And that is just a little frightening.
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