The New England Patriots under Bill Belichick have been the blueprint for NFL success in the salary cap era. Since Belichick took over as head coach of the Patriots in 2000, he's guided the team to nine playoff appearances, five Super Bowl appearances and won the Lombardi Trophy three times.
In those 13 seasons (including this year) have endured only one losing season, his first. They've won with five different running backs leading the team in rushing and six different wide receivers leading the team in receptions. Just this past off season, the Patriots allowed leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis to walk as a free agent and promoted Steven Ridley to feature back. Naturally, Ridley stepped right in an picked up where his predecessor had left off. Such is the nature of Belichick's winning machine he's assembled.
A veritable all-star team could be assembled with the all-pro caliber players New England has used to win championships only to let go when they could no longer contribute or their salary structure no longer fit the team's neeeds. Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Damien Woody, Willie McGinest and Asante Samuel all won Super Bowl rings and garnered All-Pro selections while with New England. They also were cut when they didn't fit the Patriots' business model.
Colts' fans are very familiar with the most infamous casualty of Belichick's business-like approach. Kicker Adam Vinatieri secured two of New England's three Super Bowl wins with clutch kicks to win the game. When Vinatieri wanted to be the highest paid kicker in the game, however, he became expendable. New England's loss was Indianapolis' gain.
Of course Belichick has had the luxury of shifting around some of the smaller parts in this machine because his "engine" has been the same since 2001. Tom Brady will undoubtedly be enshrined in Canton once his playing days are over. The sixth round pick out of Michigan stepped in when franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down against the Jets that fateful day in 2001. Wally Pip had a better chance of unseating Lou Gehrig than anyone has had displacing Brady.
Brady has been the constant throughout all this upheaval. The Patriots have only missed the playoffs twice since Brady took over, once in his second season as starter and in 2008 when Brady was lost to a knee injury in the season opener. In his 13th year with the Patriots also, Brady shows no signs of slowing down. He's completing 65 per cent of his passes and has thrown for 18 touchdowns against only three interceptions. He'll likely at least flirt with the 5000 yard mark for the second consecutive season.
Jim Irsay appears to have taken the Patriots' personnel strategy to heart as he orchestrates the overhaul of his own successful franchise. Gone are Peyton Manning, Pierre Garcon, Dallas Clark and 25 others off of last year's squad who either no longer fit the Colts system or no longer fit their salary structure. At 6-3, it would appear that the new parts the Colts have put in place are working just fine.
The biggest difference, of course, is that the Colts changed out their engine as well. Peyton Manning's high-powered performance is off to Denver and a new model, Andrew Luck, is powering the machine.
Brady and Manning dueled throught the 2000s in classic matchups that usually had playoff or Super Bowl implications every time they met. It's fitting then that Brady's first meeting with Luck comes with both teams 6-3 and jockeying for playoff position.
Whatever the outcome on Sunday, the Patriots have long since solidified their position as an NFL dynasty. What the Colts want to accomplish is to show the NFL that their own rebuilding project is nearly complete and they're ready to perform at the highest level once again.
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