New England Patriots

Aug 19, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Before Bob Costas could get the words out, Boomer Esiason, gripping a pencil at both ends and sporting a shaggy blonde mullet that paired well with his tan blazer, broke into a laugh.

Both were seated on the set of NBC’s NFL Live, alongside the late Will McDonough. They were filling the air at halftime of the 1992 AFC Wild Card playoff between Houston and Buffalo and trying to entice their audience to stick around with the Oilers ahead, 28-3.

“Now Boomer, you were telling us about Frank Reich’s ability to lead comebacks at Maryland,” Costas said, cuing the chortling Esiason to talk about an ex-Terrapin teammate spelling injured Bills star Jim Kelly. “He had that one where he was down, 31-0, against Miami…”

‘That one’ being a game that occurred more than eight years earlier, on Nov. 10, 1984, when Maryland completed the biggest comeback in major college football history.

Reich had begun that day in the Orange Bowl as a backup to quarterback Stan Gelbaugh, before Coach Bobby Ross turned to him for the second half. Reich responded by passing for 260 yards and three touchdowns, rallying the Terps to a 42-40 triumph.

“I learned that day never turn the TV set off at halftime when Frank Reich is playing,” Esiason remarked, hint-hinting to NBC’s viewers.

Yet what came next was further cause to consider, at least, changing the channel. Reich opened the second half with an interception returned by Bubba McDowell 58 yards for another score. The difference grew to 35-3. That’s when Reich led the greatest comeback in NFL history.

Buffalo scored on five of its next six possessions, including four touchdown passes. Reich’s first found Don Beebe. The next three went to Andre Reed. The last put the Bills ahead, 38-35, with 3:08 left. But the Oilers forced overtime on Al Del Greco’s tying field goal with 12 seconds to go.

Just three snaps into OT, Buffalo’s Nate Odomes picked off Warren Moon. An ensuing penalty put the ball at Houston’s 20-yard line. After handing off twice, Reich stayed on to hold for kicker Steve Christie’s 32-yard field goal. The Bills were winners, 41-38.

Three decades later, Reich is still leading comebacks. Long a backup quarterback, he’s it now as the ‘Plan B’ head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

Surely, you know the story of how he ended up here.

Jul 30, 2021; Foxborough, MA, United States; New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels reacts during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 30, 2021; Foxborough, MA, United States; New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels reacts during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

In Feb. 2018, fewer than 48 hours after Reich and Josh McDaniels coordinated the Eagles and Patriots offenses in Super Bowl LIII, the Colts announced the hiring of the latter. No sooner had they scheduled a press conference to introduce their next head coach than McDaniels changed his mind.

Five days later, just as he did for Maryland at Miami and Buffalo vs. Houston, Reich stepped in. Reportedly, he was chosen by Indy general manager Chris Ballard over candidates Dan Campbell and Lesley Frazier.

His first season opened inauspiciously. The Colts lost five of their first six. Then Reich rallied. Again.

Indianapolis became the third team since the 1970 merger to overcome a 1-5 start and make the playoffs. The Colts then beat the Houston Texans on Wild Card weekend, before losing at Kansas City in the Divisional round.

Following a 7-9 finish to 2019 — which included Andrew Luck’s late-preseason retirement — and a second playoff appearance in 2020, Reich again has Indianapolis in playoff contention, despite a 1-4 record through Week 5 of 2021. The Colts are 6-2 in their last eight games.

On Wednesday, while noting Indy’s track record since 2018, I asked Patriots coach Bill Belichick what such resilience implies about the foundation of the program Reich has put in place.

“I have to go back and study those years more carefully. I haven’t really done that,” said Belichick, opting, unsurprisingly, to speak only of this year’s Colts.

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – NOVEMBER 28: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on from the side line during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium on November 28, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

And while others (hand raised) might view Indy’s season to date — going from 1-4 to 6-2 — as uneven, what Belichick sees is overall consistency from a balanced team. It’s one that bears rich investments of draft capital in its offensive and defensive lines and resembles his own roster with a strong complementary core on special teams.

“They’re pretty consistent,” Belichick said. “Again, I’d say even a couple of the games they didn’t win this year, you see a lot of good football there. They could’ve easily won those games.”

Four, in particular, stand out. The Colts fell to the Rams, Ravens, Titans (at home) and Buccaneers by a total of 19 points. In three of them — Baltimore, Tennessee and Tampa Bay — they had leads of 19, 14 and 10 points.

Belichick’s Pats have opposed Reich’s Colts once before, winning by a 38-24 final on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. It was the fifth week of Reich’s first season, the Colts were without five starters and the Patriots grabbed a 24-3 halftime lead.

Indy fought back to pull within 24-17 in the fourth quarter, before Tom Brady’s 500th career touchdown pass — 34 yards to Josh Gordon — and a Sony Michel scoring run — also 34 yards long — broke it open again.

The Colts’ effort under Reich was foretelling. They lost the following week at the Jets, but wound up losing just one other time in their final 10 regular-season games.

  • Sound Familiar?

    INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - OCTOBER 31:  DeForest Buckner #99 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after a sack against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

    INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – OCTOBER 31: DeForest Buckner #99 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after a sack against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

    Regarding the current Colts, they’ve played their way out of an early-October hole with a ruggedly fundamental formula that stands the test of time. Much like the 2021 Patriots, whose seven-game winning streak was preceded by a 2-4 start.

    They are opportunistic, taking the ball away and taking advantage of field position. Indy has forced an NFL-high 29 takeaways, leading to a league-best 119 points. Meanwhile, the Pats have 26 takeaways, including 18 since Week 7. Correspondingly, both teams’ average drive starting position ranks in the league’s top three.

    They are disciplined, generally avoiding self-inflicted setbacks. Only two teams have committed fewer penalties than the Colts. In 13 games, they’ve accrued 195 fewer penalty yards than opponents. Meanwhile, the Patriots are eighth in penalties against.

    They are tough, featuring a running back who’s as much a tone-setter as playmaker. And boy, does Jonathan Taylor make plays. Four weeks ago, he bowled over the Bills with a 185 yards and four touchdowns rushing in rainy Buffalo. Taylor added a fifth score, receiving, and finished with 30 points. Two weeks later, the Pats went into windy Buffalo and ran it on 46 of 49 plays.

    Importantly, of course, each team is coached by someone willing to commit to the run — if that’s what it takes to win. Interestingly, in Reich that someone is best remembered from his playing days as a quarterback in second-half shoot-outs.

    “I know what it feels like to be on a team that can run the ball,” Reich said this week, noting the influence of Tom Bresnahan, who coached a Buffalo offensive line that helped pave Thurman Thomas’s way to the Hall of Fame. “I’ve experienced that my whole life as a quarterback and a coach.

    “It’s a powerful thing to be able to run the ball. It doesn’t necessarily mean 50 times or 200 yards. It just means that you can run the ball when you want to run the ball and you can run it effectively.”

  • What Gives?

    The Colts averaged 199.2 yards with 12 TD on the ground in their past five games, including three rushing performances in excess of 230 yards. Overall, Taylor has rushed for 1,348 yards and 16 touchdowns.

    According to J.J. Stankevitz of Colts.com, citing NFL Research, Saturday night marks the 21st time a Belichick-coached team must defend against a player entering as a 1,000-yard rusher. The Pats went 18-2 in the prior 20 such contests, allowing an average of just 72.5 yards to those 1,000-yard backs.

  • Tip Of The Hat

    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 31: Matt Judon #9 of the New England Patriots celebrates after recording a sack in the second quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

    INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 31: Matt Judon #9 of the New England Patriots celebrates after recording a sack in the second quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium on October 31, 2021 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

    Matt Judon’s 12 1/2 sacks make him the third Patriot to reach that number in the team’s 22 seasons under Bill Belichick. Chandler Jones (2015) and Mike Vrabel (2007) also recorded 12 1/2 sacks in a single year.

    Now consider that Hall of Famer Andre Tippett totaled at least 12 1/2 sacks three times in a span of four seasons. ‘Tip’ set the franchise record with 18 1/2 sacks in 1984. He followed up with 16 1/2 sacks in 1985 and 12 1/2 in 1987.

  • Rivalry Back On?

    As the Pats and Colts ready for their first game without either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning since 1997, New England is trying to extend its recent series dominance. The Patriots have won eight straight encounters, outscoring Indianapolis, 323-176, in the process.

    The last Colts team to defeat the Pats on Nov. 15, 2009 included the likes of Manning and Reggie Wayne on offense and Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney on defense.

    The teams last met at Lucas Oil Stadium on Oct. 18, 2015. Only two players remain on Indy’s roster, receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight end Jack Doyle.