American Football

Giants vs. Colts: A once-classic rivalry renewed


Quarterback brothers, New York Giants’ Eli Manning (left) an
Peyton Manning commiserates with brother Eli after the Colts defeated the Giants 26-21 in 2006. | Photo by Ron Antonelli/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The Giants and Colts were once the NFL’s standard bearers. NFL expansion and realignment changed that but the stakes will be high when they meet this Sunday.

The surprising 2022 New York Giants are 8-6-1 and in good position to reach the post-season for the first time in six years with two games left on the schedule. This coming Sunday they face the biggest game the franchise has seen since the 2016 season. On the opposite sideline will be a team that was once a regular combatant but is now rarely seen in these parts, the Indianapolis Colts. Let’s look back at the history between these two teams.

The All-American Football Conference Baltimore Colts

Image courtesy of
Y.A. Tittle in a typical (?) QB action pose as a Baltimore Colt.

The original Baltimore Colts of the All-America Football Conference, one of the most successful early competitors to the NFL, existed from 1947 to 1949. The AAFC was very top-heavy, with a couple of very good teams (the Cleveland Browns and New York Yankees), and some bad teams, including the Colts. Attendance was suffering in 1948 and the AAFC commissioner unilaterally decided to transfer players from the better to the worse teams to promote competitive balance. The Browns, quarterbacked by Hall of Famer Otto Graham, had won a bidding war with the NFL Detroit Lions for LSU quarterback Y.A. Tittle, who was going to ride the bench behind Graham. The commissioner decided to give Tittle to the Colts. He started most of three seasons (1948-1950) for them.

In 1950, the AAFC merged with the NFL, with three AAFC teams, the Browns, Colts, and San Francisco 49ers, joining the NFL. The 1950 Colts were a terrible team, going 1-11-1. But in the first-ever meeting between the Giants and Colts, at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, Tittle threw two early touchdown passes and the Colts stampeded out to a 20-0 second-quarter lead. The Giants took over from that point on, not allowing another score as they crushed the Colts 55-20. The Colts franchise folded at the end of the season, and Tittle was entered into the NFL draft, where he was taken by the 49ers.

Tittle burnished his Hall of Fame credentials over a decade in San Francisco. By 1961 he was considered washed-up at age 34 and unable to run the 49ers’ new shotgun offense, though, and he was traded to the Giants for a guard, Lou Cordileone, who said, “What? Me, even up for Y.A. Tittle? You’re kidding.”

Today teams get multiple first-round picks, and then some, for a top-tier QB, sometimes without getting the desired result (see: Russell Wilson). But Tittle led the Giants to three consecutive NFL Championship games in 1961-1963. It would never have happened if a league commissioner hadn’t abused his power to help a Baltimore Colts team that in fact does not exist today.

The Giants-Colts championship games

Courtesy of New York Giants
Johnny Unitas passes during the 1958 NFL Championship Game against the Giants.

After the Colts’ franchise was dissolved at the end of the 1950 season, Baltimore had no team for a couple of years. In fact, the NFL does not consider the 1950 Colts to be part of the current Colts’ history. From 1949 to 1951, there was a second New York football team, the New York Bulldogs. In 1950 it merged with the AAFC New York Yankees football team and became the New York Yanks. The Yanks were dissolved after the 1951 season. Their players’ contracts were bought by a Dallas group that founded a new NFL franchise, the Dallas Texans, which lasted for only one season. Its assets were purchased by a Baltimore group which in 1953 founded a new Baltimore Colts franchise. These are the Colts we know today.

Over the six-year period 1954-1959 the Giants and Colts played five times, with the Giants winning twice. During most of this time the Giants were the better team, having won the NFL Championship in 1956 while the Colts had mostly losing seasons. But that season, the Colts’ Johnny Unitas burst onto the scene. Unitas finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting, and then won or finished in the top three for the MVP award for three consecutive years.

Led by Unitas, the Colts had become a powerhouse by 1958, and the Giants and Colts met in an eagerly awaited Championship Game. The two teams had played during the regular season with the Giants prevailing 24-21 when Pat Summerall kicked the winning field goal with three minutes to play. But the Colts were fresher entering the Championship Game, because the Giants had to defeat the Cleveland Browns the last week of the season to force a playoff with them and then win the playoff the following week while the Colts rested.

It showed. The Giants took an early 3-0 lead but the Colts stormed back to lead 14-3 at the half. The Giants came out strong after halftime, though, with a Mel Triplett 1-yard TD run in the third quarter and a 15-yard TD pass from Charlie Conerly to Frank Gifford in the fourth quarter giving the Giants a 17-14 lead entering the final minutes. Facing fourth-and-inches at their own 40-yard line with a little over two minutes left, the Giants decided to punt. Baltimore got the ball at their own 14 and Unitas engineered a drive that culminated in a 20-yard field goal with 7 seconds left to send the game to overtime. This was the first time in NFL history that sudden-death overtime had been played.

The Giants got the ball first but went three-and-out. Unitas then drove the Colts 80 yards in 13 plays, ending with RB Alan Ameche’s 1-yard TD run to win the championship for the Colts, 23-17. This was the first nationally televised NFL game ever, and it is considered to be directly responsible for the league’s growth into the ultra-popular, ultra-profitable sport it is today.

Courtesy New York Giants
Alan Ameche rushes through a hole wider than anything Saquon Barkley has ever seen to win the 1958 NFL Championship Game for the Colts.

This game became known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” and in 2019 a nationwide poll of the media voted it the best game in the first century of the NFL. Seventeen players or coaches who participated in this game are in the NFL Hall of Fame.

One year later, the two teams met again for the NFL Championship, this time in Baltimore. For the first three quarters this game was as tense as the 1958 game. Lenny Moore put the Colts ahead 7-0 with a 60-yard catch and run for a TD from Unitas. The game then became a defensive struggle. Pat Summerall kicked three field goals, one in each quarter, and the Giants took a 9-7 lead into the fourth quarter,

Courtesy New York Giants
Giants’ defensive end Andy Robustelli sacks Johnny Unitas during the second quarter of the 1959 NFL Championship Game, won by the Colts 31-16.

Then the floodgates opened. Unitas drove the Colts for two TDs to put them up 21-9. Then a pick-six by Colts defensive back Johnny Sample gave the Colts a commanding lead. They would win their second consecutive NFL Championship, this time by a score of 31-16.

What were the schedule makers thinking?

The Giants and Colts didn’t play again until 1963, but this time the Giants got a (very) small measure of revenge by defeating Baltimore on the road, 37-28. Led by now-Giant Y.A. Tittle, the Giants came back from a 21-3 deficit to take control in the third quarter and held the Colts’ offense at bay after that.

Courtesy of Today in Pro Football History
Giants’ QB Y.A. Tittle scrambling during the Giants’ 1963 victory over the Colts.

This was perhaps the greatest offensive team in Giants history. The 1963 Giants scored more than 30 points 10 times in 14 games. (Compare to recent Giants teams, which will be lucky to score 30 points in a game 10 times in 14 years at their current pace.) They scored more than 40 points three times. They should have won the NFL Championship that year but lost to the Chicago Bears and their ferocious defense.

1963 was the last season in a remarkable run by the Giants: Five NFL Championship Games in six years, but not a single championship. It was also the end of the Giants-Colts rivalry. Why? For one thing, the aging Giants collapsed in 1964, the start of their 17-year “wilderness years” period. Giants-Colts games during that time were a microcosm of the Giants’ ineptitude: Four games, all Giants home games, all won by the Colts, and with the Giants being shut out twice and scoring 7 points in the other two. The Colts remained a good team for almost a decade after the Giants went south, most notably in 1968, when ex-Giants QB Earl Morrall replaced an injured Unitas and led the Colts to the Super Bowl. Like Tittle earlier in the decade for the Giants, though, Morrall could not win the big one for the Colts.

The other notable thing that happened during that time was that the Colts (along with the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers) agreed to move to the new AFC as part of the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. This meant that Giants-Colts would no longer be a staple of NFL seasons as it had been in the 1950s.

But then another, stranger thing happened. The NFL inadvertently decided that the Giants and the Colts should never play each other. From 1980-1989, an entire decade, the teams did not face off at all. Why? At that time the NFL had 28 teams, with each conference having two five-team divisions and one four-team division. During some years teams played four inter-conference games, meaning that when it was the Giants’ year to play one of the five-team AFC divisions, they would not play one team in the division. At least once, the Giants seem to have skipped the Colts in such a season. In other seasons (e.g., 1981) the Giants played only two inter-conference games. And unlike today, in which out-of-division and out-of-conference games follow a clear sequence that samples all teams over a three- or four-year period, the 1980s were more random. The Giants played four AFC West teams in 1980, one AFC East and one AFC West team in 1981, 1 AFC Central team in 1982 (a year with a player strike), and so on. But they never played the Colts. So much for the Giants-Colts rivalry.

The Simms-Parcells show

During the intervening decade, while you weren’t watching, the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis. Literally, while you weren’t watching. The city of Baltimore refused to build a replacement for Memorial Stadium and threatened to seize the team by eminent domain. So Colts owner Robert Irsay (father of current own Jim Irsay, who replaced his head coach with ex-player Jeff Saturday who had no prior NFL coaching experience) moved the team in the middle of the night when they thought no one would see or hear them doing it.

The team had been named the Colts when it was first created by a poll of Baltimore city residents, who favored a name that evokes the large number of horse farms in the state of Maryland and the presence of the annual Preakness Stakes there. Irsay strangely decided to keep the name Colts after the move to Indianapolis, placing the team high on the list of non sequitur team names like the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.

Regardless, by 1990 the Colts were a bad team, and the Giants a future Super Bowl team, when they finally met again in a Monday Night game. Giants-Colts meant nothing by that time after a decade layoff, and the game itself was a dull affair, with the Giants winning 24-7.

All the fireworks were on the sidelines.

Courtesy of New York Giants
Giants’ head coach Bill Parcells exchanging pleasantries as QB Phil Simms reaches the sideline.

At one point in the game, Simms apparently threw to the wrong receiver for the play called and the ball was tipped incomplete, preventing a first down. Parcells was furious and let Simms know it. As Michael Eisen recounts Parcells’ version of the story:

“It’s difficult. I’m not playing quarterback, I’m not seeing what Phil sees. By the same token, the intent of these two halfbacks in the game was to utilize them, and then the ball went somewhere else, incomplete. So we had to have a little board of directors meeting when he came over. That’s when I said to him, ‘What do you think we’re putting these guys in there for?’ He was mad, because I think he knew deep down he had done something that he shouldn’t have done. And he said, ‘Well, you go out there and play quarterback.’ So I told him, ‘Sit your (butt) down over there.’ Then O. J. Anderson and Maurice Carthon told me that I’m the one who’s always saying how we’ve got to stick together. I told them, ‘I’m going back to sticking together as soon as I stop yelling.’”

Simms gave as well as he got in this exchange, as with many others. This impressed his teammates:

“I just remember looking down and I saw them cursing and going at it, and then it didn’t end,” wide receiver Stephen Baker said. “Simms just kept walking by and kept spitting stuff out at him.”

“My teammates reacted entirely differently to it,” Simms said. “They loved it, and it was amazing how many players came up and said, ‘Oh, you’re The Man.’ So many of them on the plane home came up and said, ‘How’d it feel? Was it great? I’d like to yell at him like that, too.’ I was like, ‘Wow,’ so their take on it was entirely different. I was stressed a little bit.”

In 1993, with Simms still at the helm in his final season, the Giants defeated the Colts 20-6 at Giants Stadium. That was the last time the Giants beat the Colts at home – 29 years ago.

Too much Manning and Luck

Courtesy of New York Giants
Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey celebrate after a Toomer TD vs. the Colts in 2002.

Since 1993, the Giants have only defeated the Colts once. This period coincided with the presence of two other Colts quarterbacking greats, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. In 1999, Peyton won his first appearance against the Kent Graham-led Giants, 27-19. In 2002, the Giants defeated Peyton’s Colts for the only time, 44-27. The Giants led 30-6 and coasted from there. Kerry Collins went 23-for-29 for 366 yards and 4 TDs with no INTs, scoring a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Peyton went 30-for-46 with 365 yards and 3 TDs himself, but was intercepted twice. It was a night for great receivers: Amani Toomer (10 receptions, 204 yards, 3 TDs) and Jeremy Shockey (seven receptions, 116 yards) for the Giants, Marvin Harrison (10 receptions, 128 yards, 1 TD) and Reggie Wayne (6 receptions, 104 yards, 2 TDs) for the Colts.

The Eli Manning era began in 2004, and it was hoped that little brother could stand toe-to-toe with big brother when the two met. But it was not to be. The Colts were generally a better team than the Giants during the Eli era, and Eli did not face the Colts in any of his best seasons. Eli and Peyton met twice. The 2006 meeting was a close affair, and neither Manning excelled, but the Colts prevailed in a close one, 26-21. In 2010, Peyton excelled as the Colts ran out to a 24-0 halftime lead and won 38-14.

It was more of the same when Andrew Luck made his only appearance at MetLife against the Giants and Eli in 2014. Both QBs had good games, but Luck threw four TD passes to Manning’s two and the Colts coasted 40-24 after jumping out to a 37-3 lead. This game was notable mostly for the return of Giants’ greats Ahmad Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks to MetLife in Colts white and blue. Luck’s final appearance against the Giants was in 2018 at LucasOil Stadium in Indianapolis. This was a heartbreaker for Eli. He drove the Giants to a 27-21 lead with 5:40 remaining in the game, but the porous defense of James Bettcher during the Pat Shurmur era allowed Luck to march downfield and score the winning TD with 0:55 left to snatch a 28-27 victory out of the Giants’ hands and leave Eli 0-4 lifetime against the Colts.

Next up: Nick Foles (maybe)

The Colts are no longer a Giants rival. They occasionally pop up on the Giants schedule as they cycle through games against the four AFC divisions from year to year. But on Sunday the Giants will have to defeat them to ensure that their surprising season ends with a place in the playoffs. The Colts have a poor record but they are not a bad team. They gave Minnesota fits for a half and did the same to Dallas for three quarters.

The Colts will (probably) be led by Nick Foles at quarterback. Foles is not Unitas, or Manning, or Luck. He is a mercurial quarterback who can go from hero to zero and back from one game to another. He is 3-0 lifetime against the Giants (as an Eagle). Of course with Foles performing poorly on Monday night against the Chargers a switch back to Matt Ryan – or Sam Ehlinger – can’t be ruled out. The Colts lead the all-time series with the Giants 12-7. It will be the Giants’ job to make sure that whoever is at quarterback for the Colts doesn’t remind anyone of Unitas, Manning, or Luck this Sunday.

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