The Indianapolis Colts finished with the worst record in the NFL this season. Now the city plays host to their bitter rivals for the Super Bowl. (AP)

By Curt Nickisch

In the very center of the city, in front of a monument to the Civil War, the NFL has erected giant letters spelling X-L-V-I. At night, a light show illuminates the Roman numerals for Super Bowl 46, and images of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots dance to blasting music. Matt Effinger looked on with his family.

“From Indianapolis and a Colts fan obviously, it’s always a little ironic when you got New England and the Patriots coming in here,” Effinger said.

Like many in the throngs here, Effinger was wearing a No. 18 Colts jersey – Peyton Manning’s number. The Indy resident was hoping to see Peyton wear that number in the Super Bowl. But instead Brady and the Patriots have come marching in.

“It’s tough to see the Patriots practicing in the Colts facilities,” he said. “And they’re going to have the Colts locker room.”

Effinger is taking it in stride with reluctant resignation. Other fans are more indignant. Fans like Heath Hurst’s brother, who used to root for the 49ers, but is now a recalcitrant Colts convert. Heath rented out a room in his house to a Patriots fan for the week, and won’t be able to live it down.

“I haven’t told him,” Heath said. “I even just got off the phone with him and I can’t tell him.”

When asked if his brother would rather have him lose out on $1,000 than rent the room to a Patriots fan, Hurst said, “Oh definitely, definitely. He wants me to miss out on that. He might even be willing to write me the check.”

The Patriots, of course, are the Colts’ bitter AFC rivals. Led by Brady, they’ve kept Peyton Manning and Indy out of the Super Bowl more often than not. But for different reasons, the NFC alternative this year stirs up some bile, too.

“That’s all I’m thinking about, what this would mean to the New York Giants organization, to our fans,” said New York Giant’s quarterback Eli Manning.

Eli Manning had center stage earlier this week inside Lucas Oil Stadium, where Peyton normally commands. For the first time, the NFL opened up Media Day interviews to fans, and more than 7,000, mostly Colts fans, listened in on Eli. Local reporters peppered the younger brother with questions about his older one, the one he could upstage by winning a second NFL title.

“You know I’d love to see him back playing football next year in Indianapolis,” Manning said, drawing a large cheer from the crowd. “Hopefully that’s the case. Obviously there’s a lot of things that will get worked out. But I think the number one thing, the number one importance to him right now is getting back to 100 percent.”

One of the fans in the audience was Colts season ticket holder Eddie Arauco. He tuned in his radio earset to listen in on Eli’s comments, and it gave him a twinge in his heart.

“It would have been nice to see Peyton and Eli match up and play each other,” he said. “That’s what it could have been: AFC-NFC. But unfortunately it didn’t happen.”

Unlike most Colts fans, Arauco isn’t so put off by the New England Patriots playing as AFC Champions on Indy’s home turf.

“I think if the Patriots weren’t as respectable as an organization as I find them to be it would drive me crazy,” he said. “But, I mean, they’re winners. You know? And if you have a problem with the Patriots, then beat ‘em. And people can’t, obviously. Time and time again they’ve won. So you gotta give respect where respect’s due.”

Most Colts fans, though, revile the Patriots, and say they’re going to cheer for the Giants instead. They see Eli Manning as the lesser of two evils. The only bright side they see to the Patriots winning the Super Bowl? New England would pick last in the first round of the NFL draft.