Football / Sports

AFC showdown of epic proportions will feature Brady vs. Manning

They met for the first time on the last day of September in 2001.

Quarterback Tom Brady, a former sixth-round draft pick of the New England Patriots, would make his first NFL start in place of franchise icon Drew Bledsoe, who had been injured the week before.

Peyton Manning, the first overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts in 1998, was still establishing himself as an elite quarterback.

Neither profess to remember much about that game in New England, except for one fact.

"We won," Brady said of the Patriots' 44-13 victory. "That was the most important thing."

That meeting of Brady and Manning would be the first round in what has evolved into the greatest rivalry between quarterbacks in pro football history -- and one that transcends the NFL, on par with Ali vs. Frazier . . . Palmer vs. Nicklaus . . . Magic vs. Bird.

The two quarterback giants reach round 15 in the AFC championship game Sunday, when Brady's Patriots visit Manning's Denver Broncos, the team he joined in 2012 after spending 14 seasons in Indianapolis.

Brady has had the upper hand in the rivalry, winning 10 of 14, though nine of those games have been on his home field, where he is 7-2 against Manning.

They've met in two games with the Super Bowl on the line, and each owns a win. The Patriots won the 2003 AFC championship in New England en route to Brady's second of three Super Bowl titles. The Colts won the 2006 AFC championship in Indianapolis en route to Manning's only Super Bowl title.

"It's a great rivalry because the teams have been as good as they have been," said Jeff Saturday, who was Indianapolis' center for the first 13 Brady-Manning matchups and is now an analyst for ESPN.

"The difficulty is the two aren't on the field at the same time. Quarterbacks are the faces of their franchises, but when you think of rivalries like Sampras and Agassi . . . they're playing each other over and over . . . it's the greatest in your sport . . . matching each other on offense and defense.

"With Manning and Brady, every year you knew it was the Colts and the Patriots, and now the Broncos and Patriots are facing each other with two great teams and with either team having a chance to get (to the Super Bowl). That's the excitement of sports."

This will mark the fourth time in the Super Bowl era that opposing quarterbacks will face each other for a third time in AFC or NFC championship games.

Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw had a 2-1 edge over Oakland's Kenny Stabler, as did Dallas' Troy Aikman over San Francisco's Steve Young. Denver's John Elway was 3-0 over snakebit Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar.

But those quarterbacks didn't square off with the frequency of Manning, a four-time league MVP, and Brady, a two-time MVP.

"The fact really is three words: longevity, consistency and success . . ." said former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, now an analyst for CBS. "Both of these guys have kind of been going in parallel lives to one another and now find themselves in the AFC championship game.

"Nothing says greatness better or more than winning. Great moments require great people to do great things, and both of these players have accomplished that. . . . Maybe with the exception of Joe Montana, what you're watching here are two guys that will go down as two of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time."

After the Patriots won the first six meetings in the rivalry, Manning is 4-4 since losing to New England in the 2004 playoffs. And six of the last seven games between Brady and Manning have been decided by seven points or less, including this season's regular-season meeting at New England, where Brady engineered a comeback from 24-0 down at halftime and led the Patriots to a 34-31 victory in overtime.

"Tom Brady is an incredibly competitive quarterback that has played his best football in so many big games," Manning said last week. "I feel like he's been a better player each year than he was the year before, and that, to me, speaks to his work ethic in the offseason, his refusal to be complacent or satisfied. He always feels like he can step his game up one level higher, which (in) some of the seasons he's had you say, 'How can you get better than that?' But I think he has done that."

Actually, Manning's biggest nemesis in this rivalry is not Brady as much as it is Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the other constant in the equation. Manning is playing for his fourth head coach (Jim Mora, Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis; John Fox in Denver), while Brady has played for just Belichick.

"Coach Belichick is the best coach that I've ever competed against," Manning said. "It's safe to say he'll go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time. So, the teams that he has coached that I've competed against have always been well-coached, always been prepared, always played hard for 60 minutes. . . . Those things jump out every single week."

Manning has completed 344 of 557 passes for 3,970 yards with 29 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and an 85.6 passer rating in 14 games against Belichick and Brady. Brady has completed 310 of 462 passes for 3,403 yards, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a 96.6 rating against Manning's teams.

This season, Manning set NFL records for passing yards with 5,477 and touchdowns with 55, shattering Brady's record of 50 set in 2007. But Brady is more concerned about facing the Broncos than the historical context of the game.

"I don't really think about those things, truthfully," Brady said. "It's just not where my mind is. He's a great player, they've got a great team and one of the best offenses in history.

"That means we better be ready to score some points, because that's what they do best. They outscore you and they can score quickly; they can run the ball like they did against us last time. They have a bunch of guys who have caught a bunch of touchdowns. We have to be able to match it. They've been playing great since the opening day of the season. We've kind of had to find our way a little bit.

"But none of (the history) really matters -- it's just all about this game."

Brady, at 36, and Manning, 37, may have had the best seasons of their Hall of Fame careers in 2013.

Brady lost his five leading receivers from 2012 to free agency (Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead), injury (Rob Gronkowski), arrest (Aaron Hernandez) or release (Brandon Lloyd). Those five caught 338 of Brady's 402 passes last season.

On top of that, the Patriots' defense lost key players, such as nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, to season-ending injuries, putting even more pressure on Brady and a young receiving corps.

But Brady still threw for 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns and led the Patriots to a 12-4 record and an AFC East title. Twice this season, Brady threw game-winning passes in the final seconds, pulling out wins against New Orleans and Cleveland.

"Brady has willed his team at times," Saturday said. "He is the catalyst of the team, and he fires those guys up. He calls guys out to a level of greatness and brings it out of his teammates.

"When you see young receivers . . . or you see guys go down, and they've got to bring in the next guy or if they lose guys to free agency, he doesn't mope, he doesn't whine about it, he just shows up and says, 'We're going to be better. We're going to work on this, and I'm going to have the guys after practice and work extra routes or whatever has to go into it.' That's the sign of a true pro."

Manning, meanwhile, two years removed from a career-threatening neck surgery, lost Pro Bowl center Dan Koppen to injury before the season even started, and Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady after two games because of a knee injury. But Manning kept on pitching and is expected to receive a fifth MVP award, two more than any other NFL player.

"What Peyton has done and this offense has done as a whole has been incredible," Saturday said. "The numbers they have put up, the points, the passing yards are tremendous . . . Peyton has played great, but that speaks to all 11 guys (on offense)."

Still, Manning's playoff record of 10-11 has come under scrutiny, even as he sits second to Brady in most career postseason passing categories. Manning has played in just two Super Bowls, winning one, or one fewer than his younger brother, Eli, who owns two Super Bowl victories over Brady.

And though Brady has an NFL-record 18 postseason victories and his three Super Bowl titles rank second to the four won by Montana and Bradshaw, it has been 10 years since Brady won an NFL championship.

So a lot is riding on this one for both teams, for both quarterbacks. In fact, there's some speculation that if Manning were to capture that elusive second Super Bowl, he could retire, as former Broncos quarterback John Elway did after winning his second championship following the 1998 season.

"This could be a historical game," said Aikman, an analyst for Fox Sports. "It might be the last time they meet in the postseason. . . . You think they're going to be back next year, but you just don't know."

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