They first met in the third game of the 2001 season, the fourth-year franchise quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts matched against a little known first-time starter for the New England Patriots.
Peyton Manning was intercepted three times that Sunday at Foxboro Stadium. Tom Brady, seemingly a place holder for injured starter Drew Bledsoe, completed 13 of 23 passes in a 44-13 victory.
No one knew that was just the first chapter. No one knew they would be linked for the next decade as two of the best at their position, certain Hall of Famers who seemed to define the other's career.
On Sunday (3 p.m., CBS), Manning and his Denver Broncos host Brady's Patriots with a trip to the Feb. 2 Super Bowl at stake, and there is no avoiding the headline.
It's Brady vs. Manning.
"It transcends the NFL," said Jim Nantz, who will broadcast the game for CBS. "This is something everyone wants to see. This is tantamount to Ali-Frazier one more time. This is Palmer-Nicklaus. This is Bird-Magic. I'm not trying to create some sort of synthetic drama here, but this is what it is. This is as big as it gets."
Nantz, of course, has an interest in inflating the drama surrounding the 15th meeting between the quarterbacks. But he's hardly the only analyst or media pundit to link the Manning-Brady rivalry to some of the great duels in sports history, two iconic rivals facing off on the biggest stage.
"Great moments require great people to do great things, and both of these players have accomplished that," CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason said. "What you're watching here are two guys that will go down as two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time."
In the previous 14 meetings, Brady is 8-3 in the regular season and 2-1 in the playoffs. Brady has passed for 3,403 yards, 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in the 14 games, Manning for 3,971 yards, 29 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
Brady won the first six meetings, including a AFC Championship Game in January 2004 and a divisional playoff game in January 2005. Manning beat Brady and the Patriots in the AFC title game in January 2007 en route to his only Super Bowl victory. Brady has won the past three meetings, including an overtime win in Week 12 this season.
What's at stake at Mile High Stadium in Denver? Brady, 36, and the Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since 2004 and they are bidding for their eighth Super Bowl appearance, which would tie the Cowboys and Steelers for most in history. The 37-year-old Manning, one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, is searching for his second Super Bowl title to cap his career.
But the quarterbacks attempted to deflect the spotlight in the days leading up to the game. Manning insisted after Denver's victory over the San Diego Chargers last Sunday that "it's the Broncos vs. the Patriots."
Brady was asked about the first meeting against Manning in 2001 and claimed he remembered little. He was asked about past matchups with Manning and steered the conversation to the here and now.
"I'm pretty much focused on this week," Brady said. "I don't really think about those things, truthfully. 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. I think what that means for us is we better be ready to score some points because that's what they do best. ... It's just all about this game."
Still, it's Brady vs. Manning, no matter what they say.
Yet their ability to focus on the upcoming game explains why Manning and Brady are so good. Slot receiver Wes Welker, who joined the Broncos this season after serving as Brady's favorite target, has a unique perspective as a player who has worked intimately with both quarterbacks.
Welker said during training last summer that choosing between the quarterbacks is like "comparing Picasso and Michelangelo." As expected, he was asked to contrast the two this week.
"I'll try and answer this and be as indifferent as possible," Welker said. "There aren't too many differences. They are great quarterbacks. They do a great job of keeping guys accountable, and their leadership skills and everything else. They are two guys you want quarterbacking your team. It's a toss-up between those two."
Manning and Brady seemingly have little in common. Brady was raised in Northern California and played at the University of Michigan, although he failed to distinguish himself and slipped to the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft. There were 198 players selected ahead of him, including quarterbacks named Giovanni Carmazzi, Tee Martin and Spergon Wynn.
Manning is the son of NFL quarterback Archie and the bother of Giants ' quarterback Eli. He grew up in Louisiana, was a celebrated player at the University of Tennessee and was the No. 1 pick in the 1998 NFL draft before joining the Colts as the face of the franchise.
As Brady became an unexpected star, he dated actresses and eventually married international supermodel w. He has a mansion in Los Angeles, a home in New York City, a residence in the Boston area, and his endorsements have been of the high-end variety: Ugg boots, Movado watches, Stetson cologne, Glaceau Smartwater.
Manning met his wife, Ashley, before his freshman year of college and has cultivated a more middle-American image. Contrast his endorsement deals with Brady's: Papa John's Pizza, Oreo cookies, Gatorade, Wheaties and Buick.
A recent survey by the Public Policy Polling found Manning was the most popular NFL quarterback nationally. Brady? He trailed Manning on the popularity list (22 percent to 13 percent) and also led the list of most unpopular quarterbacks.
It was suggested to Brady that fans might envy his success and jet-set lifestyle.
"I live a great life," Brady said. "I'm not sure. You'd probably have to ask all those people that you polled. But you're right. There's nothing I'd rather do than play football for the New England Patriots and, yes, I have a great family."
And he has the respect of his peers, including his fiercest rival. In fact, Manning and Brady are friends.
"I think it's a pretty unique fraternity that all quarterbacks are in and Tom's been playing the longest along with me during our career," Manning said. "We've played against each other a lot and we've both played a lot of football. I enjoy really trying to get to know a number of quarterbacks. Any chance to get to spend some time with them, maybe in the offseason at a banquet or at a golf tournament -- talking a little ball -- I've always enjoyed that part of it. And I've certainly enjoyed doing that with Tom during the times we've had a chance to do that."
There are plenty of juicy story lines for the title game, from Welker facing his old team to Patriots coach Bill Belichick bidding for his sixth Super Bowl berth. But overshadowing it all is the quarterback matchup.
Are legacies at stake? With their careers winding down, there won't be many more opportunities for Manning and Brady.
"I don't care what either one of them does in this game," said former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, a CBS analyst. "It will never change what I think of them. ... They've done so much for the league, and their teams, and themselves, there is nothing that can diminish it."
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