All last week, Sports World focused on the rivalry between quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Brady vs. Manning. Manning vs. Brady. Their 17th, and possibly final, game against each other when Brady and the New England Patriots tackle Manning and the Denver Broncos Sunday for the AFC Championship and a trip to Super Bowl 50.
With the kickoff of what could be an epic battle looming, may we take a step back and acknowledge that this game is not Brady versus Manning but Brady and the Patriots offense against the Broncos defense? And Manning and the Broncos offense against the Patriots defense? Thank you.
If you want true individual rivalries, google Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. They played against each other, literally, 142 times in their Hall of Fame basketball careers. Or Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who faced each other across a tennis net 80 times. Or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, NBA legends who first went against each other in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game and then 37 times with the Celtics and Lakers. Those were rivalries.
Brady and Manning have not gone against each other. Their teams have. Brady has never tried to intercept a Manning pass, and Manning has never gone for a pick when Brady has thrown the ball. Manning versus Ty Law was more of a rivalry. The Pats defensive back intercepted the Colts quarterback seven times during his career, three times in the 2004 AFC Championship. The Brady-Manning rivalry, if you insist on that terminology, exists only because they play the same position in the same conference and have played a long time.
So why all the hype? That’s easy. They are two of the finest quarterbacks in pro football history, certain Hall of Famers when their time comes. Brady has four Super Bowl rings and two NFL MVP awards. Manning owns one Super Bowl ring and five MVP trophies
The stardom each enjoys today was not guaranteed when they began their NFL journeys. I remember Manning’s first visit to Foxboro Stadium. It was Sept. 13, 1998. He was a rookie with an impressive football pedigree – his father is former Mississippi and New Orleans Saints great Archie Manning. Peyton was an All–America at Tennessee, the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft and the recipient of a $48-million rookie contract.
In his second career start, against the Patriots, he played like an unknown rookie free agent and not the 1997 Heisman Trophy runner-up: 21 of 33 passing for 188 yards and 1 touchdown; 3 interceptions; 2 sacks, 1 fumble. Law picked off two passes, returning one 59 yards for a touchdown. Chris Canty had the other INT. The Patriots won, 29-6.
Manning and the Colts lost again to the Pats, 21-16, on Nov. 1, 1998 in Indianapolis. He completed 30 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns but also threw two interceptions. Lawyer Milloy had both picks.
The Colts finished 3-13 in Manning’s rookie season.
Manning finally tasted victory against New England on his fourth try, Dec. 12, 1999, a 20-15 decision. He threw for 186 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. In 2000 the Patriots intercepted Manning three times in their 24-16 victory at Foxboro. Two weeks later at Indianapolis, Manning threw three touchdown passes without an interception, and the Colts won, 30-23.
We all know Brady’s story. Sixth round draft choice and the 199th pick out of Michigan in 2000. I remember his locker was next to Bledsoe’s (Number 11 and Number 12) but nobody paid him any attention while Bledsoe was holding court. Then Bledsoe got hurt early in 2001, Brady took over and led the Pats to their first Super Bowl championship. The rest is history.
The Manning-Brady “rivalry” began on Sept. 30, 2001, Brady’s first start. The Patriots intercepted Manning three times and sacked him twice. The Pats rolled, 44-13. Three weeks later at Indianapolis, Manning passed for 335 yards and a touchdown without an interception, survived four sacks and led the Colts to a 38-17 triumph.
Brady and the Patriots have won 11 of the 16 games they have played against Manning and the Colts. The playoff record is 2-2. Sunday could be the last meeting between Brady-led and Manning-led teams because Manning, 39, missed six games this season with injuries. He also had surgery on his neck while still a member of the Colts. Brady, 38, is healthier and shows little effect of the season-ending knee injury he suffered in 2008.
The Patriots should enjoy an edge on offense Sunday as long as Brady has Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to throw to against Denver’s top-ranked defense. If the Pats defense can stymie Denver’s potent running game and force Manning to throw, a New England victory should be even more likely. In the end, however, the outcome could ride on the foot of Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski.