FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Royalty.
According to Mark Schlereth, the ESPN NFL analyst, that’s what fans will see Sunday at Gillette Stadium when Tom Brady and the New England Patriots take on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
The two quarterbacks have few peers among their quarterback brethren. Beyond being among the most prolific and explosive passers in NFL history, they have achieved extraordinary team success.
Manning, no longer with the Indianapolis Colts after missing the 2011 season folowing neck surgery, is the fourth-winningest quarterback in league history with 143 victories, and has one Super Bowl title. Brady is the fifth-winningest quarterback with 126, with three Super Bowl rings.
Sunday’s game will be the first between the two with Manning in Denver, but the 13th overall matchup. Brady holds an 8-4 edge, all the games while Manning was with Indianapolis. While this game isn’t just about them, they are the magnet that will attract the most attention.
“Without a doubt, when their careers are over — hopefully not any time soon for either one of them — they’ll be first-ballot Hall of Fame players,” said Broncos Coach John Fox. “I think their body of work to this point — not that it’s nearly over yet — but to this point, it would be hard to argue.”
Brandon Lloyd, the Patriots first-year receiver, said there’s a reason the two are considered the best in the league.
“Their preparation, their leadership and just the way they hold themselves to a higher standard,” he said. “In order to be on the same team and compete with those guys, you have to do the same thing.
“They naturally elevate the level of play of everybody around them.”
This rivalry began on Sept. 30, 2001, a sunny Sunday afternoon at old Foxboro Stadium, when Brady made his first start for the Patriots against the heavily favored Colts and Manning. The Patriots won 44-13, with Manning getting intercepted three times.
But most of the games have been filled with drama because the Patriots and Colts were usually among the best teams in the AFC.
In fact, the last five games the two played against each other — two wins by the Patriots, three by the Colts — have been decided by seven, four, four, one and three points.
“It seems like it’s always come down to the end against (Manning),” Brady said. “When he was with the Colts, it was always close games.”
And over that time, as one might expect, they have become friends.
They talk often in the offseason. And both were pained when injuries forced the other to miss a season: Brady in 2008 (knee) and Manning in 2011 (neck).
“The league certainly missed him when he wasn’t in there last year,” Brady said.
When Manning reached out to Brady last year to talk about his rehab, “it meant a lot to me,” Brady said. “He’s been a really good friend over the years, certainly someone I can relate to. We have a lot of things in common, so it’s nice when we’re going through some things, to bounce an idea or two off one another.”
Manning’s return has been especially impressive, in that he came back from a neck injury and looks as good as he did before the surgery. He has led the Broncos to a 2-2 start while completing 64.7 percent of his passes for 1,162 yards and eight touchdowns. He has a quarterback rating of 96.9
Brady, meanwhile, has completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 1,227 yards and seven touchdowns in leading the Pats to a 2-2 mark.
“He’s playing at a high level, yeah,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Manning. “He looks pretty good to me. Everything is good. His mechanics are good, decision-making is good, handles the team well. All the little things — footwork and ball handling, throwing mechanics.
“He’s pretty good.”
Asked what he admired most about Manning, Belichick said, “Everything. I think he’s got no weakness in his game.”
And Brady has certainly learned a lot from watching Manning over the years.
“I think that he’s someone that certainly I’ve always looked up to and admired and really respected the way he plays the position, the way he works, the way he leads,” said Brady, of Manning.
“He’s been a phenomenal player.”
Later, in talking with the Denver media, Brady added, “He’s really set the standard for quarterback play over my entire career.”
And the Patriots’ defenders know they have to be at their best against him.
“He’s the type of guy who, we know if we’re a little off, he’s going to be right on,” said cornerback Devin McCourty. “We know if we miss something, he’s going to take advantage of it. We’ve got to be prepared because we know he’s going to be prepared.”
All Fox knows is he’s glad to have Manning in his offensive huddle.
“Anytime you add a player of that caliber and his reputation in the league, as far as his study habits, his preparation habits, I’m sure much like what (Brady) does there … Any time you can inject leadership like that into your locker room, your organization, there’s no doubt it’s a real plus,” said Fox.