DENVER — Football history knocks at the door and Sunday, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will finally answer.
The intertwined legacies of two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks will be redefined or solidified when the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos meet in the AFC Championship Game.
The victor goes to the Super Bowl in two weeks in New Jersey. That’s the big prize. Somehow the AFC game itself is overshadowed amid the expectation of Brady and Manning matching skills and leadership for the 15th time.
They’re considered the best quarterbacks of their generations and perhaps among the greatest who played in the NFL. Their 14-game rivalry, includes three AFC playoff games and has spanned more than a decade, much longer than the five years of matchups between Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1970s.
Bradshaw and Staubach, Dan Marino and Joe Montana, Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas. All pale in their longevity to Brady-Manning.
Brady’s Patriots have beaten Manning’s Colts and Broncos 10 times, although they’re even in AFC title game confrontations, each winning one.
They are the face of their teams, although Brady tried his best to tone down the hype of two individuals squaring off on the Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium before a capacity crowd and an immense audience watching and listening on television.
Before the Patriots left Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. on Saturday afternoon for the nearly 2,000-mile flight to Denver, Brady was asked one more time if he enjoyed the matchups with Manning.
“I love playing football,” said Brady.
He was reminded that Brady versus Manning has now become part of NFL lore.
“Truthfully, I’m just not focused on that at this point,” said Brady. “I wake up every morning to try to come here and focus on my job and do what I need to do. I don’t read much. I don’t do much. I just show up and get ready for practice. It’s just not really on my mind, not this week.
“I appreciate playing great football teams and (Manning is) a great leader for that team. This game is about the Broncos and the Patriots. I know that they have a great quarterback on the other side of the ball. We’re going to have to score some points. They’ve scored points all year. I think they set a record for scoring points this season, more points than any team in the history of the league.
“We’ll be challenged because they have a very good defense and they play well at home. I think we just have to understand what it’s going to take from our offense to go out there and win a very tough game on the road against a very good team led by one of the great quarterbacks of all time.”
Their’s is a rivalry born of mutual respect. They certainly don’t taunt. They don’t try to verbally one-up the other.
Brady has won three Super Bowls to Manning’s one. Others have to bring that into the conversation. They won’t.
“I think the one thing that jumps out about Tom is just his consistency,” said Manning when the week of preparation for the title game began. “I feel like he’s been a better player each year than he was the year before, 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.
“There are many, many well-deserved accolades and adjectives to describe the way he’s played quarterback and the way he’s competed, but (consistency is) one that’s really impressive to me.”
Brady has described Manning the same way. They are remarkably similar in their approach to football and how they play the game. Go back over the years to the photos of the two meeting after games. Look at their faces. It’s difficult to see which played for the winning team that day.
Wes Welker – a friend of Brady and former Patriots receiver – sees it. Welker signed with the Broncos during the last offseason and has spent much of the past five months with Manning.
“I think with just the way they go about their business and the way they study,” said Welker this week. “The way they keep guys accountable, the way they show it by what they do on the field and off the field and preparing. They just keep guys accountable and make sure everyone is doing their jobs and when they’re not, letting them know when they’re not.”
The biggest on-field difference is, Manning has almost always had very capable receivers. Brady has had to make do with receivers whose experience and skill sets can vary from year to year as Coach Bill Belichick constantly juggles the roster.
Manning gets to establish relationships with the men who catch his passes. Brady, many times, has to hope his guys hang around after the introductions. That, coupled with injuries to Rob Gronkowski and the arrest of Aaron Hernandez for his alleged involvement in a murder, have turned the Patriots’ offense inside-out. Brady is the constant.
Off the field they are different men. Brady is California cool in that there’s so little that is egotistical about him. He can talk with the Pope, marry a supermodel from Brazil and look at the world at large as a difference-maker, much as the actor Brad Pitt does.
Manning is New Orleans-style southern hospitality with a big dose of mischief mixed in. He can laugh at himself and shows his humor in his many television commercials. Brady enjoys laughter, too. At the same time he’s conscious of having to work harder to rise above others on the football field. The two quarterbacks will forever be compared by the fact that Manning was drafted No. 1 overall by the Colts out of Tennessee and Brady was drafted No. 199 out of Michigan. He had to become the prize surprise.
Manning is 37; Brady is 36. Manning lost playing time to a neck injury, Brady to a torn knee. Their careers are winding down. Both men are more conscious of fewer opportunities to win than how football history ranks their performances.
“I love playing so I enjoy all the games,” said Brady. “I enjoy AFC Championship games. I enjoyed last week’s game (against Indianapolis). I enjoyed the game against Buffalo, I enjoyed the games against Baltimore and Cleveland.
“They all mean something. They’re all important. I think we all work hard and sacrifice a lot and it’s all worth it because that’s our choice. We’re fortunate to be able to do a job that we love to do and get paid for it and certainly have fans that cheer us on and family that support us. There’s a lot of things to be grateful and appreciative (for) and things I’ll miss when I’m done playing.
“Hopefully, that’s not anytime soon.”
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: