This is how it started. In an NFL stadium on its last legs, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon in late September.

Much of the talk leading into Sunday’s AFC championship game between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos has centered around the rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. This is their 17th meeting, and likely their last.

The first Brady-Manning game was on Sept. 30, 2001, at Foxboro Stadium. The Patriots won, 44-13. I was there, and like most everybody else parked on a metal bench in Foxboro Stadium that day, I had no idea I was watching the start of the rivalry that would define the NFL for the next 15 years.

How nondescript was this game? I had to remind my friend Bob L’Heureux that he went to the game with me. When asked what he remembered about being there, my father could only recall that the Patriots won big. Why would we have thought any differently? It was Brady’s first start, after coming in for an injured Drew Bledsoe at the end of the previous week’s loss to the New York Jets. He was a second-year quarterback who had been fourth string the season before.

I remember on the drive from Maine to the stadium, saying it was kind of refreshing to go to a game with zero expectations. Let’s see what the young quarterback can do. If he plays well, great. If he falls on his face? Oh well. It’s a nice day. There are worse places to be than an NFL game on a nice day. Remember, at the time, Bledsoe was the best quarterback in Patriots history. He wasn’t far removed from taking the team to a Super Bowl. Nobody expected this Brady kid to be as good as Bledsoe. We just wanted him to be good enough to be competitive.

Also remember, the Patriots were 0-2. They lost the season opener at Cincinnati, then dropped a 10-3 game to the Jets. After Bledsoe left that game with a chest injury, Brady came into the game with just over two minutes to play. He completed 5 of 10 passes for 46 yards. It doesn’t get any more average than that.

On the other hand, the Colts entered the game with a 2-0 record and looked like a juggernaut. In Week 1, Indianapolis beat the Jets, 45-24. In Week 2, the Colts beat the Bills, 42-26. In those two games, Manning threw for a combined 652 yards, including 421 against Buffalo, and completed nearly 74 percent of his passes. Manning had six touchdown passes, but he also had four interceptions. Looking back, those should have been a harbinger of what was to come at Foxboro Stadium.

I looked up the box score on pro-football-reference.com to refresh my memory. Brady was sacked on the first play and the Patriots went three and out. The Patriots punted on their first two possessions before mounting a scoring drive, which culminated with a four-yard touchdown run by Antowain Smith.

Smith was really the offensive star of the game for New England. He gained 94 yards on 22 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns. Kevin Faulk ran for 48 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. Brady’s job was to simply keep the chains moving while not doing anything stupid, and he succeeded. In his first career start, Brady completed 13-of-23 passes for 168 yards. While he didn’t throw a touchdown pass, he didn’t throw a pick, either. That sack on the first play of the game was the only time the Colts got Brady. I left Foxboro Stadium thinking the kid might be able to get the Patriots through a few games while Bledsoe was out, after all.

Then there was Manning, who was awful that day. Manning completed 20 of 34 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown, but he threw three interceptions. Two of them were returned for touchdowns, one by Otis Smith late in the second quarter to give the Patriots a 17-0 lead. The other from Manning’s nemesis, Ty Law, who returned his pick six early in the fourth quarter to push New England’s lead to 37-7.

For the Patriots, the game was a springboard, the first win in the season in which they won their first Super Bowl. For the Colts, it was a diving board. After starting with so much promise, Indianapolis finished the season 6-10.

The Brady-Manning thing didn’t become the Brady-Manning thing until a couple years later, when they started meeting in the playoffs. Now that the rivalry is almost over, it’s nice to think back on that first game, and wish we knew then that it was the start of something special.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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</URL>Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM


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