End of the road

Can Brady, Manning deliver one last classic before the historic rivalry ends?

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The first time they met happened to be Tom Brady’s first game as a starting quarterback. That was September 30, 2001 — just 19 days after 9/11 — and Peyton Manning’s Colts were huge favorites to win. The Colts were 2-0 going into the game, they had the league’s highest-scoring offense and the game’s most promising young quarterback, and they were coming off back-to-back playoff seasons.

Brady’s Patriots, meanwhile, were 0-2, their star quarterback was hurt, and they were coming off a disastrous 5-11 season.

Let’s say, at that very moment, someone gave you two visions of the future:

1. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning would become the rivalry of the times, it would define the NFL for the next 15 years, and the two men would spark a million arguments and break countless records. Also, stuff called Facebook, Google, and Apple iPhones would dominate the new world.

2. Bill Belichick would be fired as head coach at the end of the year, Tom Brady would be a lifelong backup, Peyton Manning would go on to a nice but not brilliant career. Also, invest your money in Enron, IBM, and the Altria Tobacco Group.

Of course, you would have believed the second vision. Tom Brady, a legend? Tom Brady? The guy was a sixth-round pick. He struggled to start at Michigan. He was going right back to the bench when the Patriots’ real starter, Drew Bledsoe, returned. Everybody knew that.

Brady’s whole job in his first game was to avoid mistakes. On his first play as a starting quarterback, he got sacked by a defensive lineman named Brad Scioli (“I kind of felt that this wasn’t the best way to start,” he would say). Two plays later, he missed a wide-open receiver on a fly pattern. But it was OK. He didn’t fumble on the sack. He didn’t throw an interception on the bomb. No mistakes.

“In the battle of quarterbacks,” one newspaper wrote, “fortunately, Pats’ Brady relegated to supporting role.”

Meanwhile, Manning made a bunch of mistakes. He had already established himself as the league’s most prolific passer, having led the league in yards and touchdowns passes in 2000. But Bill Belichick had his number. The Patriots sent a bewildering array of defenses at Manning, and he threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. The Patriots won the game 44-13.

“You get depressed (when you fall behind) and try to make a play,” Manning would say. It was fairly easy for him to chalk it up as just one of those bad days.

Meanwhile, Brady threw the ball only 23 times for 168 yards, but he did not turn the ball over. He showed poise.

“I was ecstatic,” Bledsoe would say of Brady’s performance. “And to be honest with you, that’s really the way I expected him to play.”

At that point, Bledsoe had no idea that he would never get his job back. Nobody thought that that Brady was about to launch a legendary career.

Well, maybe one guy did.

“I always see so much more in me than a lot of other people do,” Brady said after the game.”That’s prepared me because, whatever expectation people put on me, I have higher expectations for myself.”

* * *

Game 2: October 21, 2001

Final score: Patriots 38, Colts 17

Three weeks passed (this was the last year before realignment put them in different divisions presumably for the rest of their careers), and it was a very different Tom Brady who took the field. This time, Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis felt a lot more confident in the kid. Brady threw three touchdown passes, one for 60 yards and one for 91 yards (the longest play in Patriots history up to that point).

“It’s not often you draw up plays and have them work the way they did for us,” Brady said.

For the first time, people in New England had started rumbling about a quarterback controversy. Maybe there was something more to Tom Brady.

Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, Manning again flailed against Belichick’s defense. He was sacked four times and, more frustrating than that, the Colts could not punch the ball into the end zone.

“A couple of plays here and there and we could have had 21 points,” Manning lamented.

Here’s a fun line from the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana. It has nothing to do with Brady but instead was trying to make the point that the Colts’ coaching staff was spinning its wheels.

“Getting outcoached twice in three weeks by Bill Belichick is no ringing endorsement,” the newspaper wrote.

That tells you what the name “Bill Belichick” meant in 2001 against what it means now.

* * *

Game 3: November 30, 2003

Final score: Patriots 38, Colts 34

A lot changed between the second and third games. For one thing, Tom Brady’s Patriots had won a Super Bowl, and he had become one of the elite players in the league. Peyton Manning had also figured out some things; he was in the middle of his best season and would lead the Colts to their first AFC Championship Game in almost a decade.

In other words, this was probably the first REAL game between Brady and Manning.

Brady was impossibly good in the first half. He completed his first 11 passes, finished the half 16 for 18 with a touchdown pass, and the Patriots led 31-10. This would become a familiar pattern.

Then, in the second half, Brady lost it. He threw a dreadful interception to open the half — badly misfiring on a timing pass — and then threw another one. Manning brought back the Colts and put them in a position to win — fourth-and-goal from the Patriots’ 1-yard line with 14 seconds left.

The Colts decided to run the ball. New England’s Willie McGinest stuffed running back Edgerrin James and Brady’s Patriots won again.

* * *

Game 4: January 18, 2004

AFC Championship Game

Final score: Patriots 24, Colts 14

Brady was cool, Manning was awful, and that was pretty much the whole story. Manning threw four interceptions (three to Ty Law) and seemed to be jumping from shadows and throwing to ghosts. “I just made some bad throws, bad decisions,” he muttered afterward.

Brady, meanwhile, was as solid and unspectacular as ever, throwing one touchdown, one interception and setting up Adam Vinatieri for five short field goals.

‘What do stats mean when you’re sitting at home?” Law asked of Manning’s superior numbers during the year. “I want to go out there with Tom Brady. With all due respect to Steve (McNair) and Peyton, winning is the card the trumps everything.

“Tom Brady is the greatest winner in football right now.”

After the game, Brady was typically humble and self-deprecating. He isn’t often revealing, but when a reporter compared him to Joe Montana, he did tell a story. When he was still a kid, Brady’s father took him to one of the great games in NFL history — the NFC Championship Game between San Francisco and Dallas that ended with Dwight Clark making “The Catch” on a pass from Montana.

“I think I was whining the whole first half because he wouldn’t buy me one of those foam fingers,” he said. “So I don’t think I enjoyed much of the second half. Everyone jumped up. I couldn’t see anything, and I think I was crying the whole way home, not realizing that was probably the most significant play in San Francisco 49ers history.”

* * *

Game 5: September 9, 2004

Final score: Patriots 27, Colts 24

Here was the first shootout between Brady and Manning. Brady completed 26 of 38 for 335 yards and three touchdowns. He threw two of those touchdown passes in the third quarter to give the Patriots a 10-point lead.

Manning brought the Colts back twice in the fourth quarter. Both efforts ended in despair. With less than four minutes left, Indianapolis moved all the way to the New England 1-yard line. On the next play, James tried to stick the ball over the goalline and had it knocked free by Eugene Wilson.

Later, the Colts drove into easy field goal range, but Manning took an unfortunate sack (McGinest again) and Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal.

“You’re supposed to score when you have chances down there,” Manning grumbled.

* * *

Game 6: January 16, 2005

AFC Divisional Playoff Game

Final score: Patriots 20, Colts 3

The Colts’ loss in September meant that this playoff game was played in Foxboro instead of Indianapolis. That proved bad news for Manning. The field was muddy, the wind was blowing; it was a day perfectly suited for the Patriots’ style of play. New England rushed for 210 yards, held the ball for 38 minutes, and forced three turnovers. That was that.

“We were just glad to make plays when we had to,” Brady said.

By now, a narrative had built around Manning: He was the most prolific passer in the NFL, but it always seemed to end badly for him.

“I know people will say that and write that,” Colts coach Tony Dungy would say. “But I can remember other guys who waited a long time to get there. A lot of people went after John Elway for not winning a Super Bowl, and he didn’t until way down in his career. Yes, the pressure on Peyton will build. But it only takes one year to change it.”

* * *

Game 7: November 7, 2005

Final score: Colts 40, Patriots 21

Finally, Peyton Manning got his victory. There was no suspense. Manning threw three touchdown passes and led the Colts to a 28-7 lead early in the third quarter. This was a different Manning from the first six games. While Belichick’s defense had baffled him, now he passed confidently through it. “He seemed to have all the answers,” New England’s Eugene Wilson said.

Manning relished in the victory. He said everyone asked him three questions:

1. Can I have your autograph?

2. How many touchdowns are you going to throw?

3. When are you going to beat New England?

Now, he didn’t have to answer that third one. When a reporter asked if it was a relief facing a New England defense that was not as good as years past, Manning smiled.

“You a Patriots fan?” Manning asked. “Is that it?”

Game 8: November 5, 2006

Final score: Colts 27, Patriots 20

This is perhaps the most inexplicable game in the rivalry. Tom Brady threw a career-high four interceptions and finished with a 34 quarterback rating. Two of the interceptions were tipped, so some of it was just bad luck, but there was a sense that things were changing. Brady had already won three Super Bowls and had already made his mark as one of the greatest winners in NFL history.

But now, Manning was finding his balance. He was solid but unspectacular, right out of the Brady playbook, and the Colts never trailed.

“All anybody wants to talk about with this team is, ‘What are you guys going to do in the playoffs?’” Manning said. “I’m going to enjoy this one for a while.

* * *

Game 9: January 21, 2007

AFC Championship Game

Final score: Colts 38, Patriots 34

The Patriots grabbed a 21-3 lead on a dreadful pick-six interception by Manning. He had stared down a receiver and threw a duck of a pass that Asante Samuel easily picked off and returned 39 yards for a touchdown. This looked to be an easy New England win.

But Manning led the Colts back on three long drives. He scored a touchdown, threw for another, completed a two-point conversion, and the game was tied. It went back and forth after that. The Patriots took a three-point lead with less than four minutes left. Manning then threw three straight incompletions, setting up a punt which could have lost the game.

But Brady responded with two incomplete passes of his own, giving the ball back to Manning with a little more than two minutes left. And then Peyton Manning led the Colts on the drive of his life, a bumpy 80-yarder that included three complete passes, a roughing-the-passer penalty and, finally, a Joseph Addai touchdown run to give the Colts a 38-34 lead.

The Patriots had one more shot, with a little bit less than a minute left. Manning couldn’t watch, not with Tom Brady out there.

“I said a little prayer on that last drive,” Manning admitted. “I don’t know if you’re supposed to pray for stuff like that, but I said a little prayer.”

Brady moved his Patriots into Indianapolis territory with 24 seconds left in the game. Indianapolis’ Martin Jackson stepped in front of his next throw and picked it off.

“It was over,” Brady would say of that fateful final pass. “That was my only thought.”

Two weeks later, Manning would lead Indianapolis to its first-ever Super Bowl win — and his only one to this point.

* * *

Game 10: November 4, 2007

Final score: Patriots 24, Colts 20

Here’s something you might not have known: Before his remarkable 2007 season, Tom Brady’s career passer rating was a rather modest 88.4 — about the same as Chad Pennington and Daunte Culpepper and Marc Bulger. Of course, passer rating is a flawed statistic, but there is a point here: Brady’s numbers were not all that special. His greatness, everyone understood, was not in his production. It was in the cool way he carried himself, his leadership, his ability to play well in big games. But when it came to pure passing numbers, he was no match for Manning.

Then came 2007. In the Colts game, Brady threw three touchdown passes, two in the last eight minutes to give New England the victory.

And for the season, Brady was incredible, throwing a then-NFL-record 50 touchdown passes against only eight interceptions, throwing for more than 4,800 yards (more than Manning ever had in a season) leading the Patriots to the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. It is one of the greatest statistical seasons in NFL history.

This is another part of what makes the Brady-Manning rivalry so magical: They pushed each other to ever-greater heights. Manning found inner strength. Brady became more skilled. Manning learned how to control his mistakes. Brady learned how to put up huge numbers.

* * *

Game 11: November 15, 2009

Final score: Colts 35, Patriots 34

Here was the all-time classic between the Manning and Brady, a back-and-forth thriller where the two quarterbacks combined for more than 700 yards passing and seven touchdown passes. Brady was untouchable in the first three quarters, throwing three touchdown passes and leading the Patriots to a 31-14 lead.

Then Manning led a fantastic comeback. It was so fantastic that it pushed Belichick to make one of his most famous/infamous decisions. The Patriots had the ball with two minutes left, fourth-and-2 on their own 28. This would be an obvious punting situation for every coach in the history of the NFL. But Belichick did not want to give the ball back to Manning. He did not believe his defense could stop Manning.

The Patriots went for it and failed — Brady’s pass to Kevin Faulk came up a yard short.

Then, Manning led the Colts on the game-winning drive. He controlled the clock and the Patriots’ defense and threw the final touchdown pass with 16 seconds left. It was an NFL classic. This was two masters at work.

* * *

Game 12: November 21, 2010

Final score: Patriots 31, Colts 28

Here was the last game between Manning’s Colts and Brady’s Patriots, and it was typically wonderful. For the second time in a year, Brady was brilliant for three quarters and led the Patriots to a 31-14 lead.

For the second time in a year, Manning led a fantastic comeback with a couple of touchdown passes.

For the second time in a year, Brady had a chance to put the game away, but he threw one of his rare incomplete passes on third down and gave the ball back to the Colts.

Then Manning drove the ball deep into Patriots territory — well into field goal range.

“For a minute there, I was thinking déjà vu,” New England’s James Sanders said. Everyone was thinking that. But Sanders did something about it, leaping up and intercepting a Manning pass to end things.

It had been a glorious 10-year rivalry between Manning’s Colts and Brady’s Patriots. The Patriots dominated early, winning the first six, with Brady looking poised, sure and invincible and Manning looking helpless.

But the Colts won four of the last six, including an AFC Championship Game. Brady showed a few cracks in his perfection, and Manning had transformed into a John McClane-type character who simply could not be finished off.

This is what great rivalries do. They show us so many different sides of the rivals. Manning and Brady might be the two greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. And they were at their very best — and their very worst — against each other.

* * *

Game 13: October 7, 2012

Final score: Patriots 31, Broncos 21

Peyton Manning looked different. Of course, he was wearing a new Denver uniform. But it was more than that. He moved around more gingerly; he threw the ball with less force. There were many doubters. Manning had missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury. He was also 36 years old. How could he be the same?

Well: He wasn’t the same, but he was still lethal.

This game took on what had become the Brady-Manning pattern. For three quarters, Brady was outrageously good, and Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was unstoppable. New England took a 31-7 lead.

Then, just when it seemed too late, Manning’s brilliance kicked in. He led the Broncos on two scoring drives. Late in the fourth quarter, he led the Broncos on another drive, and there was no doubt some creeping panic in New England. But Denver running back Willis McGahee fumbled the ball, and Brady ran out the clock.

“It was the Patriots vs. the Broncos,” Brady said, “not me against Peyton.” But, of course, nobody believed that.

Game 14: November 24, 2013

Final score: Patriots 34, Broncos 31 (OT)

Maybe this was the all-time classic. Great rivalries need great duels. This is why Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were not really rivals; how often did they have a shootout on golf’s biggest stages? Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays only saw each other at All-Star Games and a couple of World Series where neither were much of a factor.

But Manning and Brady kept playing outrageously beautiful games. This time, Manning’s Broncos rushed out to the huge lead (24-0). Manning in 2013 reached a whole other level as a quarterback. At age 37, he set just about every meaningful passing record. He threw 55 touchdown passes, smashing Brady’s record. He passed for 5,477 yards, again smashing Brady’s record. He had the lowest interception percentage of his career. It was as if Manning had gone to the mountaintop and was given the secret of football.

Brady, meanwhile, just endured. The story of Manning’s career is how he adjusted based on his body, his arm, his team, his conditions. The story of Brady’s career that he never aged at all. Even in his late 30s, he looks and plays exactly like he did in his prime. Perfect tight spirals still spin out of his hand. He still releases the ball as quickly as ever.

Brady came out of the locker room at halftime was basically perfect. He threw two touchdown passes to wide receiver Julian Edelman, another to tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the Patriots improbably took the lead in the fourth quarter. Manning threw the game-tying touchdown with about three minutes left.

Both quarterbacks were shockingly ineffective in overtime, and the game was not won or lost by either one. It, instead, came down to Denver’s Tony Carter, who muffed a punt.

“A lot of guys were heroes tonight,” Belichick said.

* * *

Game 15, January 19, 2014

AFC Championship Game

Final score: Broncos 26, Patriots 16

This was Peyton Manning’s greatest day, beginning to end. He threw for 400 yards, two touchdowns, didn’t get sacked, didn’t turn the ball over, and the Broncos controlled the game from beginning to end.

And, yes, it’s important to say that as dominant as Brady and Manning have been, they are only parts of teams. They have never been on the field at the same time. They have never picked off each other’s passes or been sacked by each other. The Broncos were the better team on this day just as several of Brady’s Patriots team were better in the early days.

“Losing,” a beaten Brady said, “is never easy.”

* * *

Game 16: November 2, 2014

Final score: Patriots 43, Broncos 21

Not a whole lot to say about this one. Brady threw four touchdown passes; Manning threw for 438 yards. The game was a blowout.

All of which leads us to the 17th game, this Sunday, when Brady and Manning face each other for what figures to be the last time. Manning is almost 40 years old, his arm is gone, he can look shockingly vulnerable and defenseless out there. He has not announced his retirement yet, and he might not. But it seems unlikely he will ever be here again.

Brady is 38 years old and still going. He led the league in touchdown passes and kept finding ways to win even though everyone around him seemed to be getting hurt.

It is probably too much to hope for another classic duel between them, but would it surprise anyone? One of my all-time favorite sports lines was said after boxer Stanley Ketchel was killed. “Start counting to 10,” someone said. “He’ll get up.”

So it is for these two. Just tell them that they’re facing each other. They will find a way to get up one more time.