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Tom Brady, Peyton Manning are bonded by history

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The most celebrated individual rivalry in NFL history began, like many lifelong relationships, with the simplest of salutations: "Hi, Tom, I'm Peyton."

On Sept. 30, 2001, Peyton Manning uttered those words pregame to an unheralded Patriots fill-in quarterback named Tom Brady, who was making his first career start, as the Patriots faced the Indianapolis Colts at the now defunct Foxboro Stadium. The Patriots won that first Brady-Manning meeting, 44-13.

If they win what could well be their final duel Sunday, Brady and Manning will say goodbye with satisfying symmetry — bonded by history and bookended by the first start of Brady's career and what could well be Manning's last.


Sunday's AFC Championship game in Denver between Manning's Broncos and Brady's Patriots, a.k.a. Brady-Manning XVII, is expected to mark a farewell to the arms race that has defined the NFL for a generation.

In their final pas de deux, Brady and Manning have reversed roles. Brady is now the gunslinger asked to carry his team to victory with pinpoint throws and little margin for error. His team's fate is tethered almost entirely to his passing prowess.

Manning is now the game manager, asked to suppress his ego and pursuit of passing numbers and play complementary quarterback, minimizing mistakes and deferring to Denver's top-ranked defense and slash-and-dash running attack.

Manning is now the Jason Varitek of NFL quarterbacks, lauded more for his game-calling than his physical skills. He bears little resemblance to the quarterback who one-upped Brady's single-season touchdown passes mark of 50 just two seasons ago with 55.

This season, amazingly, Brady has thrown more touchdown pass at Denver's home field (three) than Manning (one).

The almost 40-year-old Manning's body is balking at the demands of being an NFL quarterback. He was forced to the bench by waning arm strength, plantar fasciitis, and poor play, missing his meet-up with Brady in Denver on Nov. 29. His football intellect, and ability to checkmate defenses, remain as sharp as ever.


Meanwhile, at age 38, Brady looks forever young. He led the NFL in touchdown passes this season with 36. He is still at the apogee of his profession, fixated on becoming the first quarterback to win five Super Bowls and erasing any doubt that he is the greatest ever at his position.

Manning has another year on his contract, and the Broncos are on the Patriots' 2016 schedule. But most think this is Manning's last stand. Few, in fact, expected him to regain his health and his starting job to make Sunday's matchup possible.

A November 2014 e-mail that Brady sent referencing the future of the Brady-Manning rivalry now seems prophetic. In the e-mail, which became public during Brady's Deflategate lawsuit, Brady told a childhood friend there is no comparing his future in the game to Manning's: "I've got another 7 or 8 years. He has 2. That's the final chapter. Game on."

Final or not, this chapter is compelling.

Manning is seeking a satisfying close and a measure of historical redemption against Bill Belichick and Brady, who so often have had the upper hand in their meetings. TB12 is seeking to burnish his legend by delivering the Patriots' first playoff win in Denver, which has traditionally been a Mile High House of Pain.

Brady leads the all-time series, 11-5. But the two are tied, 2-2, in the postseason.


Manning has won the last two playoff meetings, the 2006 AFC Championship game, in which his Colts rallied from a 21-3 first-half deficit, and the 2013 AFC title game in Denver, in which Manning threw for 400 yards and the Broncos, as unstoppable as the bulls at Pamplona, trampled Belichick's defense, scoring on six straight drives.

Brady v. Manning has been one of the great partisan player debates in sports history, like Ted Williams versus Joe DiMaggio, Bill Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson.

But history seems more likely to raise Brady's hand, his four Super Bowl rings trumping Manning's record five MVPs.

Fair or not, quarterbacks are judged like presidents: They get undue credit and unwarranted blame for outcomes on the field.

Brady owns the most QB wins in playoff history with a 22-8 record and is appearing in his tenth AFC championship game. Manning, holder of the NFL regular-season career marks for passing yards (71,940) and touchdown passes (539), is just 12-13 in the postseason, and lost in the first round of the playoffs nine times.

Neither Brady nor Manning was interested this week in reliving their historic rivalry.

Both gave bland, banal answers full of boilerplate praise for each other.

It would have been more interesting if they had stepped to the podium last week and barked out their signature cadences — Manning's "Omaha!" and Brady's "Alpha . . . Go!"

Perhaps that's because they don't want to be viewed as combatants in a tussle for history's high ground. For them, the rivalry has become more about kinship between two all-time greats.


In December, Brady told WEEI-AM that he'll have a "lifelong friendship" with Manning.

Forget what rounds they were drafted in, what helmets they wear, what products they pitch, where they're from, or who they married to. Brady and Manning are similar in more ways than they differ, right down to the people trying to push them off their pedestals in the last year.

Manning found himself warding off HGH allegations after an Al Jazeera documentary intimated that he used the drug after a career-threatening neck injury in 2011. Brady, of course, dealt with the NFL's weird air pressure inquest.

Here in the Hub of Homerism, we tend to view the Brady-Manning rivalry from one angle, the one that has Manning, with his furrowed brow, as the clear runner-up.

But it takes two to tango this long.

Together Brady and Manning have forged a legacy worthy of Roman numerals and American legend.

The first words in the rivalry belonged to Peyton. Perhaps the last word, and a berth in Super Bowl 50, await.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.