Tom Brady and Peyton Manning attend the Ermenegildo Zegna Flagship store opening April 13, 2004 in New York City. Credit: Peter Kramer, Getty Images
On Sept. 30, 2001, just seven days after he replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe in the final minutes of a Week 2 loss to the Jets, Tom Brady started his first career NFL game, defeating Peyton Manning and the Colts, 44-13. The ensuing careers of each player redefined a nondescript Week 3 blowout into what is known as “Brady-Manning I,” the prologue to what is arguably the greatest rivalry in sports history.
Since that season there have been three certainties in an NFL fan’s life: death, taxes, and either Brady, Manning, or both, making an AFC Championship game appearance. Think we’re exaggerating? Nope. Nine out of the last 13 of the AFC Championship games have featured one – or both – of the future Hall of Famers. Basic math informs us that’s nearly 70 percent of the time. 70 PERCENT OF THE TIME??? Crazy.
This season is no different. As much as the surrounding circumstances have changed, the two living legends will meet once again on Sunday afternoon to write yet another chapter, the 15th installment, of their storied rivalry. The winner will earn a trip to the Super Bowl against teams led by Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson, who were barely entering their teenage years when Brady-Manning I occurred.
So, what can we expect to unfold during Brady-Manning XV? Probably not much defense. But just because defense could be non-existent, that doesn’t mean points won’t come at a premium. The Patriots won’t look to light up the scoreboard, as playing keep-up with the Broncos is a fool’s errand.
In a war of attrition, Bill Belichick has instead been forced to look down the barrel of his gun and use the only bullets left in his chamber, a fierce running attack fueled by LeGarrette Blount, with the occasional shot of Stevan Ridley, chased by a dose of Shane Vereen.
While it’s an archaic recipe for success, antithetical to the normal complexities associated with New England’s prolific offense, a ball control offense has yielded desirable results in the Brady-Belichick era. Brady boasts a 13-2 record in playoff games where the Patriots break the century mark on the ground, as opposed to 5-5 when they don't.
With all that said, you’re left pining for a prediction for what’s going to happen in Sunday’s AFC Championship? I’ll do you one better, I’ll give you a guarantee: drama. Neither the Patriots nor the Broncos have lost a game by more than seven points this season. Historically speaking, there are few events that consistently deliver the goods like a Brady-Manning matchup. To that point, six of the last seven Brady-Manning showdowns have been decided by seven points or less.
In the meantime, you’ll hear the dreaded “L-Word” gratuitously thrown around until kickoff, even though, by definition, legacies are defined over time, rather than by one game (hence the term “legacy” as opposed to “that one moment”). The real legacy, however, is the rivalry itself. Every hero needs a villain, a counterpart. Win or lose, Brady wouldn’t be Brady without Manning, just as Manning wouldn’t be Manning without Brady. While we’ve spent most of Brady and Manning’s careers ranking their place in NFL folklore, that guaranteed drama is what truly sets them apart.