The Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry is so good that someday it will deserve its own wing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
New England and Indianapolis have established themselves as two of the great teams of their time. Over the past few years, they’ve won more consistently than just about any teams in history. Both teams, for example, are a league-best 33-7 since 2007.
But in a sporting culture driven by personal battles, and in a game ruled by quarterbacks, it’s Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning that sets apart the Patriots-Colts battles of the 21st century, and it’s Brady-Manning that will capture mega-ratings for NBC Sunday night.
In fact, Brady vs. Manning is more than just a showdown of the game’s two marquee players.
It is The Greatest Quarterback Rivalry in NFL History.
Steve Young-Troy Aikman dominated the QB wars of the 1990s. One was a prolific stat monster and still is the highest-rated passer in history. The other was a three-time champion at the helm of America’s Team. They squared off in a series of memorable postseason battles from 1992 to 1994. The winner went on to win the Super Bowl each year.
But that was about it for Young-Aikman. It was too short-lived to live up the standards of Brady-Manning.
Dan Marino-Joe Montana was the great rivalry of the 1980s — the two were universally proclaimed as the best quarterbacks of their time. Heated debates about who was better would have chewed up cell phone arguments and Internet chat board debates — had, you know, cell phones and chat boards existed way back in the 1980s. (The 1980s were funny: A nerd could launch global thermonuclear war from a tic-tac-toe game in his bedroom, but you needed a cast-iron typewriter to "text" your girlfriend.)
But as far as an on-field rivalry is concerned, Marino-Montana wasn’t much. The two faced each other just twice in the regular season, once in 1983 and again in 1993, when Montana played for the Chiefs. The Hall of Famers met only twice in the postseason: The 49ers routed the Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX, and in Montana's final game, on Dec. 31, 1994, the Dolphins beat the Chiefs 27-17 in the AFC wild card playoff. (Editor's note: This item has been updated to include the second postseason meeting.)
Marino-Montana made for great debates, but not much else. Up with People produced more memorable on-field moments than Marino-Montana.
Terry Bradshaw-Roger Staubach ruled the 1970s. Each led dynastic powers, each won multiple Super Bowls and each landed in the Hall of Fame. But, like Marino-Montana, the two rarely faced each other. Bradshaw got the better of Staubach in their two epic Super Bowl showdowns, games that everybody remembers.
But the two faced each other just twice in the regular season, once in 1977 and once in 1979. Pittsburgh won all four meetings. It’s hard to build a great rivalry around four meetings in a decade.
Bart Starr-John Unitas featured the two best quarterbacks of their era, and the mere mention of their names evokes images of the NFL’s muddy, hard-hitting, coming-of-age decade of the 1960s. Both entered the NFL in 1956 and their teams met twice each year through 1966 as rivals in the NFL’s old Western Conference. But the two never met once in the postseason. Unitas blew the one opportunity we had to witness history: He was injured and missed the 1965 Colts-Packers Western Conference tiebreaker game.
You can go all the way back to Otto Graham vs. Norm Van Brocklin or Sid Luckman vs. Sammy Baugh, and you’ll discover that none matched up with the Brady-Manning epic that will write its 11th chapter Sunday night in Indianapolis.
Here are nine reasons why Brady-Manning is The Greatest Quarterback Rivalry in NFL History.
1. Brady and Manning square off almost every year. While Bradshaw-Staubach or Marino-Montana rarely had meetings on the field, Brady and Manning faced each other twice in 2001 when the Colts and Patriots still were division rivals and have met again in the regular season in '03, '04, '05, '06, '07 and here in '09 (Brady missed last year’s meeting due to injury). Since the NFL realignment of 2002, the Colts and Patriots have met more often than any non-division rivals.
The Greatest Quarterback Rivalry in NFL History is a gift that keeps on giving.
2. The games always have playoff implications. Brady and Manning have faced each other three times in the playoffs ('03, '04 and '06). Each time, the team that won the regular-season battle hosted the playoff rematch. Each time, the team that hosted the playoff rematch won the playoff rematch. Each time, the team that won the playoff rematch went on to win the Super Bowl.
It is rare if not unprecedented for regular-season encounters to carry so much weight. And it’s quite possible that the winner of Sunday night’s showdown will host a playoff rematch. It’s quite possible that the team that wins the playoff rematch will go on to win the Super Bowl.
3. Both are champions. Brady and Manning have combined to win four of the past eight Super Bowls, after the '01, '03, '04 and '06 seasons. Super Bowl champions rarely if ever clash so often. In fact, there are only six Super Bowl champion quarterbacks active in the NFL today (Brady, Manning, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, Eli Manning). Brady and Manning have met far more often than any combination.
4. Both are MVPs. Either Brady or Manning won league MVP honors in the '03, '04, '07 and '08 seasons, not to mention Super Bowl MVP honors after the '01, '03 and '06 seasons.
It’s unprecedented for guys with seven MVP trophies on the mantel to meet so often.
5. Both are among the best passers in history. Manning set a record when he passed for 49 TDs in 2004; Brady broke his record when he passed for 50 TDs in 2007. Manning set a record when he posted a 121.4 passer rating in 2004; Brady posted the second-highest mark in history, with a 117.2 passer rating in 2007. Today, Manning is No. 2 on the all-time passer-rating list (95.3); Brady is No. 4 (93.4).
Brady-Manning is, quite literally, the greatest clash of passers in NFL history.
6. Both are among the great winners in history. Brady has won a ridiculous 107 of 136 career starts, a .787 winning percentage. Only Otto Graham, playing in the early 1950s, won more often. Manning has won 132 of 199 career starts, and his .663 percentage is among the best of all time. This year, his Colts will win at least 12 games for the seventh straight season — a string of success unmatched in history.
It’s rare for two quarterbacks to win so often — it’s even more rare for the same two quarterbacks to face each other almost every single season.
7. Both are huge national draws. Patriots-Colts is frequently the most watched game of each season, and Sunday night’s meeting will be no different. The appeal of both players has extended beyond the football field and into pop culture.
8. Brady-Manning already has a long list of memorable meetings. Colts-Patriots battles have come to define one season after another this decade.
In 2003, the Patriots outgunned the Colts 38-34 in Indy, in a game that wasn’t decided until Edgerrin James was stuffed on fourth-and-goal inside the 1-yard line.
In 2004, the Patriots outlasted the Colts 27-24 in a game that wasn’t decided until Indy kicker Mike Vanderjagt shanked a last-second field goal.
In 2006, the Colts outlasted the Patriots 27-20 in the regular season, thanks largely to a rare Brady meltdown (4 INTs). As a result of that game, the 12-4 Colts hosted the 12-4 Patriots in the AFC title game.
Manning then produced the greatest comeback in title game history, leading the Colts back from a 21-3 first-half deficit and to a 38-34 victory in the AFC championship game. It was the game that changed Manning from postseason bumpkin and helped him finally become a Super Bowl champion. And the career-changing game came against Brady and the Patriots.
9. Sunday night’s game matters. We don’t know what will happen Sunday night. But we do know this: It will be exciting. A lot of people will watch. The result will in all likelihood have a material impact on the postseason picture. That’s a pretty good take.
We also know it marks another chapter in The Greatest Quarterback Rivalry in NFL History.
In fact, you should make an extra tape of the game. It’s a bit of history unfolding before your very eyes, and some day the images might be worth a lot of money. Or they might find their way into the Brady-Manning wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.