Greatest Sports Rivalries: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning
Most often the best sports rivalries are reserved for two teams or two cities that have fought each other across the years for bragging rights and championships. Then, every so often, the focus of contention narrows to two men, women or animals. In the case of NFL quarterbacks there is no showdown people remember more than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The two have fought each other for almost a decade now, vying for dominance of their generation of quarterbacks in both the win column and the stat books. Storylines abound. Manning: the second-generation star, picked first overall in 1998 to rescue the Indianapolis Colts. Brady: the non-descript second stringer from Michigan, taken on a flier in the sixth round to back up Drew Bledsoe. There was something so complete about how their careers converged. How it evolved from there couldn't be written in a movie script.
2003 - Bill Belichick flusters Manning
Like a lot of great rivalries, the one between Indianapolis and New England got started in a heated game that ended somewhat controversially. It was week 13 of the 2003 season. Both teams were 9-2 and deep in the race for home field advantage through the playoffs. The Patriots were in the midst of a big turnaround after a disappointing 2002 following their improbable championship the year before. Though on the road, New England showed their ability as a complete team, jumping out to a 31-10 lead on a kick return, two rushing and one passing touchdowns. Manning though, in the midst of his first MVP season, led three successive scoring drives to even up the game. Brady then showed his growing prowess for late-game heroics when he threw the go-ahead touchdown to Deion Branch. Indianapolis narrowed the gap to 38-34 and had the ball at the Patriots 2-yard line.
Where the controversy comes in is when New England linebacker Willie McGinest went down with an apparent injury while the Colts were moving towards the winning score in the no-huddle offense. This forced the refs to stop the game on an injury timeout. It seemed innocent at the time. However, on fourth down at the 2 it was McGinest, looking quite unhurt, knifing through the line of scrimmage to stop Colts running back Edgerrin James at the goal line. It preserved the Patriots win and led to their clinching home field.
The two teams met to settle the score in the AFC championship two months later. This time Indianapolis believed they were ready for any trickery from the Patriots defense. Apparently nobody told cornerback Ty Law. In the wind and the snow of Foxborough, Law single-handedly shut down the mighty Colts offense. He intercepted Manning three times including a major drive killer late in the second half. New England in total sacked Manning four times and recorded a safety. It was a masterpiece game plan set up by coach Bill Belichick. Brady didn't play well either, recording one touchdown and one interception. Yet it was the defense and five field goals from Pro Bowl kicker Adam Vinatieri that got the job done. The Patriots went on to win their second Super Bowl in three years.
2004 - Foxborough jinx furthers Patriots dynasty
Fittingly, NFL schedule makers gave Manning his shot at redemption on opening day the very next season. This game proved the first real "duel" between the two quarterbacks. Brady used pinpoint passing to rack up 335 yards and three touchdowns. It was fortunate because Manning and the Colts marched all over the Patriots defense for 446 total yards. There were six turnovers in the game as well. It looked like Indianapolis would force overtime when New England led 27-24. Once again though, almost poetically, Willie McGinest sacked Manning for a 13-yard loss. This forced kicker Mike Vanderjagt to boot a tying field goal from 48 yards instead of 35. The kick sailed wide right.
From there the two teams went about their usual business, rampaging over the AFC. Manning broke all sorts of passing records with 49 touchdown passes, surpassing the great Dan Marino for most in a season. Brady didn't set the stat sheets on fire but he was a big factor in the Patriots setting the all-time record for consecutive wins at 21-in-a-row. In the end, just like the season before, the early game between the two teams proved significant. New England finished 14-2 and Indianapolis went 12-4. That meant a third-straight visit to Foxborough for Manning.
It wasn't any prettier than the last one. Belichick and his defense was even more prepared than the first time the two teams met in the playoffs. Manning out passed Brady in yards with 238 but failed to throw a touchdown and tossed an interception. It was one of three Colts turnovers on the day. The real story of the game was the running backs. Corey Dillon had 144 yards in the game and was the key reason New England held the ball for over 37 minutes. Pro Bowl counterpart Edgerrin James failed to crack 50 yards. Indianapolis scored 3 points. They scored 522 in the regular season. Brady took a back seat to the show but still scored the only two touchdowns on a pass and a run. It was becoming clear there was no rivalry worth mentioning anymore.
2006 - Breaking the Curse
After both teams suffered disappointing early playoff exits in 2005, little was expected of them in 2006. The Colts were in a tailspin late in the regular season, experiencing some of the worst run defense head coach Tony Dungy had ever seen during his tenure. They finished 12-4. New England finished with the exact same record. However, things were a bit different by playoff time that year.
Earlier in the season the Colts yet again had to go into Foxborough. It seemed like another Patriots victory was expected. This time though it wasn't Manning but the Indianapolis defense who stole the show. They picked off the normally precise Brady four times. Manning put up 326 yards and two scores including a highlight reel catch from star receiver Marvin Harrison. A late rally by the Patriots ended with Brady's fourth interception and the Colts won for the first time in Foxborough in eight tries under Manning 27-20.
That victory not only assured Indianapolis home field in a rematch, it served as a huge morale boost to the Colts players, showing that they could beat the Patriots. So when the two teams met again in the AFC championship, Indianapolis expected to handle their business and reach the Super Bowl after agonizing disappointment the past three years. New England didn't get that memo. Riding their typical team-oriented scoring attack which featured a long run, a fumble recovery in the end zone and an interception return; the Patriots took a commanding 21-6 lead by halftime.
Manning, still business-like in the face of unyielding pressure, got his team going in the third quarter. A one-yard sneak and one-yard pass to tackle Dan Klecko produced two critical touchdowns in the third quarter that knotted the game at 21-21. Brady quickly replied with a touchdown pass of his own. For one horrible moment at the start of the fourth quarter it looked like another promising Colts drive would end in a turnover when running back Dominic Rhodes fumbled at the goal line. Instead center Jeff Saturday alertly recovered the ball in the end zone, becoming the third lineman of the game to score.
The two teams traded field goals until the Patriots took the lead 34-31. Manning, who at that point hand an injured thumb on his throwing hand, took the field with 2:17 to go and one last chance to break the curse. He methodically marched his team down the field on three passes for 57 yards. Then, amazingly, he took a page out of the Brady book and handed the ball off on three straight runs inside the New England 12-yard line. The last sent running back Joseph Addai right up the middle for the go-ahead touchdown. Seconds later Brady appropriately took over the role of Manning from the past few years by throwing a game-ending interception. Indianapolis had broken the Patriot jinx. They made sure it counted for something by getting Peyton his ring in the Super Bowl.
2007-2012 - Greatness only grows
Since that epic game the Brady/Manning rivalry has only gotten better. In 2007 the two teams met with undefeated records. Brady overcame a 10-point 4th quarter deficit to maintain what would become a perfect regular season. He would also break Manning's record for touchdown passes with 50. However, Peyton did show for the first time how vulnerable New England was as it was the first game they'd won by single digits all season. The rest of the way the Patriots had to win four more games by ten points or less including a 38-35 thriller against Eli Manning and the New York Giants. Almost by fate, the Manning name haunted New England again when their perfect season ended in the Super Bowl.
As for big brother Peyton, he got his revenge on Brady during the 2009 season in perhaps the best game of the entire rivalry. As usual the Patriots opened up a big lead 24-7. After making it 31-14 early in the 4th quarter, Manning staged another classic comeback. The Colts scored three touchdowns including the last one with 16 seconds left. A big assist came from coach Belichick who attempted to seal the game by having Brady go for it on 4th and 2 despite being on the New England 28-yard line. The ensuing pass failed to get the first down. Manning took advantage and found Reggie Wayne for the win 35-34.
Brady has turned the tables since then, beating Manning both as a Colt in 2010 (31-28) and as a Bronco in 2012 (31-21). By that point it didn't matter. Their place in NFL history was secured long ago. No quarterback rivalry had ever lived up to the expectations like those two Hall of Famers have. Future generations can only hope to sniff such greatness. Fans can only hope the thrills they brought will rub off on the youngsters to come.