Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady. If we wanted to, we could stop right there. One matchup has defined the NFL for the last fourteen years. For the guys at Sideline Warning, it has defined the NFL for our entire sports-conscious lifetimes. Five Super Bowls, eight AFC Championships (soon to be nine), twenty-five Pro-Bowls, and sixteen head-to-head matchups have resulted in concurrent greatness and a polarizing rivalry unlike any seen before. The seventeenth matchup, Sunday’s Broncos-Patriots AFC Championship, will likely be the last. So when a beaten up and broken down Peyton Manning walks off Sports Authority Field at Mile High Sunday afternoon, an era will walk off with him. And what an era it has been.
The era was not supposed to happen like this. When the Colts drafted Peyton first overall in the 1998 draft out of Tennessee, we knew what the sports world was getting. The son of a legend, raised to be a quarterback, an All-American bred to alter expectations of the position and revive a struggling franchise. An everyman hero who could lead not because of a golden arm, but because of his hard work and a brain that could dissect opposing defenses and make every player around him better. Every destined hero has to have a rival– but it was supposed to be Ryan Leaf. Manning’s adversary in college, many believed the Colts should have taken standout QB from Washington State with the first pick. Like Manning, Leaf was such a sure thing that the Chargers traded future first and second round picks and Pro-Bowler Eric Metcalf to move up one spot and ensure they could draft Leaf. After the Chargers snagged Leaf with the second pick, all eyes were on the rookie quarterbacks, scrutinizing and comparing. But Leaf was a bust, held back by arrogance and a poor work ethic, and he would be out of the league within five years.
Meanwhile, a San Mateo, California kid at Michigan was platooning at quarterback and fighting for the starting job even until his senior season. Tom Brady could have gone to play professional baseball out of high school after the Expos drafted him in eighteenth round, but his heart was with football. Although his job was never secure while at Michigan, he played well and garnered enough attention to be drafted by the Patriots in 2000—all the way back in the sixth round. That meant that in the NFL he was a nobody. During the 2000 season, while Peyton Manning was leading the resurrected Colts to a second straight playoff appearance in route to his second Pro Bowl, Brady quietly worked his way from fourth to second on the Patriot’s depth chart behind starter Drew Bledsoe.
Then, in the second game of the 2001 season, the unexpected happened. Bledsoe went down, and the sixth-rounder out of Michigan took the field as the Patriots quarterback. The Patriots lost, but Brady was named starter for the week three matchup against the Colts and the growing star that was Peyton Manning. Most must have thought the California kid, the sixth round pick, making his first career start would be overwhelmed against the Pro-Bowler, the first round pick, on the other sideline.
Then the even more unexpected happened. Brady and the Patriots won. And kept winning. While Manning, 0-2 so far in the playoffs, and the Colts had a disappointing season, Brady led the Patriots all the way to a Super Bowl win. All of a sudden, the sixth round kid was a Super Bowl MVP, and a rivalry was born.
The destined hero who was fulfilling a potential just like everyone expected, now had a proper counterpart: the scrappy underdog who came from nowhere and dared to be even better. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady may have been focused on leading their teams against whatever opposition they faced on Sunday, but from now on each football game was only a simple milestone in the real competition. To fans and the media after 2001, the NFL was now, put simply, Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady.
That may sound unfair to the likes of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers, but for the last fifteen years while Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have been contemporaries, the pair have defined the era. From PTI and Around the Horn, to local sports talk radio, to cafeteria lunch tables, Manning versus Brady was all that mattered. For the Sideline Warning writers, growing up in metro Atlanta the Manning Colts jerseys and Brady Patriots jerseys far outnumbered Falcons jerseys in the schools and on the playground. The debate raged at its height in the mid 2000’s, and luckily, circumstances still allow the debate to rage on today.
We can argue all day about who has been better or who is your favorite. We can argue regular season success versus playoff success; Colts or Broncos versus the Patriots; Peyton’s forehead versus Tom’s “Golden Boy” looks; HGH versus deflated footballs; even Twitter personalities “Peyton’s Head” versus “Tom Brady’s Ego.” But no matter which way you lean, it is impossible not to appreciate the amazing careers that have unfolded like myth. If Peyton indeed hangs up his cleats at the conclusion of the season, it will signal the end of a remarkable era.
Together Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have changed how football is played. Teams are passing more and more, and excellent quarterback play is increasingly vital to success. Between 2001 and 2016, league wide pass attempts per game have steadily increased from 32.6 to an all time high of 35.7. Meanwhile, rush attempts per game have steadily fallen from 27.6 to an all time low 26.3.
The two quarterbacks have broken and set almost every passing record imaginable. In the twilight of his career, Manning owns the all-time passing yardage record with 71,940, and Brady has ascended to fifth on the list. Manning also owns the passing touchdown record with 539, and Brady trails just behind in third on the list. More importantly, they have won like no one else before. Manning leads all quarterbacks with 186 career wins, and Brady leads all quarterbacks with a .771 winning percentage. Manning has led his team to the playoffs fourteen times, and Brady thirteen times. Eight of the last thirteen AFC Championships have been won by a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning team, and come Sunday there will be a ninth.
As a revolutionary rivalry storms towards a climatic finale Sunday, Sideline Warning will honor the matchup by declaring Manning/Brady Week. In addition to this commemoration, check back Thursday for a ranking of every single Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady matchup, followed by arguments from our guys on which quarterback has been the best.