Fire and Water, North and South, Yin and Yang- heck, even Batman and the Joker. In a world full of so much chaos, there are counterbalances that ensure order is maintained. For every Ted Williams, there is a Joe DiMaggio. For every Larry Bird, there is a Magic Johnson.
For the one and only Tom Brady, there is the one and only Peyton Manning.
Brady is going to be 36 when the next season starts, Peyton will be 37, and they've been dueling ever since the two squared off during Brady's first ever start in Week 3 of 2001. This was when the Colts were still in the division and they played each other twice a year- and boy did the Patriots come to play in 2001. In the two games, the Patriots outscored the Colts 82-30, with Brady throwing for a combined 29/43, 370 yards and 3 TDs; Peyton threw 42/68 531, 2 TDs and 3 INTs, while rushing for another score. Peyton had the gaudy numbers. Tom had the wins.
Manning didn't know much about Brady, beyond where he went to college, prior to their first match-up, but you can be sure both he and Tom studied up on each other before the game. Brady's always said that the game hasn't been about Tom and Peyton- after all, they face the opposing defenses- but their shared love for greatness paved a path for them to continue to meet one another throughout their careers.
Brady said his first start "felt like it was a practice field." Mr. Greatness was already in the building.
In 2008, the football landscape was turned over in one single play by Bernard Pollard- a name Patriots fans would quickly become familiar with and learn to loathe. Brady was coming off a record breaking season against the third hardest schedule in the league, and was about to shred through the easiest schedule in the NFL. The Patriots defense had definitely changed; they lost their secondary when Asante Samuel, Randall Gay, and Eugene Wilson all departed in free agency, leaving behind Ellis Hobbs, James Sanders, and the 35 year old Rodney Harrison to try and piece together a secondary that still hasn't recovered; the defense was about to see its last season from Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Harrison. But despite the inevitable implosion, all would end well if Brady remained at the helm.
And then the season ended only 7 minutes and 22 seconds after it had started. The Patriots' first two offensives drives had ended in fumbles by Wes Welker and by Randy Moss, but who cared. Pollard. Crawling. Knee. All of New England looked away from the television.
Matt Cassel came on the field and did an admirable job in Brady's absence, leading the team to an 11-5 record and becoming only the second 11 win team to miss the playoffs. But the season seemed hollow. The dominoes were in place for the Patriots to just knock down and walk into the Super Bowl, but the first tile fell in the wrong direction and Brady was helped down the tunnel.
Peyton had to step back. "I couldn't look," Manning told Sports Illustrated at the time. "I'm sick about what happened."
According to Brady's dad, Peyton and Tom had become "soul brothers" as their legacies were drawn and intertwined- and Peyton knew that a brother had fallen on the field. Manning wished Brady a quick recovery, knowing the tenuous path ahead as Manning himself spent the off-season recuperating from a staph infection. Manning said, "I called him and told him I was sorry. He got back to me and said it must not have been in the cards to play this year."
And that card game continued while Brady was on the sideline, healing and waiting for the next time he could step on the field.
Brady is the best quarterback of all time. Actually, it's Peyton Manning. Or it could be Joe Montana. John Elway? Bart Starr? Roger Staubach?
Greatness, meet your match.
After the 2012 season, Brady set or tied a few playoff records.
Most playoff wins of all time.
Most completions of all time
Most attempts of all time.
Most passing yards of all time
Tied Joe Montana for most conference championship games of all time (7)
The chance to break his tie with John Elway for most conference championship game victories (5)
There is a short list of quarterbacks who have had the success that Brady has had. Only 9 quarterbacks have made it to five or more conference championships and the list reads like a wall at the Hall of Fame.
Tom Brady - 7 (5-2)
Joe Montana - 7 (4-3 in CCG)
John Elway - 6 (5-1)
Roger Staubach - 6 (4-2)
Terry Bradshaw - 6 (4-2)
Jim Kelly - 5 (4-1)
Brett Favre - 5 (2-3)
Steve Young - 5 (2-3, [1 victory as Joe's back-up])
Donovan McNabb - 5 (1-4)
Ken Stabler - 5 (1-4)
Brady has made it to seven conference championship games in his 11 seasons as a starter. Staubach's six conference championships in eight seasons as a starter is the only challenger. Montana's seven in 13 seasons is the only other to break 50%.
Brady could have marched his way into uncharted territory if things had gone his way. Unfortunately, the Ravens got in the way, as did Rob Gronkowski's pesky forearm. And Manning. It's probably Manning's fault.
Rule #1 as a Patriots fan: It's always a Manning's fault.
As a first year starter, Brady had the fortune to beat Peyton twice in the regular season. That set the stage for the rest of his career. The two best quarterbacks of our generation challenge each other and push each other to new heights. They cannot have greatness without each other. Batman and the Joker.
2001. Patriots beat Manning twice. Super Bowl victory.
2002. Patriots don't play Manning. Miss the playoffs.
2003. Patriots beat Manning in Week 13 (38-34) and in the Conference Championship (24-14, Manning throws four interceptions). Super Bowl victory.
2004. Patriots beat Manning in Week 1 (27-24) and in the Divisional round (20-3, Patriots are in Manning's head). Super Bowl victory.
2005. The Colts beat the Patriots in Week 9. Both teams lose in the Divisional round. Neither can win without the other.
2006. Have Manning and the Colts figured out the Patriots? The Colts beat the Patriots again in Week 9, 27-20, and then shock the world with one of the best/worst comebacks of all time in the Conference Championship, 38-34. Heartbreak in New England, Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Manning wins twice and gets the Super Bowl. We're on to something.
2007. The Patriots are done with Reche Caldwell and supersize their offense with Randy Moss and Wes Welker. The two teams are undefeated when they meet in Week 9 (again?) and the Patriots pull off a 24-20 victory to keep the magical season alive. The Patriots even beat little brother Eli in Week 17 for good measure. The two teams look primed to meet in the conference championship before the Chargers ruin the dream by beating Manning and the Colts in the Divisional round.
And they didn't just beat them. They pulled off the unbelievable. Phillip Rivers went out with an injury before the fourth quarter and with a four point lead, leaving plenty of time for the new-image Super Bowl-winning Peyton Manning to draw up a comeback. Manning launches a 55 yard touchdown with 10 minutes left in the game to take the lead. 24-21. New England, here they come.
Except Billy Volek, the back-up to Rivers, thought differently. He led the Chargers to a five minute touchdown drive on the very next possession to take back the four point lead. The Colts need a touchdown now. Five minutes to go. Plenty of time for Manning. Too much time, if you ask any Patriots fan.
And Manning drove. Down to the red zone. Nine yards away from meeting their destiny in New England. Addai ran up the middle for 2 yards to kill the clock. 2 minutes to go. Second down: Incomplete pass. Third down: Incomplete pass.
Fourth down: Incomplete pass.
So the season ended for Manning and the Colts and, as a result, so did the season for the Patriots. They beat the Chargers to head to the Super Bowl for a rematch against Eli Manning. It's always a Manning. We know how that turned out. They only beat Peyton once. The season can't end well.
2008. No Brady. Patriots lose to the Colts in Week 9 (??); Colts lose during Wild Card week.
2009. Brady's back. The Patriots head to the undefeated Colts in Week 10 (phew). But then Fourth and Two. The Colts come back from 31-14 and steal the victory. This Patriots team had no identity, had no heart, finishing the year 2-6 on the road. The Patriots are knocked out during Wild Card week. Brady's first one-and-done. First playoff loss at home. The mystique comes crumbling down and the Ravens start to have the Patriots' number.
The Colts? Manning leads them to the Super Bowl. However, they didn't play Brady and the Patriots twice. Tracy Porter happens. Manning and the Colts lose. On to the next one.
2010. The two teams square off in Week 11. Patriots win 31-28. The Patriots get home field advantage and the Colts grab the third seed and get to play the Jets. Manning and the Colts struggle, but manage to take a 16-14 lead with 53 seconds to go in the game. Maybe the Colts can sneak out with a victory and eventually go on to face the Patriots.
But then Antonio Cromartie returns the ensuing kick-off 47 yards. The Jets need maybe 20 yards to win with a field goal and Mark Sanchez gets them 40. The Jets win, the Colts are out and the Patriots don't have a chance to win the Super Bowl. In fact, they lose to the same Jets team the following week.
2011. Will Manning play, or won't he play? "He'll play," Tom Brady told Ian Rapoport (then of the Boston Herald).
Manning was given the franchise tag before the season started. Then there was the lockout. In May, Peyton had neck surgery due to degeneration of his cervical spine. This was his second surgery.
He won't play.
In July, he signed a 5 year, $90 million dollar contract. He's never missed a game in his career. Brady says, "He's such a tough guy." He'll play.
The lockout forced Manning away from the Colts' practice facility and they didn't know how Manning was recuperating from his surgery. He needed spinal fusion surgery and he might never play football again.
Never. He won't play.
Manning went in for spinal fusion surgery on September 8th and was done for the year. The Colts kept him active, for whatever reason, as their season tanked. And tanked. And tanked. Suck for Luck.
Brady was disappointed. His brother wasn't out on the field and it hurt. "It sucks not seeing him out there," Brady told the Boston Herald. "Hopefully he gets well soon. He's been a great one for a long time."
Just like Manning offered well wishes to Brady in 2008, Brady issued the same offer in 2011. He extended open arms to Manning during his recovery from, in total, four neck surgeries. "Anything I can do to help the recovery," Manning said of Brady. "Tom consistently throughout the season would check in with me. I appreciate that. It says a lot."
They're soul brothers, here for greatness and here for one another. Fire, Water. North, South.
2011. Patriots smoke the winless Colts, jumping out to an early 31-3 lead (until the back-ups let the Colts back into the game), en route to a 10 game winning streak and another crack at Younger Manning. No Peyton. No Parade for New England.
2012. Peyton's back, but he's wearing a different uniform. He's in orange, instead of white. The Patriots and the Broncos are meeting up much earlier this year, Week 5, as the 2-2 Patriots host the 2-2 Broncos. This round is much different from match-ups of old as Manning continues to heal and get comfortable back on the football field. Brady's Patriots jump out to a 31-7 lead and don't look back.
Manning looked good, by the way. 300+ yards and 3 TDs. Brady had 200+ yards, 1 TD pass and another TD run on the goal line. Manning can have those stats, Brady will take the win.
That loss for Manning was their last loss until they made it to the playoffs. All Pro. Pro Bowl. MVP Consideration. Home Field Advantage. Maybe Manning's back?
During that same span, the Patriots lost twice (Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. The future?) and had to take the second seed behind Manning's Broncos. Brady came second to Manning in the Pro Bowl Voting. Didn't make the All Pro team. Brady is used to being in Manning's shadow during the regular season because everyone knows that once the playoffs come around, it is Brady's time to shine. He'll be in the spotlight.
Only Brady wasn't Brady. Once the Patriots lost the best tight end in football, Rob Gronkowski, to an injury, Brady didn't look the same. He struggled to complete 60% of his passes. He threw five interceptions in a four game stretch. The Patriots played well, but Brady couldn't completely compensate for his defense. The team kept winning, but they didn't look dominant.
But that didn't matter. Seeds 1 and 2. The Patriots were going to meet the Broncos in the AFCCG and the winner (the Patriots, clearly) would take home the Super Bowl trophy.
January 12th. The Broncos are exchanging punches with the Ravens. It shouldn't be like this, though. The Broncos were supposed to provide the defense that Manning never had in Indianapolis. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and the Ravens' once proud defense were supposed to be too old and unable to stop the potential-MVP in Peyton Manning.
One punch. Two punches. Trindon Holliday helped out with two special teams scores, but the Broncos couldn't pull away from the Ravens. Still, the Broncos were up a touchdown with 1 minute to go, why couldn't they put it away? Right?
2007 Chargers, meet the 2012 Ravens. Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones for 70 yards and a touchdown on the worst misplay by a safety of the whole season.
Still, Manning had the ball on the 20 yard line with 30 seconds, two time outs, and a kicker who can easily hit 50+ yard kicks in the Mile High air. If any quarterback could get the necessary 40 yards, wouldn't it be Peyton? But then Manning called an audible and kneeled down the ball. They played for overtime. They played not to lose.
And they played to a standstill for most of the first overtime, unlike the first four quarters which led to a 35-35 score. Until Manning lost the game with a duck. Just like that, Manning and the Broncos magical ride was ended by the more magical Last Ride of Ray. And just like in 2010, the Patriots lose in the following week to the same team that capped off Manning's team.
Brady struggled mightily without Gronkowski on offense, and it was clear that the Patriots were outclassed from the opening snap. The defense too inconsistent, the offense too punchless.
After Week 5, it seemed as if the Patriots and Broncos, Brady and Manning were on a collision course with another title on the line. Round One fell into place.
Round Two never happened.
2013. Both now have Comeback Player of the Year awards under their belt and both are still standing at the top of the league at their position. Sure, young guns like Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco are championing the new guard of the position and even younger guns like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick are redefining the role of a quarterback, writing their own chapters in football lore.
But there will only be one Brady. One Peyton.
They're getting a little too old to change their game; they'll never have the mobility of a Cam Newton, or a Ben Roethlisberger, or an offensive lineman, but they'll play their game in the pocket. They'll stand tall and deliver bullets all around the field in a way that has never before been seen, and in a fashion we might not see for a long time.
They've towered over the rest of the league and they've done it together. From the first start of Brady's career to the rehab during the potential end of Manning's. Their success will forever be measured against the other's, and their success will only come when they face each other on the biggest stage.
They need each other. The football gods have deemed them worthy of one another, where they need to continuously challenge each other to win, and where the league's ultimate trophy will only come to the victor of both matches. They're soul brothers on a track to rewrite history, a history defined by greatness.
Fire, Water. Yin, Yang. Bird, Magic.
Brady. Manning. Greatness from the beginning. Greatness until the end.