The National Football League has been blessed with some of the best player vs. player rivalries in the history of professional sport.
Starr vs. Unitas. Bradshaw vs. Staubach. Marino vs. Montana. Young vs. Aikman.
The list goes on and on. It spans different eras. These head-to-head rivalries will never be forgotten (and will always be heavily debated), and there are countless rivalries that have yet to be born.
These days, though, there is one head-to-head rivalry that rises above the rest: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.
Their rivalry is second to none, and the storylines surrounding each battle between the two future Hall of Famers often take up 90% of the coverage on television. Whether it's a regular season duel or a playoff showdown, Manning and Brady never fails to disappoint.
While Brady has had a few big statistical seasons of his own, Manning has always been perceived as the king of the regular season stats. This is best justified by his recent dismantling of Drew Brees' single-season yardage record, Brady's single-season touchdown record, and Brett Favre's all-time touchdown record. The argument that is always brought up against Manning, of course, is his habit of disappointing in the playoffs and his lack of Super Bowl bling. With one ring and a mediocre playoff record (11-12), Manning is only eligible for the regular season crown - for now.
Brady, meanwhile, is the poster boy for overachieving (not in a bad way). A sixth round pick out of Michigan in 1999, Brady went from afterthought to superstar in a matter of years. Some argue that he's been lucky to win three Super Bowls, but there's no denying his impact on the Patriots success, and there's even less arguing with his 18-8 playoff record. Brady has established himself as one of the best postseason quarterbacks in the history of the sport (although the Broncos did manage to take down the Pats in last year's AFC Championship game).
Any way you slice it, football fans have been blessed by the Brady vs. Manning battles over the past decade. After Brady added another W to his overall record against Manning last weekend (improving it to 11-5 all-time), let's take a trip down memory lane and look at the top duels between the two legends.
10 January 16th, 2005—AFC Divisional Playoff: Patriots 20, Colts 3
One of the first of many epic playoff battles between Brady and Manning took place in snowy conditions at Gillette Stadium during the 2004-05 season. Manning has had to battle the stigma of not being a cold-weather player throughout most of his career, and while he's been able to refute it over time, this performance did not help his case. The Pats were not only able to limit the Colts to a measly 46 yards on the ground (keeping in mind that the ground game is imperative to winning in cold weather), they kept Manning to 238 yards and picked him off once. Brady, meanwhile, was good enough to get the win - he even scored a rushing touchdown.
9 October 7th, 2012: Patriots 31, Denver 21
This date marked the first battle between the two where Manning was not sporting the blue and white of the Indianapolis Colts, but rather the orange and blue of the Denver Broncos - the outcome remained largely the same, though. While Manning was nearly able to carry the Broncos back into it down 31-7, he was not able to pull off a comeback for the ages. Manning threw his standard 3 TD's and put up 337 yards through the air, but it wasn't enough to top Brady and the Pats. It didn't help that Stevan Ridley went off for 151 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
8 November 4th, 2007: Patriots 24, Colts 20
Noticing a trend? The Pats and Brady have had Manning's number since Brady became the starter in New England. In this matchup (another close one, at least), the Colts were looking to be the first team to beat the Pats in a season New England ultimately finished 16-0. Manning's 225 yards and 1 TD were nowhere near enough to match the unstoppable tandem of Brady and Randy Moss (who put up 145 yards and hauled in one touchdown pass). Even a strong game from Joseph Addai was not able to propel Indianapolis past the vaunted Patriots. The Colts had a chance at the end of the game, but a Manning fumble sealed the deal.
7 January 19th, 2014—AFC Championship: Broncos 26, Patriots 16
In their most recent battle in the playoffs, it was Manning who had the last laugh (that is, until the Broncos ran into the Seahawks two weeks later). Manning and Brady for the AFC crown - what could possibly be better? Manning was nearly perfect on this day - no one was going to stop him from getting another shot at a Super Bowl, especially after the injury ordeal he went through just a few years earlier. He threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns, while Brady was only able to muster 277 yards and one TD pass. It was a statement game for Manning, to say the least, and he certainly came through with one of his best performances.
6 September 9th, 2004: Patriots 27, Colts 24
This game might be better remembered as the beginning of the end for highly-publicized kicker Mike Vanderjagt (notable since kickers are supposed to be low-key and out-of-the-way). Manning and Brady marched their offences up and down the field all day; Manning finished with 256 yards and 2 TD's, but was bested by Brady's 335 yards and three scores - but it was New England's defense that had the final say on this night, as a late sack by Willie McGinest pushed the Colts back and turned a measly 35-yard attempt into a long 48-yard field goal try for Vanderjagt, who missed wide right to give Brady and the Pats the win.
5 November 21st, 2010: Patriots 31, Colts 28
If there's anyone who might have a shot at winning a game despite throwing three interceptions, it's Peyton Manning. On this day, though, it was not to be - even though Manning tossed four touchdown passes in the process. Brady wasn't spectacular, but he got the job done with two TD's and no turnovers. The game belonged to pint-sized back Danny Woodhead, who contributed with a rushing touchdown and some sensational special teams play, and James Sanders, who picked Manning off with 31 seconds left to seal the deal for New England in yet another close tilt between the bitter rivals.
4 November 30th, 2003: Patriots 38, Colts 34
In yet another touchdown-filled affair, it was once again Willie McGinest and the Patriots defense that stepped up and secured the win for Bill Belichick's group. The Colts were stuffed four times on the Pats goal-line, wasting a brilliant effort by Manning and the Colts offense to rally back from down 31-10. Manning threw for 278 and four scores, while Brady answered with 236 yards and two scores (while also throwing two picks). Manning spread the ball to all his weapons, but a Bethel Johnson kickoff return TD for the Pats was the game-changing play in this one.
3 November 15th, 2009: Colts 35, Patriots 34
The Colts finally won one? How? Was Brady injured?
No, Brady played - well, too, throwing for 375 yards and 3 TD's - but it was Manning and the Colts who managed to prevail. Manning threw for 327 yards and four scores, but it was a play made by the Colts defense that will stick in the minds of football fans for years to come.
It's now known as the "Fourth-and-2" game for what happened with 2:08 left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots leading. Instead of punting and trusting his defense, Bill Belichick left the offense on the field in the hopes of keeping the ball out of Manning's hands. Brady tried to hit Kevin Faulk in the flat for the first-down, but Colts safety Melvin Bullitt flew up the field (like a bullet...) and stuffed Faulk before he could gain the first-down. Manning had nearly two minutes and three timeouts to score the go-ahead score...with that amount of time left, the rest is self-explanatory.
2 November 24th, 2013: Patriots 34, Broncos 31
It was a comeback for the ages, simply put.
The Broncos went into the locker room at half-time with a 24-0 lead. Knowshon Moreno was running through, around, over and under the Patriots defense (he finished with 224 yards rushing). Manning could have played the first half throwing from an armchair while sipping a Long Island iced-tea and eating a Papa John's pizza. This one was a done deal, right?
Brady completed 81% of his passes in the second half and finished with 344 yards and three touchdown passes. The Pats pulled ahead, 31-24, until Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for the tying score with minutes to spare. The game went to overtime, and all hell broke loose...in the punting game.
Instead of catching an oncoming punt, Wes Welker backed off and was going to let the football bounce, hopefully out of the endzone. He called off his blockers, yelling at them to move lest the ball take an unfortunate bounce into them...and that's exactly what happened. The ball hit Tony Carter, it was recovered by New England in the red-zone, and Stephen Gostkowski ended the wild Sunday Nighter with a 31-yard field goal to stun the Broncos and send the once frustrated Gillette Stadium crowd into an absolute frenzy.
1 January 21st, 2007—AFC Championship: Colts 38, Patriots 34
Another playoff matchup. Another shootout. Another big comeback.
This was a big one for Manning and the Colts, who finally shook the "chokers" label and won a big game, against Brady and the Patriots no less. It didn't look good early, as the Patriots exploded out of the gates to a 21-6 halftime lead.
Something must have happened to Manning during that halftime, because the Colts were a different team in the second stanza. He finished this all-time matchup with 349 yards and one TD, while Brady threw for 232 yards and one score of his own. The Colts rallied and took their first lead with a minute left. Manning admitted afterwards that he prayed on the sideline as Brady led the Pats final drive. His prayers were seemingly answered, as Brady was picked by Marlin Jackson, who dropped to the field immediately and raised his arms in celebration. Manning killed the rest of the clock, and the celebration was on in Indy. The Colts went on to beat the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl, Manning's first and only championship thus far.