DENVER (AP) — The greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history began quietly with plenty of empty seats on a cloudy, cool and windy afternoon at Foxboro Stadium on Sept. 30, 2001.
Baby-faced backup Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick from Michigan the year before, made his first career NFL start in place of Drew Bledsoe, who had suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest one week earlier.
On the other side was QB blue blood Peyton Manning, the top overall pick in the 1998 draft out of Tennessee, and the heavily favored Indianapolis Colts.
As expected, it was a mismatch, but not the way anyone anticipated. Patriots 44, Colts 13. Brady 1, Manning 0.
“Never did I think it would be the runaway victory that it was,” Brady said that afternoon.
And no one realized at the time that this was the beginning of a beautiful rivalry, except maybe Brady himself.
“I always see so much more in me than a lot of other people do,” Brady said at the time. “That’s prepared me because, whatever expectations people put on me, I have higher expectations for myself.”
The Associated Press story from that first meeting between Manning and Brady didn’t even mention Brady until the 11th paragraph, 319 words in.
Everybody but Brady himself considered him a temporary fill-in until Bledsoe got healthy. But Brady never gave up the gig, parlaying that first career win into a Super Bowl season, his first of three titles in four years.
Manning’s Colts finished 6-10, the only losing season he endured as a starter since his rookie year. He bounced back to win three AFC championships and a Super Bowl title, twice beating Brady for the right to play in the big game, once for Indy and once for Denver.
Brady and Manning meet again Sunday when the Broncos (6-1) visit New England (6-2) in a matchup of two AFC powerhouses jockeying for playoff position.
This is the 16th time they have squared off, a full season’s worth of matchups between the two quarterback giants whose careers are so intertwined on their respective routes to Canton that a conversation about one almost has to include the other — like Bird vs. Magic or Ali vs. Frazier.
“I don’t know that there’ll ever be another rivalry, or has been a rivalry, like it” in football, said John Elway, who got to face fellow Hall of Famer Dan Marino just twice in his playing career.
Manning vs. Brady XVI hasn’t lost any luster, either: This game marks the first in NFL history in which two starting QBs with at least 150 career regular-season wins will face off.
Brady and Manning remain at the top of their respective games at an age 38 for Manning, 37 for Brady, when time had already delivered knockout blows to so many of their fellow quarterbacking royalty.
Both threw for 14 touchdowns while revving through October at 4-0. And Manning topped Brett Favre’s record for most career touchdown passes (513 to 508).
“They’re both the best in the game right now and I’m obviously very fortunate to get to play with both,” said Broncos slot receiver Wes Welker, who played six seasons in New England.
Brady has won 10 of the 15 meetings. But they’re 2-2 in the playoffs, including Denver’s 26-16 win in the conference championship last season.
“Always a good matchup with these two guys,” said cornerback Aqib Talib, another Bronco who has been on both sides. “You definitely get your money’s worth.”
Although the two are never on the field together, save for the pregame warmups and post-game handshakes, each is acutely aware of the other’s presence.
“He’s a great player, and I think that you just know you’re going to get one of the best offenses in the league,” Brady said. “What that means for me is our offense has to be at our best. You can’t think you’re going to go out and score 10 points and win the game.”
Said Manning: “You know you’d better not be going three-and-out, turning the ball over, trying to figure out what they’re doing on defense. Because you know Brady & Co. are capable of putting up a lot of points and you’re going to find yourselves behind, especially up there.”
This game marks the 10th time Manning will face Brady on the road.
“I always look forward to this matchup and every one of them is a classic,” said NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci. “I hope football fans enjoy this because who knows how many more times these great quarterbacks will face off against each other?”