- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Brady vs. Brees might not generate the same buzz as Brady vs. Manning, but it still represents a duel between two great quarterbacks who impress as much behind the scenes as they do on the field.
Linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who has played for both the Patriots and Saints, can take outsiders where they otherwise can't go, peeling back the locker room curtain to provide unique insight on both quarterbacks.
In his first training camp practice in New England this past summer, Ninkovich said, Tom Brady's mere presence told him which player he had to follow. The same was true in New Orleans, where Ninkovich was a 2006 fifth-round draft choice and saw Drew Brees take command of not only the offensive huddle but the entire team.
So when the comparison between the quarterbacks set to face off Monday night was presented to Ninkovich, it was an easy link to make.
"Both are great leaders," he said. "One thing players can look up to is their work ethic and the way they present themselves during the week in preparation and practice, studying the game and knowing what's going on. That's what makes them the best quarterbacks in the league."
When it comes to Brady and Brees, the same words generally emerge regardless of who is talking: preparation, production, presence.
"Both guys lead the civilized world in effort; they're there before sunrise and they're there after dark. They are the tempo setters," said former Raiders and Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, now an analyst for ESPN's "Monday Night Football."
Through 10 games, both are on a blistering statistical pace -- Brady is 261-of-393 for 3,049 yards with 20 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, Brees 218-of-320 for 2,746 yards with 22 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.
But the statistics don't tell the full story, according to those who see the heady signal-callers behind the scenes.
"He's a guy who prepares himself the best of any quarterback I've played with," veteran Saints safety Darren Sharper said of Brees. "Day after day, he has a routine he goes through -- whatever the weather is, whatever the day is, he is going through it and he is the same way each and every day at practice. That's why he is so consistent on the football field. You don't see too much of an ebb and flow. It's not a roller coaster with him; you know what to expect."
Asked whether it was a stretch to link Brees in with Brady and Peyton Manning as top quarterbacks of the past decade, Sharper, who is in his 13th season, offered this breakdown.
"When you talk about the tops, you know who that is going to be -- Brady because he's won so many Super Bowls and he's been so productive this decade, you can always throw Peyton in there, and Brett [Favre] because of what he has done," he said.
"Drew has to be right there. You go top five and he's definitely in that category of quarterbacks because of the fact, over the last three years, he's probably been most productive in the system he's running. All he needs now, you give him a Super Bowl ring and he will definitely be given that respect from here on out."
"Monday Night Football" analyst Ron Jaworski said he believes both quarterbacks have reached a point in their careers -- Brady is 32, Brees 30 -- when their athletic talent meets their mental talent. With both in a consistent offensive system for multiple years, and with explosive weapons in the huddle, Jaworski sees them "at the top of their games right now both physically and mentally."
Added Saints coach Sean Payton: "They're extremely driven, extremely accurate, extremely thorough in their approach and every detail as to how they take care of their body, the film they watch, all the things that go into being successful at that position."
After pointing out similarities between Brady and Brees, Gruden noted one of the main differences in terms of style of play: Brady is 6-foot-4, Brees 4 inches shorter. That means Brees is more likely to move out of the pocket in search of clearer throwing lanes.
Yet in the end, Gruden came back to yet another similarity between the two: Each had a point in his NFL career that required him to claw like an underdog, which contributes to the relentless work ethic each has.
Brady's challenge came early, when he was the 199th selection in the 2000 draft. Brees -- a high second-round draft choice -- was bumped out of San Diego by Philip Rivers, entered free agency in 2006 coming off major surgery to his throwing shoulder and had few suitors other than the Saints.
"That has a lot to do with where they are today," Gruden said. "Both guys use that as fuel to prove to everybody they made a grave error."
On Monday, they'll share the same field for the first time since 2005, when Brees was in San Diego.
A lot has changed since then.
Like a Brady-Manning duel, Brady vs. Brees has the potential to provide fireworks, with two top quarterbacks whose excellence on the field matches their dedication off it.