- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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When they're done playing, their résumés complete, and Tom Brady has a fistful of championships and Peyton Manning owns every major NFL passing record and maybe a couple of titles himself, the two of them are going to be considered the best quarterbacks ever. We debate who's the better contemporary QB, and a decade from now, we're sure to be discussing which is history's best.
For many, Manning already is in the conversation. And Brady finally seems to be getting the widespread appreciation for the major role he's played in the Patriots dynasty.
How cool is that we get to see them shoot it out Sunday night when Manning takes his unbeaten Colts to Gillette Stadium to face Brady's once-beaten Patriots?
It'll be the quarterbacks' eighth meeting, and it never gets old. Sade told us to "cherish the day." Football fans should cherish nights like Sunday. It's not quite the same as Magic versus Larry or Russell versus Chamberlain, but it's as close as football gets, I guess.
Should the Patriots go on to win a dozen games this year, Brady, 29, will find himself almost halfway to John Elway's record of 148 victories (regular season) as a starter (Brady has 64 wins right now). Brady threw for an average of about 3,800 yards and 26 touchdowns from 2002 to 2005. Should he manage to keep up that pace for another half dozen seasons, he'll have 300 touchdown passes and 45,000 yards or so, enough to put him well into the top 10 in both categories. If he and the Patriots keep rolling along like they're going, Brady will have the wins and the individual numbers. His spot in the Hall of Fame has long been reserved.
As for Manning, well, there's no use projecting because who knows where he's going to leave Dan Marino's or Brett Favre's records when he's finished. He might do to passing marks what Jerry Rice did to receiving records, which is put them out of reach.
The current G.O.A.T.? Most people seem to favor Joe Montana. Lot of folks like Elway. Some Marino. John Unitas still gets love when talk turns to the greatest of all time. One certainly can make an argument for all those guys. People who've had this conversation with me know I like to argue that Favre is the best ever. I think I've argued enough to where I actually completely believe it. Doesn't matter.
It won't even be close by the end of Brady's and Manning's careers. It'll be those two and everyone else.
Realize you're watching history in the making Sunday night.
What's really cool about the Brady-Manning rivalry (is it OK to call it that when Brady's Patriots have won six of seven matchups?) is how they've come to be linked. Brady's first start, Sept. 30, 2001, was against Manning and the Colts.
Ever since Brady started winning Super Bowls, beating Manning twice along the way, fans have enjoyed answering the question "Which would you rather have?" You know what? I'm not going there anymore. Not playing that game. You guys have at it. From here on out, I'm just going to appreciate them both.
I admit I used to be a Brady guy just because he'd won titles and always -- up until last year, that is -- got the better of Manning head to head. I tell you I can't decide now. They're both unbelievable. I couldn't pick one over the other without second-guessing the decision. And you really couldn't go wrong either way.
And they come from such different places. Manning's the Golden Boy, his dad was a really good quarterback, his younger brother looks to be on his way to being a great quarterback himself. The Mannings are the first family of football. It's as if Manning were bred or created in a lab somewhere. He's just so perfect. Greatness from him was predicted early on. As a teenager growing up in New Orleans, he quarterbacked the scout team for the Saints.
Brady, on the other hand, has more of the self-made-man thing going for him. Whereas Manning was the first overall selection in his draft, Brady famously lasted until pick No. 199. A third-stringer his rookie season, he got his shot his second year because of injury. He doesn't put up the ridiculous numbers Manning does -- probably could, but that isn't how the Patriots play -- but more often than not has the edge over his opponents where it counts.
Brady has a rags-to-riches appeal to him. Manning is more royalty.
But they're really more similar than they are different. You have to start with how tough they are. Including playoffs, Manning has started 144 consecutive games, Brady 96. They're both so studious, so dedicated and so meticulous when it comes to their preparation that they're almost always in total command. There hasn't been a smarter quarterback than either of these two. They're like coaches, only without the titles. In their unique ways, they're both great leaders.
Really the only difference is that Manning's team hasn't won a championship. Not yet, at least. Manning's the two-time regular-season Most Valuable Player, Brady a two-time Super Bowl MVP.
Brady has earned a reputation as being clutch in the big game. Manning, fairly or not, has earned a rep as being a choker in big games. That's what I used to use to break the tie.
But I'm off getting on Manning for not yet winning a title and for his 3-6 playoff record vs. Brady's 10-1 mark. If Manning were never to win a title -- and I believe he eventually will; he's only 30 -- it doesn't make him any less of a quarterback or inferior to any of the QBs who have. Anyway, I think that criticism tends to die down once a player retires. Does anybody hold it against Marino or Jim Kelly or Warren Moon that their teams didn't win a Super Bowl? I'm of the opinion now that championships don't define individuals in team sports. Too many other people, other variables are involved in who wins it all and who doesn't.
Manning will get his ring one day, just as I believe Brady will add a regular-season MVP award to his Super Bowl trophies sooner or later. And if neither does either, it doesn't change anything.
I'm just glad I've had the privilege of watching both careers from the beginning and all but one of their meetings, even if only a couple have been so much as competitive. It seems as if every Colts-Patriots matchup is more anticipated than the last. With this one, we have them both coming off performances among the best of their careers, Brady at Minnesota and Manning at Denver. Combined, they passed for 717 yards and seven touchdowns while completing 61 of 82 attempts against two of the league's top defenses.
Think they might have just been warming up?
Both guys seem to get it done no matter what, or rather, no matter who. Manning is doing his thing without Edgerrin James. And how's this for being on top of your game: Manning has thrown only two interceptions this year and 32 the past 3½ years compared with 121 touchdown passes. Sick. Brady only lost both of his starting wide receivers, yet he just keeps racking up wins.
I think most of you would agree that when you're talking today's quarterbacks, it's Brady, Manning (or Manning, Brady if you prefer) and everyone else. It's just a matter of time, and a little more résumé padding, before we think of the position's history in the same way.
Michael Smith is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
One day in the not so distant future, history will show that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were the two best QBs ever to play the game, writes Michael Smith.