Before Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady blossomed into the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history, there was Peyton Manning vs. who the heck is Tom Brady?
Unlike other celebrated quarterback duels that came before, such as Roger Staubach vs. Terry Bradshaw, John Elway vs. Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas vs. Bart Starr, Manning-Brady began as one of the most unlikely matchups imaginable.
This was Sept. 30, 2001, at a stadium that no longer exists. The Patriots, 0-2 after a Week 2 loss to the Jets in which starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe was knocked out of the game by linebacker Mo Lewis' ferocious hit, were starting a sixth-round backup out of Michigan against the highly accomplished Manning.
The No. 1 pick of the 1998 draft already had gone through his initial growing pains and had established himself as one of the league's dominant passers.
Brady? The Patriots had taken a flier on him in the 2000 draft, looking at him as a potential backup for Bledsoe, who had been entrenched as the starter since 1993.
Bill Belichick went 5-11 in his first year on the job, and Bledsoe's injury in a 10-3 loss to the Jets was seen as evidence that Belichick's early run in New England would continue to be rocky. The fact that Brady's first start would come against Manning and the heavily favored Colts seemed like another precursor to a lost season.
But then something remarkable happened.
Brady was solid in his NFL starting debut, completing 13 of 23 passes for 168 yards, and the Patriots' defense produced two interception returns for touchdowns against Manning in a 44-13 rout of the Colts. And so began what eventually turned into New England's first of three Super Bowl championship runs. And a rivalry for the ages.
Manning and Brady have faced each other 15 times, with Brady owning a 10-5 advantage heading into Sunday's meeting between the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The Colts will visit the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, the football palace that has since replaced dumpy Foxboro Stadium, in what could be a preview of another AFC Championship Game between the two legendary passers.
Manning got the best of Brady in last season's AFC Championship Game in Denver, and the two quarterbacks have their teams poised for more playoff magic. The Broncos are 6-1 and atop the AFC West; the Patriots are 6-2 and in their customary division-leading position in the AFC East after reeling off four straight wins.
"It's been a lot of fun," the 37-year-old Brady said of his duel with Manning, 38. "He's as good as anybody that's ever played."
The same might be said of Brady, who doesn't have as gaudy a dossier of regular-season stats but has three Super Bowl rings to Manning's one.
That the rivalry continues Sunday at such a stratospheric level is a testament not only to each player's athletic brilliance but his psychological strength. Both quarterbacks are at an age when the ravages of time historically have taken a toll on other great throwers. Yet they are playing at a level that rarely has been seen for quarterbacks approaching the age of 40. They marvel at the other's longevity.
"I've read where [Brady] wants to play until he's into his mid-40s, and he could probably do it," Manning said. "He keeps himself in great shape and he has great durability. It's a credit to him."
Manning scoffed at those who suggested earlier in the season that Brady's play had slipped.
"It all depends on how much credit you give to quotes, sources, 'they,' 'people,' " Manning said. "I've always wanted to meet 'they,' and I've always wanted to meet sources because they seem to say a lot. I'm not speaking for Tom, but my guess is he didn't give 'they' or those people a lot of credibility."
Manning's level of excellence is even more astonishing, considering he had four surgical procedures on his neck late in his run with the Colts. He may not have the arm strength he once possessed, but his mastery of the Broncos' offense might even be better than the work he did with the Colts. Manning has 22 touchdown passes and three interceptions, and his 119.0 rating is only 2.1 points below his all-time high, which came in 2004.
When he was 28.
"I think that there's nothing you can't say about him," Brady said. "He probably thinks so quickly pre-snap or post-snap. He obviously makes a lot of adjustments and they always have the ability to get to whatever play he thinks is going to be most effective. He does a great job reading the defense in their no-huddle plays. He obviously has a lot of confidence in the guys he plays with and they're making a lot of plays and they've been a great offense since he's gotten there."
Manning now has something in Denver he rarely had enjoyed throughout his career -- a dominant defense. Elway, now the Broncos' director of football operations, signed former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, former Browns safety T.J. Ward and former Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware to address defensive deficiencies. Ware plays opposite pass-rushing linebacker Von Miller.
"They're just dominant, explosive players," Brady said of the pass-rushing duo. "They're seven games into the year and they're putting up record numbers. They're phenomenal players and they've really been that way since both of them have been in the league. Those two guys are factors on every play and we've got to be able to account for them. That's what makes it a great game."
Just as a rivalry has developed between the two, so has a friendship.
"We're just two guys that are in the same profession around the same age and have competed against each other for a long time," Brady said. "We both love football."
And we love what their timeless rivalry has given us over the years. One more moment to cherish as we watch these two quarterback maestros put on their 16th show in this epic series birthed in that unlikely matchup 13 years ago.