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Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning XVII: The final chapter of an epic rivalry?

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DENVER, CO - JANUARY 19: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots congratulates Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos after the Broncos defeated the Patriots 26 to 16 during the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 19, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

DENVER — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will square off Sunday night for the 17th time in their storied careers. Once again, the stakes are high: The winner of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game in Denver between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos advances to Super Bowl 50.

It’s yet another installment of an epic quarterback rivalry that’s enthralled NFL fans since 2000. Brady leads the series 11-5, but they’re 2-2 against each other in the playoffs. Most recently, Manning has had the upper hand; the last two times he faced New England in the playoffs, Manning emerged victorious.

Brady and Manning are surefire locks for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One or the other has represented the AFC in nine of the past 14 Super Bowls, earning Super Bowl MVP honors in four of those contests.

“I think playing someone 17 times is pretty cool, especially someone as great as him,” Brady said Wednesday. “To play against those Peyton Manning-led teams, you know you’ve got to play 60 minutes, and you’re going to be in for a tough game, and they’re going to take advantage of opportunities that they get.”

It’s a thrill for the players and coaches around them, too.

“You have two great quarterbacks that are at the pinnacle parts of their careers, and they’ve been so consistent from the adversity that they’ve been through, throughout their whole career,” Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said Wednesday. “Now, the clash of the titans is here again. You have an opportunity — when you’re a young kid, you watch those games or you play them on the video games, but now you’re on the field with those guys. You’re getting that roar from the crowd or you’re getting that feeling from the next teammate beside you. That next teammate, for me, is Peyton. I think that’s a big, monumental thing for me. I’m really excited to be playing this week and be part of this experience.”

But is Brady vs. Manning XVII the last time fans — and their teammates — will get to see this legendary rivalry?

This year just feels a little different. Manning turns 40 in March. Brady is 38. And while Brady’s numbers are as good as they’ve ever been, the future looks uncertain for Manning. Manning hasn’t revealed his future plans, but there has been wide speculation that this season could be his last.

“I have felt very fortunate to play 18 years like I have, and I know how hard I’ve worked to play this long,” Manning said Wednesday. “When I look across at the New England Patriots and see Tom Brady is their quarterback, I just know how hard he’s worked, as well. To play as well as he has over the course of his career, with the success that he has had and the team’s success, I have a lot of respect for him. He’s earned that respect. He and (Patriots head coach) Bill Belichick have earned all the respect and all of the accolades that they get.”

Ranging from respect to drama, here’s a snapshot on what this Brady-Manning rivalry includes.

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Mutual respect

There’s a word that keeps coming up in all of this: Respect.

Neither player likes talking about the other, often insisting that it’s about the teams and not the two quarterbacks. But that hasn’t stopped the media from asking Brady and Manning to talk about each other countless times over the years. The two are friends and express mutual admiration.

“I’ve just got great respect for the way he plays the position,” Manning said Wednesday of Brady. “He takes care of himself physically and always answers the bell, every single season and every single week. There’s definitely high respect from me and I appreciate some of the things he’s said about me as well.”

When asked about Manning this week, Brady said he respects many things about the Broncos quarterback and his game, citing Manning’s consistency and his ability to “always seem to come through” in games.

“He’s just been an incredible player, incredible leader for his team,” Brady said. “They’ve won so many games. Every team he’s been a part of, they won.”

On Wednesday, Belichick also gave high praise for Manning.

“We’ve had tremendous battles against him through the years,” Belichick said. “There isn’t a player off our team that I don’t have any more respect for than Peyton Manning. His preparation, his consistency, his skills — I would never, ever, ever underestimate him under any circumstance.”

Staggering record numbers

It’s impossible not to compare one quarterback with the other, and both have staggering career numbers.

Of the two, Brady is known for his playoff performances. The Patriots QB is the all-time leader in career playoff passing yards (7,647), touchdowns (55), completions (711) and attempts (1,127). He and Joe Montana are the only players to win three Super Bowl MVP awards.

Manning, meanwhile, is known more for his regular-season accolades. He has an NFL-record five MVP awards; Brady has two. Manning is tied with Brett Favre for the most regular-season wins by a starting quarterback in NFL history. Manning owns the record for the most passing touchdowns (509) in pro football history and is the NFL’s career leader in passing yards with 71,940; Brady is fifth with 58,028.

As for the postseason, Manning’s 15 all-time appearances are the most in NFL history for a quarterback. Manning ranks second in playoff history in passing yards (7,022), completions (619) and attempts (972), trailing only Brady. Manning also ranks fourth all-time in touchdown passes with 38.

Brady has started in six Super Bowls, a record for an NFL quarterback. He has won four, a record he shares with Terry Bradshaw and Montana. Manning has appeared in three Super Bowls and won one.


Yes, there even has been drama in the last year.

One year later, there still isn’t a conclusion to the Deflategate saga for Brady. In September, a federal judge vacated Brady’s four-game suspension that the NFL imposed on him for Deflategate. After Brady won in court, the NFL appealed the decision. Today, the legal battle drags on: Oral arguments in front of a three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit are scheduled for March 3.

After the Deflategate story broke, Brady and the NFL Players Association filed documents that included the New England Patriots quarterback’s emails. That’s when Manning unexpectedly was brought into the mix.

In one email from November 2014, Brady wrote, “Manning needs things to be perfect to succeed, weather, his system, etc.”

In another email referencing the Broncos quarterback, Brady wrote, “I’ve got another 7 or 8 years. He has 2. That’s the final chapter. Game on.”

It didn’t sound like a big deal to Manning, though, who pointed out back in training camp that many have speculated on this for a long time.

“He apologized that my name was kind of brought up into this,” Manning told CNN in September. “It was no harm, no foul. It was an unnecessary apology. Tom and I have had a good friendship throughout our careers, and we’ll continue to have a good friendship long after we play. I really didn’t give it a whole lot of attention.”

Last month, Manning was forced to go on the defensive himself, vehemently denying a claim in an Al Jazeera documentary that he was among a number of professional athletes who may have been provided human growth hormone, or HGH, by an Indiana doctor.

Shortly after the story broke, Brady offered Manning his support.

“I fully support Peyton and my friendship with him over the years,” Brady said on his weekly appearance on the “Dennis & Callahan” show on WEEI. “He’s a guy that I can always count on and he’s been someone who has always been so supportive of me. We’ll have lifelong friendships.”

Manning echoed the sentiment on Wednesday.

“Tom has always been in support of me, and I always try to be the same for him.”

Is this the end?

It’s inevitable: Manning and Brady have to retire eventually. Could this season be Manning’s last?

His mind is as sharp as ever, but Manning’s numbers have dropped, and his health and arm strength have been concerns. He was removed from a game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 10 in favor of backup Brock Osweiler. He missed six games this season with a partially torn plantar fascia in his left heel. In fact, football fans were robbed of what should have been Brady vs. Manning XVII in November, when Manning was sidelined with the injury. Instead, it was Osweiler who directed the Broncos to a 30-24 win in overtime.

“There’s nobody that has more respect for Peyton than me, outside of probably his parents and his brothers,” Brady said ahead of that November game. “If anybody can appreciate what he’s accomplished, it’s me, so he’s just been remarkable in every part of his career. He’s been a tremendous player.”

Brady, meanwhile, said earlier this season that he’d like to play “maybe 10 more years.” That’s likely a stretch, but the 38-year-old has been playing some of the best football of his career. In his 16th season, Brady threw for 4,770 yards and 36 touchdowns in the regular season and is one of the front-runners for NFL MVP.

“All I can say about Tom Brady is he plays the position the way it’s supposed to be played,” Manning said this week. “He’s extremely talented. He’s a very hard worker, very competitive guy and he just plays the position the right way. When you do that, there’s a reason you play for a long time and play well for a long time.

“There have been a lot of different players that have played in 16 of those games but as the quarterback, it’s always been a great honor and privilege to have competed against him that many times over the course of the past 16, 17 years he and I have been in the league together.”

Manning isn’t carrying the Broncos this season; their defense is. However, it’s only fitting — especially if it’s the last time — to see Brady vs. Manning on this stage when the two take the field Sunday.

“It’s a credit to both of them, because you don’t have the rivalry that they’ve had if you don’t last as long as both of them have lasted,” Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said Wednesday. “They’ve both been so successful. They’re two Hall of Fame football players, two Hall of Fame people. They’re leaders on their football team wherever they’ve been — Peyton has been a couple of places. It’s pretty special.”

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