FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- By pedigree, it's no surprise that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has his team in Super Bowl XLIV and that he just won his record fourth NFL MVP award. He was born to the play part, the son of Archie Manning, who played quarterback with the dreadful New Orleans Saints before watching sons Peyton and Eli win Super Bowls he only dreamed to partake in as a player.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees wasn't blessed with such regal bloodlines or viewed as someone whose stock was too rich not to envy. His path to the NFL came through proving people wrong, not validating his birthright.
Manning and Brees took divergent journeys into becoming unquestioned leaders and two of the league's best quarterbacks for the NFL's best teams, who will compete Sunday in Miami for a championship of historic proportions.
A second Super Bowl title for Manning would entrench him further into the discussion of the greatest quarterback ever. A first Super Bowl title for Brees would enter him into a select group that includes Manning, among others. And that Brees could do it for a long-suffering franchise in a long-suffering city that also happens to be where Manning was raised and is considered civic royalty, would only expand Brees' rapidly growing legend.
"Drew is 6-foot with his cleats on; Peyton, he's 6-5 and looks the part. I mean, that's a big dude," said former Saints quarterback and current radio host Bobby Hebert, one of the most knowledgeable and excitable NFL analysts in the business. "Here's Drew, he grew up in Austin, Texas, in the back yard of the University of Texas, and does all these things in high school and Texas and a lot of other schools don't want him because of his size, so he has to go to Purdue.
"Peyton is who he is and was always good and is the type of guy everyone wanted. Peyton has earned everything he's achieved. For Drew, he has to win a Super Bowl. He has all the numbers, but what he has to do is win a championship. He does that and there are no more questions for a guy who's spent his life being questioned."
Brees doesn't behave like a guy with a chip on his shoulder because, as he said, instead of being pushed by the people who said he can't, he's driven to fulfill the hopes of those who've provided him opportunities.
"There's always that motivation where I know how much people have sacrificed for me, who put trust and confidence in me," Brees said before the Saints' 31-28 victory over Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game. "I want to make them proud. I want to do right by them."
That's why he's worked so hard to get in such synchronization with Saints coach Sean Payton that their hearts seem to beat to the same rhythm. Payton, then the first-time head coach of the Saints, signed Brees in 2006 after a shoulder injury and the development of Philip Rivers -- who was drafted by the Chargers even though Brees had played well -- made Brees expendable.
Payton developed an offense that fit Brees' accuracy, mobility and immense football IQ. Brees, in turn, has made the Saints' offense one of the most versatile and feared in the league, while moving himself into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks.
"I coached him his rookie year and the one thing we knew was he didn't have limitations," said Chargers coach Norv Turner, who was San Diego's offensive coordinator when the team selected Brees in the second round in 2001. "People always use his height as a limitation, but that wasn't a limitation for him. He always played at that height, so he knew how to play the game that way.
"(Hall of Fame 49ers quarterback) Steve Young isn't much taller. Guys learn how to play and handle what those things are. He's such a great competitor that has -- whatever it is inside him -- that pushes him to be the best and that's why he's accomplished what he's accomplished."
New Orleans had the NFL's No. 1 offense three of the past four years, with Brees passing for more than 4,300 yards in each of those seasons, including 5,069 in 2008. The nine-year veteran has also thrown for 122 touchdowns the past four seasons, same as Manning in that span.
There are other statistical similarities as well, especially with each routinely being among the least sacked because of their quick, timed releases in their pass-first schemes. The Saints started the season 13-0; the Colts 14-0.
But a big difference is that Manning won Super Bowl XLI, while the Saints fell a game short of facing the Colts then, losing to the Bears in the NFC Championship Game. New Orleans didn't return to the playoffs until this season. Indianapolis has maintained its place in the postseason, although it failed to get back to the Super Bowl until now.
Manning, in his 12th season, has unquestionably been the main reason for the Colts' string of success. Though his DNA is rich in football, he has mastered the position with a work ethic that could rival that of Brees.
"There are a lot of things that are the same about him from when he first got here," Colts general manager Chris Polian said. "The most important thing is everyday he is working diligently to get better, whether it be in the meeting room, in the weight room with his teammates or on the practice field. He truly believes he's getting better every day. That has become kind of contagious, so that's part of the standard here.
"He's gotten better at everything. He does not set out to reinvent the wheel. He is always looking to get better and master the fundamentals of what we do. (He) just really focuses on the fundamentals and to be a master of those."
Manning may have done some of his best work this season when the Colts promoted his former position coach Jim Caldwell to replace Tony Dungy. Manning and the Colts made the switch appear seamless, starting 14-0, and Manning took the departure of likely future Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison and turned replacements Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie into household names. He also threw for 4,500 yards and 33 touchdowns.
He also led Indianapolis to seven fourth-quarter regular-season comeback victories, and he helped Indy reel off 24 unanswered points in a 30-17 comeback victory over the Jets in the AFC Championship Game.
During the Pro Bowl week, several players and coaches projected the Colts to defeat the Saints because Manning will, at some point, figure out what New Orleans does on defense. Thing is, the same can be said of Brees.
"It's simply Peyton," said Jets Coach Rex Ryan, who threw a Rubik's Cube of coverages at Indianapolis only to be deciphered and humbled over the final 2 ½ quarters. "Peyton Manning is amazing. He can read your coverages; he knows where to go with the football. He's got those guys in tune with them. Their offensive line is a good offensive line, but it's not a great offensive line. Peyton makes them all look good because he knows when to get rid of the football and he's as accurate as he can be -- especially last week."
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|Peyton Manning and Drew Brees were each members of the Playboy All-America team. Manning, who was on the squad in 1997 and '98, visited with Brees in '99. Brees was the quarterback on that year's team.|
Yet, check out Ryan's comparison of Manning to Brees, whose Saints blunted the Jets' 3-0 start with a 24-10 victory: "They're both probably the most accurate quarterbacks in the league. They don't get sacked because they get rid of the football. They have great pocket presence and awareness and they have confidence in their receivers. They're both about as good as it gets."
When Brees said that he wants to do right by people who have invested in him, he's fully aware that he's carrying the hopes of New Orleans on his shoulders. He is loved in Manning's hometown, to the point, when the question was put to Hebert as to who would win a mayoral election, Manning or Brees, Hebert quipped:
"Peyton might get a vote from his family members, but that's about it."
At a recent news conference, Manning said, "I'm very excited for the city of New Orleans. New Orleans is definitely a huge part of my life, and Eli's life, and my dad's been a part of the New Orleans Saints organization for 39 years. We definitely have strong ties."
Still, allegiance to New Orleans, the Saints or all things Manning only goes so far. Peyton declined to follow in his father's footsteps to play collegiately at Ole Miss and opted for Tennessee instead.
In terms of treading on turf, Brees and Manning struck up an acquaintance when Brees played collegiately at Purdue, located in West Lafayette, Ind., and Manning was in his early stages with nearby Indianapolis. In their few conversations, Manning encouraged Brees and Brees pushed himself to be like Manning.
A win in the Super Bowl, and Brees might just get there.