They traveled different roads to the same destination, and there was a time when that mattered a whole lot more than it does today.
We've become so used to viewing Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history that we no longer consider it a big deal that one emerged from virtually nowhere while the other seemed destined for greatness almost from the instant he drew his first breath.
Their many big moments and spectacular throws have become a blur, piled so high in the memory bank that it's difficult for even one of the closest observers of their respective careers to single one out.
"I just think both of those guys play so well week in and week out you kind of get numb to it," Colts coach Tony Dungy said.
Of course, it doesn't change the fact that when Brady and Manning square off in Week 9 in the Game for the Ages, all of us will anticipate seeing each do something unforgettable. That is, until the next time they take the field.
This showdown at the RCA Dome has a different feel from previous encounters between Brady and Manning.
Although they both entered other Patriots-Colts games with stellar bodies of work, the perception was that Brady had all of the hardware (as in Super Bowl trophies and Super Bowl MVP awards) while Manning had all of the stats (which earned him a pair of NFL MVP honors).
The perception was that Brady won the big games -- especially those designated by Roman numerals -- and Manning put up the ultra-shiny numbers that stopped being relevant in January. The perception was that Brady, with considerable help from coaching and scheming, took himself from sixth-round nobody to consummate "winner" while Manning was the better "pure" passer who did everything a top overall pick and son of a former NFL star quarterback should do … except win when it counted the most.
Now it is nearly impossible to determine the better quarterback or "pure" passer of the two.
For a long time, Brady apologists argued that if he had Manning's receivers, he, too, would have gaudy stats (even though he did have a league-leading 28 touchdown passes in 2002 and an NFL-best 4,110 passing yards in 2005). The argument ended this past offseason. Hello Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte' Stallworth. Hello gaudy stats -- gaudier, in fact, than Manning's. And Manning's are still as impressive as ever.
With a league-high 30 touchdown passes, completion percentage of 74.2 and passer rating of 136.2 through eight games, Brady is on his way to setting single-season NFL records for all three categories. He also leads the NFL with 2,431 passing yards.
"He's playing great," Manning said. "Obviously any time as a quarterback you are always trying to get into that rhythm, that zone, whatever you want to call it. It certainly adds a great deal of confidence with your receivers when you feel like these guys are getting open. You are throwing passes before they're coming out of their breaks, you anticipate where they are going to be every play that is called, you kind of feel like it's going to work, it's going to be a touchdown.
"[Brady] has done a great job getting on the same page with these three new receivers, which is really impressive because usually that takes time, it takes a couple of offseasons. And what he's done in a short period of time to get his timing down with those guys is awfully impressive."
So is what Manning has done in seven games (13 touchdown passes, a completion percentage of 65.5, and 1,833 passing yards), pushing him ever closer to ownership of practically every career passing record.
"I think they're both at the top of their game," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Brady and Manning. "Great players, great leaders, smart guys. They make a lot of plays. [They] know how to manage the game. [They've] won a lot of games."
Asked what impressed him the most about Manning, Brady said, "What's not to be impressed by? He does everything well. He throws the short stuff. He throws the deep stuff. He's a leader … he's a clutch performer. He's always in command of the team and the offense. Um … he's a great actor. He can do it all."
The "actor" reference might be the only part of the Brady-Manning comparison that could create a little separation.
Manning is, of course, Mr. Television. No athlete this side of Tiger Woods has greater visibility. He seemingly appears on the screen every five minutes in a TV commercial, hawking everything from credit cards to, well, TVs. His dry humor projects well through his words and facial expression. He always looks comfortable in the spotlight and ready to gain more of it.
On the other hand, Brady is seen as more of an introvert. He keeps his TV exposure to a minimum. His personal life, especially when it comes to relationships with actresses and supermodels, has generated mild controversy. He's comfortable talking football, but for the most part, he reveals very little of himself beyond what he wants the public to know. In short, he is the perfect quarterback for a coach who believes in suppression of star power.
Oh, but there was that guest-hosting gig Brady had on Saturday Night Live. His performance did draw some good reviews. Wait. Manning had a successful SNL stint of his own earlier this year. Maybe there isn't much separation there after all.
So we're back to what they have in common.
"Clearly, statistics speak for themselves and you can't find two guys who have better statistics," said current Colts and former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, who has had Manning and Brady as teammates. "But I think what both of them bring is their leadership values and their preparation values. They both are so particular about their preparation and making sure that not only are they prepared, but the other 10 guys that are on the field with them at the same time are ready.
"I'm sure there are differences, but everybody talks about the similarities. I just think you're lucky to have either one of those guys on your team."
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