Between them, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning embody every modern NFL archetype and narrative. They are "Golden Boy" and underdog, fashion model and aw-shucks homebody, coach on the field and man about town.
They are No. 1 overall pick and sixth-rounder, future clipboard-holder and can't-miss franchise prospect.
They are MVP awards versus championship rings.
In the twilight of their careers, both men are incredible players. Both have impeccable resumes; they each can retire having accomplished everything an NFL quarterback could dream of accomplishing and then some. Both are sure-fire Hall of Famers.
Now, they're set to face off in what could be a legacy-defining AFC Championship Game.
Manning, coming off of the greatest statistical regular season any quarterback has ever had, with a victory could rewrite all the old narratives and position himself as the greatest quarterback of all time.
Brady, coming off the rockiest calendar year of his career, could reaffirm his status as the ultimate clutch performer, the best playoff quarterback—and put his own career firmly above Manning's in the estimation of many.
This one game could put a definitive spin on nearly a decade-and-a-half of NFL history; each quarterback's triumph would come at the direct expense of the other.
Yet, like the Chinese philosophical concept of yin and yang, these two quarterbacks exist in tension with (and are made greater because of) each other.
Their rivalry spans 14 meetings—nearly their entire mutual careers. They've played against each other in the regular season and playoffs, at home and on the road, indoors and outdoors, and in balmy autumn and bleak midwinter. Even when the two men aren't playing each other, fans and media alike have constantly compared their numbers, performances, records and standings.
You can't tell the story of one without the other, and you can't tell the story of the NFL in the 21st century without telling their mutual tale.
So what makes their rivalry so great—and what does it mean for the NFL, which will soon have to exist without it?
A Humbling Start, and Humble Beginnings
Manning and Brady entered the NFL under completely different circumstances. Manning was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1998 draft; Brady went in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, No. 199 overall.
Sports Illustrated graded Manning as a 7.6 on an eight-point scale, a "Franchise Type/Pro Bowl Player" per their grading system. They said Manning was "probably the most prepared QB to enter the draft in several years," with "maturity and great intangibles to go along with his natural skills."
Despite raising questions about his ceiling—"Will he get any better?"—the Sports Illustrated staff dismissed most criticism of Manning as nitpicking, saying teams should accept him for what he is: "A great college QB that is on his way to an outstanding NFL career."
The Sports Illustrated scouts said Brady "needs to upgrade his overall strength" and "lacks a strong arm." Brady also "sails some throws and hangs some deep balls" but "generally makes good decisions."
Manning was thrown into the fire as a rookie, starting all 16 games and taking a beating in the process. He had future Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk and soon-to-be Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison, more help than most rookie starters usually get.
Manning threw 28 interceptions en route to a 3-13 campaign.
After that, Manning flipped the switch. In his sophomore season, he threw 26 touchdowns and cut the picks down to 15—earning his first of 12 Pro Bowl selections to date. In 2000, Manning's third season and Brady's first, Manning led the NFL in completions (357), yards (4,413) and touchdowns (33).
Meanwhile, Brady sat on the bench.
Stuck behind then-three-time Pro Bowler Drew Bledsoe, Brady watched and learned. It wasn't until the second game of Brady's second season that he got a chance to make an impact. The Mo Lewis hit that knocked Bledsoe out was, as NFL Films called it, "The Hit That Changed History."
Brady stepped in for Bledsoe, won 14 of the next 17 games, including a 38-17 rout of Manning and the Colts, two playoff games and the Super Bowl. Brady went to the Pro Bowl, and Bledsoe went to Buffalo.
Brady led the Patriots to two more Super Bowl championships in the next three seasons and won his first 10 playoff games. He earned a reputation as a clutch performer.
Meanwhile, Manning's lack of postseason success, particularly when facing Brady head-to-head, became a sticking point. In late 2003, Cold Hard Football Facts' Kerry Byrne called Manning "The Picasso of Choke Artists."
Potential at Maturity
While Manning's individual talent and Brady's team success cast their early careers in sharp contrast, time has blurred those lines.
Over 13 seasons as a starter, Brady's stats have piled up quite high; Cold Hard Football Facts found Brady's career numbers now compare quite well to Manning's. Brady has also lost two straight Super Bowls, dulling the shine on his once-pristine playoff record.
Manning, the playoff "choker," has made two Super Bowls and won one, and his single-season passing stats have given way to consistent double-digit-win seasons. Today, both quarterbacks are unquestionably elite. Preparing to face either is a difference not of degree, but kind.
I asked fellow Bleacher Report National NFL Lead Writer Matt Bowen, a retired NFL safety with seven years' experience (and drafted one spot ahead of Brady), to explain the unique skills of each quarterback and the challenges they pose to a defense.
"From a defensive perspective," Bowen said, "[Manning] doesn't allow you to change personnel (or rest) with the no-huddle attack, and it becomes a snap-to-snap chess match with the safeties. No matter what you do from a pre-snap disguise, he is going to eventually force you to show your hand."
However a defense lines up to stop Manning, Bowen said, "He has no problem taking what you give him. For example, you play Cover 2? Then he will bleed you to death underneath and work the ball all the way down the field. Saying that, he doesn't have to play by your rules.
"He dictates the entire flow and tempo of the football game, as he is always in control."
Brady, according to Bowen, is "ultra competitive. I saw that way back in college when we played Michigan, and it has continued into the pros."
How does Brady put up Hall of Fame numbers with sixth-round physical talent? "Maybe he doesn't have the elite skill set that some QBs bring to the table," Bowen said, "but he makes up for it by knowing where to go with the football on every snap. I think he gets better every season. That's a sign of a guy that works at his craft."
Schematically, Bowen told me that Brady is a "very intelligent football player" who "can run any system, and produce with any personnel on the field." This flexibility has allowed Brady to produce under five different offensive coordinators, including two stretches with no offensive coordinator at all!
"With Manning," Bowen said, "he is still throwing the same core concepts that we saw in Indy, but with Brady, the game plan changes every week and almost every quarter based on the opponent."
What We Don't See
Peyton Manning has become one of the NFL's most visible personalities. Manning is always the face of the franchise, always speaking to the media and starring in hilarious (and often self-deprecating) commercials:
Tony Dungy, Manning's longtime head coach in Indianapolis, told Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch that Manning is no less of a broadcasting prospect than he was a quarterbacking prospect.
"He would be phenomenal," Dungy told Deitsch. "I joked with [NBC Sports executive producer] Sam Flood awhile back: If we hired him at NBC, it would triple Sam's workload. Peyton will be so prepared and not leave a stone unturned. He would put 30 hours a week into it because he will want to be the best."
That reveals a little window into the dual nature of Manning: He's a funny, personable guy with an aura of down-home approachability, but he's relentless and exacting in his drive to be the best at whatever he does.
Tom Moore, the Arizona Cardinals' assistant head coach and longtime Colts offensive coordinator, told Yahoo! Sports' Les Carpenter just how driven Manning is.
"You know how people have compulsions?" Moore says. "This was his compulsion. He wants to be the best player."
As Carpenter detailed, Manning was obsessive and exhaustive in film review, studying every snap of every opponent—and toward the end of the season, when the film backlog got too big, he'd assign the early-season games to his backups.
Manning's relentless drive for perfection pulled everyone else in the Colts organization along with him. "Peyton made me a better coach," Moore told Carpenter. "I'm proud to say that."
At first blush, it seems like Brady is no less well-known. He does the postgame pressers, he's married to one of the world's top supermodels, Gisele Bundchen, and he's appeared on the cover of countless magazines:
What do we really know about Brady, though? Other than his will to win, and his ability to win, he doesn't project much personality on the field—and shares very little of himself off it.
I talked to Donte' Stallworth, the former Patriots wide receiver, and brought up to him that it seems like the public doesn't know very much about Brady at all.
"Yeah, I think he likes it that way," Stallworth said, laughing. "He's a very private guy."
It irks Stallworth when fans say they don't like Brady, just based on what they see on TV. "I'm thinking to myself, 'You don't even know this dude,'" Stallworth said. "I've literally heard people say they hate him because he's too calm and cool in the pocket."
Maybe it's because Brady subverts our expectations of a big-time quarterback that we resent him. "I wonder," Stallworth asked me rhetorically, "if he were more of a pompous-type person, would people like him more?"
Despite Brady's fine clothes, styled hair and a wife who's an even bigger celebrity than he is, Stallworth says he is anything but a prima donna. "Tommy's one of the guys," Stallworth said. "The humility of this guy is unbelievable. I've never heard him brag, except maybe about his children.
"I've been around plenty of superstars," Stallworth said, "Whether that's athletes, entertainers or billionaires, and you can tell they're celebrities just because of the way they carry themselves. Tommy doesn't have that superstar, celebrity aura; he's a really down-to-earth guy."
Stallworth told me that humility helps translate to leadership, in games and on the practice field.
"Whenever we're in practice, if he doesn't put the ball on the money—like, right on the numbers—he's pissed off," Stallworth said. "Even if the guy was wide open, I've seen him be really upset if the ball wasn't thrown right where it needs to be.
"He's always striving for perfection," Stallworth said. "At the point of his career now where he's pretty much God, as far as football goes—like Peyton Manning is—he's still wanting to be the best that he can be."
This season, that relentless drive helped him elevate the most scattered, inconsistent supporting cast he's ever had to work with. Free agency, injuries and even prison robbed him of three of his favorite targets from 2012 to 2013; the Patriots have had to get by on Brady's mettle far more often than they've had in the past.
Yet, in Week 12, Brady led the Patriots back from a 24-7 third quarter deficit to a thrilling 34-31 overtime defeat of Manning and the Broncos. In AFC Championship Game rematch, Manning will have to prove his own mettle, once and for all.
Sides of a Coin, Birds of a Feather
Manning is a throwback. He's an old-school football legacy, not just of his father, but of Favre, Marino, Unitas and Baugh. The offense is in Manning's head and hands; he yokes his team with his burly talent and pulls it toward the mountaintop.
Whether or not the team makes it to the summit, it's on him.
Brady is the heir to the legacy of Fouts and Montana: the man who simply excels, who perfectly executes whatever schemes his coach feels like drawing up. When Brady and the Patriots win, as they so often do, it's hard to pick out how much of it was Brady's doing.
When you look at the pile of former Patriots coaches who failed in their next job, though, or the cast of dozens of different receivers Brady's worked with over the years, it's clear much of the Patriots' success is on him.
The NFL's future seems to be in the hands of quarterbacks like Brady and New Orleans Saints signal-caller Drew Brees: quarterbacks who can be programmed to execute almost anything and let today's high-tech offenses do maximum damage.
Yet quarterbacks like Manning will always have a place in the league; his successor in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, is at his best when his coaches simply put the game in his hands.
What do these two quarterbacks have in common? A lot more than many think. Let's listen to former Patriots personnel executive Scott Pioli talk about Brady's hidden work ethic on The Dan Patrick Show:
The tie that binds Manning and Brady are the unseen hours they spend striving to be the best.
Sports Illustrated questioned whether Brady could be good enough and if Peyton could get any better. What those scouts couldn't see was that nothing was stopping either of them from becoming the best they possibly could, and then maybe even a little bit better than that.
When future NFL fans looks back on the league's past, or today's NFL fans look to its future, the meaning of the rivalry of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will always ring true: Those who never stop improving always succeed.