Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have represented the league's elite at the quarterback position for the past decade. Between them they have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl six times and taken home four Lombardi Trophies.
As expected, the showdowns between Manning's Indianapolis Colts and Brady's New England Patriots have represented some of the most exciting games played over the last decade. Their seemingly annual clashes are always one of the first games circled on the calendar by fans of all franchises.
Although the games have always been entertaining and remarkably close, the two teams have both changed and developed during this period. The rivalry began at the turn of the decade during the Patriots' dynasty years. At that time the matchups were always showdowns between the Patriots team first defensive mentality and the singularity of Peyton Manning's prolific offense.
These years saw a slew of Patriots' victories often en route to Super Bowl victories. It was these games that left many Indianapolis fans clamoring for an improved defense. This early run also led to Manning's initial characterization as a choke artist and Dan Marino's competition for the title of best quarterback to never win a Super Bowl.
However, like all dynasties, the Patriots reign would eventually be undone by an aging defenses and losses to free agency. The next time the two teams faced off in the playoffs the Colts shocked the Patriots with a dramatic come from behind victory that they followed up with Manning's first ever Super Bowl victory.
With the monkey off his back, Manning and his high flying offense began to experience more success against a competitive but noticeably weakened Patriots' lineup. The Patriots too were experiencing a change in the form of a shift from a defensive stalwart to an offensive juggernaut.
The Patriots then went into Indianapolis in 2007 with one of the most prolific offensive units in league history. The result was one of the best games of the season and a come from behind victory for the undefeated Patriots.
This history lesson is important because the 2010 matchup simply feels different. In the past, one team or the other has always been a clear cut Super Bowl contender and often the favorite. In the past either or both teams has possessed and offensive or defensive unit that can only be described as dominant.
For the first time in a decade, the two teams meet with a lot of question marks on both sidelines. Both teams have positioned themselves well for playoff runs but have serious issues on the defensive side of the ball and holes in their offenses.
The Colts enter this year’s showdown with their annual defensive issues that have long shackled Manning’s ability to win championships. The Patriots’ young and inexperienced defense has been a work in progress this season and faces its toughest opponent in Manning on Sunday.
Uncharacteristically, both teams also have issues on the offensive side of the ball as well. They both lack viable rushing attacks and rely on the passing game for most of their offensive production. The Colts passing attack has been crippled by key injuries while the Patriots have been coping with a changing identity following the loss of Randy Moss.
Both teams have already dropped one game this season against an inferior opponent, being the Patriots’ loss to the Browns and the Colts’ loss to the Jaguars. They are both entangled in tight division races and need a victory come Sunday.
All of this history and these current factors set the stage for a game that is deeply important to the outcome of this season’s divisional races and playoff seeding. On the other hand, this game may represent the most even matchup of supporting casts these two quarterbacks have ever had in a head to head battle.
As for determining the legacies of Brady and Manning, this game is as good as it gets. In the past, Manning supporters blamed losses on inept defense and painted to hi statistical superiority. Brady supporters point to his playoff record and Super Bowl rings while reminding detractors of the ineptitude of his supporting cast prior to 2007.
All of these excuses aside, the battle for supremacy has come down to Brady’s rings against Manning’s numbers. The series is surprisingly even since Brady became the starter, but the Patriots hold a 7-5 edge, with one of the losses coming with Matt Cassell under center. While past matchups have often been followed by a list of excuses and caveats from analysts and fans—never before have the two teams been more comparable.
Brady and Manning are both dealing with shoddy defenses that put pressure on the quarterbacks to score points. They are both dealing with holes in their offenses at running back and depleted receiving corps. Both teams were forced to make midseason adjustments to their offensive style of play due to injuries in Indianapolis and the Randy Moss trade in New England.
The list of the similarities between their situations has never been quite this long which makes Sunday’s matchup the best reflection of a one on one showdown between the two to this point in NFL history.
The game Sunday is important both in the short run as a legacy game for two of the game’s greatest players. Whichever quarterback is able to will his team to victory Sunday will always have this game to point to as a signature victory.
Regardless of how the game plays out on Sunday it will be hugely important to both teams and their respective quarterbacks. Expect impeccable preparation, unmatched intensity...and one hell of a game.