Only a few rivalries in sports are as entertaining as Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. On one side is Manning, the former No. 1 overall pick who has always had his name in the newspaper and turned heads. On the other side is Brady, whose ascent from sixth-round throwaway pick to superstar quarterback is legendary. He has galvanized the huge market of Boston, Mass., and all of New England.
In anticipation of Sunday’s matchup, we’ve ranked the eight best Manning-Brady contests.
8. “2014 AFC Championship Game”—Broncos 26, Patriots 16 (Jan. 19, 2014)
This game simply makes the list because of its magnitude. Despite the fact that the Seahawks went on to decimate the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, Manning beating Brady in a conference championship game and proving he’s “still got it” was important. The Broncos’ record setting offense did just enough to win the contest, edging a New England team that wasn’t equipped to deal with an explosive offense with too many weapons to worry about.
Manning wasn’t spectacular in this contest and certainly neither was Brady, but the two posted impressive stat lines that would make the casual observer look twice. Peyton was 32 of 43 for 400 yards and two touchdowns. He also didn’t throw an interception. However, despite his 9.3 yards per attempt, Manning relied heavily on short and intermediate throws, passing the ball over 20 yards through the air on just four occasions.
Nothing in particular stood out about this contest. Sure, Manning led two touchdown drives and four field goal drives, but there was no real storyline behind any of it. The quarterbacks, in this particular contest, weren’t the headliners. Rather, the two defenses combining to hold the two prolific offense to under 45 total points speaks volumes about how critical it was to slow down Manning and Brady.
Each signal caller has commanded a lot of respect over the years and if it all ended in 2014, this would have been a fine finish to this rivalry.
7. “Willie McGinest Makes the Stop”—Patriots 38, Colts 34 (Nov. 30, 2003)
Few moments define dynasties, but don’t tell that to Willie McGinest. On a sprained knee, the linebacker made a fourth down, goal-line stop and celebrated accordingly. The announcer’s call of “Willie McGinest makes the stop!” has become iconic in Patriot lore and forces one to appreciate the defensive prowess that New England featured a decade ago.
At this point, both teams were 9-2 and wanted to improve upon their stellar records. A New England victory gave the team an eight-game winning streak, while Indianapolis’ loss dropped the Colts out of first place. McGinest made a huge impact with the highlight play, while other Patriots like linebacker Tedy Bruschi made their presence felt.
That said, this game was about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Brady made the initial statement, jumping out to a three-score lead. After an early Patriots field goal, No. 12 led his team down the field twice more and put up a total of 17 points early on. In typical form, Manning and the Colts roared back with a field goal and a touchdown. New England scored two touchdowns, Indianapolis three.
Tied at 31-31, Brady orchestrated a four-play, 31-yard drive that culminated in a 13-yard touchdown pass to star wideout Deion Branch. Manning responded with a field goal, but it wasn’t enough. The Colts drove down to the goal line on their next and last drive, desperate for a touchdown to win the game. They didn’t get it.
McGinest running the length of the field with one finger in the air became a symbol of Patriots dominance during that era.
6. “Peyton Manning Gets Greedy”—Patriots 31, Colts 28 (Nov. 21, 2010)
Over the years, Brady-Manning matchups have been defined by gutsy calls. Whether it was Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 (which we’ll get to) or what Peyton Manning decided to do in this game, both sides of this rivalry haven’t been afraid to go out on a limb and make the tough calls that define careers.
Sometimes, those calls don’t pay off.
In this game, a mid-November classic between the 8-1 Patriots and the 6-3 Colts, Manning almost did it. He almost pulled off an epic comeback from three scores down. With Brady working the ball to Branch and Wes Welker, the Patriots were able to put up 31 points before the Colts could even muster more than 14.
Down by three possessions, Manning went to work. In the middle of the fourth quarter, with 7:57 left, the former Tennessee star found Blair White for a five-yard touchdown. Just over three minutes later, Manning found White again (this time on an 18-yard pass) for a touchdown. Down just 31-28 and with the ball in their hands yet again, the Colts were in prime position to steal one from Brady and Belichick.
Then, Peyton Manning got greedy. With just a few ticks over 30 seconds left to play, the Colts were in field goal range. Indianapolis could have tied up the game and brought the momentum of 17 unanswered points into overtime. Manning, however, had other ideas. He decided to test safety James Sanders with a deep pass for Pierre Garcon, but Sanders played the ball well and intercepted Manning’s throw.
The Patriots held on to win and Brady was victorious over Manning yet again.
5. “4th and 2″—Colts 35, Patriots 34 (Nov. 15, 2009)
Enough of Brady winning; a big-deal Manning victory makes its way to the fifth spot on this list because of how close the game was and how memorable the “4th-and-2” call is, even today. The Colts, undefeated at this point, needed this victory to put themselves in the 16-0 conversation. They did just that.
Two Randy Moss touchdowns were the impetus for a 31-14 Patriots lead early in the fourth quarter. New England, comfortable being up by three scores (did they forget who was quarterbacking the opposing team?), took its foot off the gas pedal.
At this point, right after New England’s first drive of the fourth quarter, Indianapolis outscored its opponent by a score of 21-3. The team barely regained its lead at the end of the game, but still managed to come away from the bloodbath in victorious fashion. Brady was having a phenomenal outing, completing 29 of his 42 passes for three touchdowns and an interception. Surely he could convert a late 4th down in his own territory, right?
Manning’s stats may not have been better in this one, but his team came out on top and he managed to make Bill Belichick look foolish. For the latter reason alone, this game should be higher on the list. The prevailing theme here is that neither team should ever become complacent with a lead, no matter how big.
4. “The Comeback”—Patriots 34, Broncos 31 (Nov. 24, 2013)
Realistically, most of the games on this list could be classified as “The Comeback”, but this contest is fresh in the memories of both Patriots and Broncos fans. Granted, Denver would get the last laugh at the end of the season, but any Sunday Night Football game that fans turn off and are forced to turn back on is more than notable in our list-making context.
Manning’s Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 lead. Already 9-1 on the season, Denver looked like it was going to stampede the once-mighty Patriots and take the AFC by storm with ease. Brady wasn’t exactly on board with that line of thinking, though. At halftime, the narrative completely flipped; Brady came out firing in the second half. A five-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman, a Brandon Bolden one-yard touchdown run and a six-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, all in the third quarter, made it a game again.
Fans turned their televisions back on. Brady kept going. The Patriots scored 10 more points in the fourth quarter and jumped out to a 31-24 lead. By all accounts, the contest was over and Brady’s gang could breathe. However, Manning wasn’t finished. He drove Denver down the field, and, with 3:06 left in the game, tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. In overtime, New England would eventually kick the game winning field goal.
Manning was steamrolling over the entire league, but Brady stopped him in his tracks. Instead of an easy victory, the Broncos suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of one of the most clutch signal callers in the history of the game. New England salvaged its season with this win and Denver had to take a step back and respect Brady’s greatness, if only for a night.
3. “Clash of the Titans”—Patriots 24, Colts 20 (Nov. 4, 2007)
Neither Peyton Manning nor Tom Brady was extraordinarily dominant in this contest statistically, but stats don’t tell the story of this midseason clash between the AFC’s two best teams at the time. Going into the game, the Colts were 7-0 while the Patriots were 8-0. The two undefeated powerhouses clashed in Indianapolis.
Things were relatively tame until the fourth quarter, when both teams started to recognize the far-reaching implications of this contest. Peyton Manning ran in a touchdown from the goal line, extending his team’s lead to 20-10. Brady answered right away, driving back down the field and finding Welker in the end zone. With the score 20-17, the Colts still leading, both quarterbacks jockeyed for position.
Every elite team has its vulnerable moments. For as good as the 2007 New England Patriots were, a team that would go on to finish with a perfect regular season and almost win the Super Bowl, in this game, they flirted with losing. Manning could have put away the Patriots, dashing their dreams of history and putting his own squad in position to win all 16. He didn’t.
Brady engineered a three-play, 51-yard drive with just under four minutes on the clock. The third play, a 13-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Faulk, sealed things for the Patriots. Indianapolis couldn’t muster much of anything after the score, fumbling in its own territory on the next drive. The only true obstacle in New England’s way of a perfect regular season was Indianapolis. The fact that they won (and won in the fashion that they did) puts this game in the third spot on the list.
2. “2003 AFC Championship Game”—Patriots 24, Colts 14 (Jan. 18, 2004)
Yes, Brady and Manning had actually played against one another before this game. They were aware of one another prior to 2004. However, one can argue that the 2003 AFC Championship Game is where the Brady-Manning rivalry started. Manning had been on top for a few years at this point, but Brady was just beginning his ascent to NFL stardom.
The winner of this game would go on to play the Carolina Panthers, a flawed and beatable team, in the Super Bowl. New England went up 15-0, but Indianapolis was not about to give up on its season because of a few Patriots scores. Manning orchestrated two touchdown drives while the Patriots countered with two field goals.
Up 21-14, the Patriots kicked a field goal and put things just out of reach for their opponent. Manning coudn’t make up the two-score deficit and win what became the first highly important game between these two quarterbacks. With all of the different meetings between them, Brady and Manning can look back on this particular game as the starting point.
In January 2004, two quarterbacks faced off for the first notable time in what was a storied rivalry. This win set Brady up for a Super Bowl win and was his coming out party.
1. “2006 AFC Championship Game”—Colts 38, Patriots 34 (Jan. 21, 2007)
Manning’s victory in the 2006 AFC Championship Game can really be summarized in one word: “finally”. Finally, Manning led his team to the Super Bowl. Finally, Manning put together an impressive comeback in an important game. Finally, Peyton beat Brady. The many different surprises that went down in this game made it an instant classic.
With 9:34 left in the second quarter, all hope seemed lost for Indianapolis. The Patriots were up, 21-3, Asante Samuel had just returned an interception for a touchdown and Manning wasn’t looking too sharp. Then, somehow, he started to look a bit sharper. Manning then settled in and found his groove.
Two Manning touchdowns in the third quarter and a Brady-led touchdown drive to end said quarter set the stage for a wild finish. Going into the fourth quarter, it was anyone’s game. A Colts touchdown tied the score at 28-28. New England kicked a field goal. Indianapolis did the same. New England kicked another field goal. They then led, 34-31.
It’s tough to say exactly how much of a lead is “safe” when it comes to this rivalry. Both quarterbacks have come back from ungodly deficits and managed to win. A three-point lead is anything but safe. Sure enough, as time ran out, Manning calmly operated the Colts offense and called a three-yard touchdown run for Joseph Addai with just over a minute left to play. Indianapolis won, went on to play in Super Bowl XLI and Manning won his first (and only) ring.