FOXBOROUGH -- With precision passing, Joe Montana directed the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl titles. Dan Marino used his amazing arm to amass more than 61,000 passing yards in an unforgettable career with the Miami Dolphins.
In the argument about who was better, proponents of Montana said he raised the bar for quarterbacks, making the position more about winning titles than individual honors. Marino played in just one Super Bowl but his entertainment value and individual achievements were off the charts.
Today's versions of Montana and Marino square off Thursday night at Gillette Stadium, with Tom Brady playing the role of Montana (Bill Walsh said as much prior to last year's Super Bowl) and Peyton Manning, the most statistically superior quarterback in the game right now, playing the role of Marino.
Brady's two Super Bowl MVP awards give him the edge in the sports argument over who's better. But Manning, at 28, certainly has a chance to do better than Marino, and perhaps could follow the career path of John Elway, who went out with back-to-back Super Bowl titles after losing in his first three championship game appearances.
To be fair, Manning hasn't had the benefit of a top defense the way Brady has. Though Colts coach Tony Dungy disputes the perception of some that Manning is under pressure to win the game virtually on his own, the reality is the Colts defense hasn't been that good, and it is a young unit this year.
Manning's philosophy on the topic is simple: "All I've tried to do every time I get the ball is to do my job at a high level. I've kind of learned, I guess, from Tom Moore, my coordinator for seven years. He says our job is to score more points than them, just worry about your side of the ball. That's sort of how I've played in the last seven years -- trying to score every time I get the ball."
Which is why throwing four interceptions against the Patriots in last year's AFC Championship was so unlike the rest of his 2003 season, in which he had 29 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions in 16 regular-season games.
The Patriots defense threw him off his game; the Colts defense could not do the same to Brady.
Manning said you simply have to put things like that behind you.
"Only one team is going to be totally happy and that's the team that wins the championship," he said. "It's frustrating and disappointing to lose that game, but it's cost a lot of teams in the past in that they haven't been able to put the previous season behind them."
Which brings up the next question: Would Manning excel in the Patriots' system, or Brady in the Colts' system? We know that Manning can throw the deep ball as well as anyone, much like Marino. Do we underestimate Brady's ability to throw it long? He has answered some of those questions the last couple of seasons, but could he do it as regularly as Manning?
"What would happen if [Manning] were in a different system?" pondered Bill Belichick yesterday. "I don't know. I think he would still be OK. Whether it would be as good as the one he is in or not as good, who knows?
"I am sure a part of his performance certainly comes from the fact that they have been doing the same thing for a long number of years with a lot of the same players. You can't help but build up continuity and consistency when it is the same people year after year, game after game. There is no doubt that helps."
Brady probably does more TV ads than Manning, but Manning has more zeroes on his contract; he signed a deal at the start of the year that included a record $34 million signing bonus, which eclipsed Brady's entire five-year deal ($30 million). There's always the feeling that eventually Brady's negotiators will ask for something similar. Why wouldn't they? Of course, another question is would the Patriots ever come close to that type of signing bonus? The answer is probably no.
"I was appreciative of Bill Polian and Jim Irsay signing me to that contract," said Manning. "This is where I wanted to be. I wanted to finish my career as a Colt. I always felt uncomfortable about the contract and the numbers. One of the ideas behind it was to make it salary cap-friendly. I feel we did that. I feel we have personnel to be a good team and to continue to be a good team."
Manning and Brady are friends off the field -- part of the "quarterback fraternity" -- and they often answer questions about each other, like the one about who's better.
"His arm is a lot better than what people give him credit for," said Manning. "He's got a sneaky strong arm. He throws the long ball well. The best thing he does is he uses the players around him. He's got a great defense, great playmaking receivers. He plays smart. He's a talented guy, very cool under pressure."
Brady isn't about to offer any comparisons, just compliments.
"He throws the ball extremely well," said Brady. "He threw for 4,000 yards. He started a whole bunch of games in a row. There are a lot of great qualities that he has. There are a lot of things that I look at and I say it is pretty remarkable for a quarterback to start however many games -- 90 games or something like that [actually, 96]."
Brady or Manning? Thursday night won't decide anything. Brady has the rings, but Manning is awfully exciting to watch.
Just like Montana and Marino.