THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Their arms are linked

Brady, Manning are best of their era

By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / November 12, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - On Sept. 30, 2001, Peyton Manning took the Foxboro Stadium field hours before the Colts played the Patriots. He wanted to get a feel for his throws and for the turf, as he does before every game. He glanced across the field and noticed a callow quarterback whom he had never met. Manning ambled across the 50-yard line and approached Tom Brady.

Manning was in his fourth season, Brady his second. Manning was already a star. Brady was about to make his first NFL start.

Manning extended his palm and said, “Hey. Peyton Manning.’’

Brady shook Manning’s hand and thought to himself, “No kidding.’’

In the years since their first meeting - the Patriots won that game, 44-13 - Manning and Brady have ascended to the apex of the NFL while cultivating a unique relationship. They are the leaders of the winningest teams of the decade, the two best football players on Earth, in constant competition for Super Bowl titles, MVP awards, who’s the best “Saturday Night Live’’ host, and most anything else you want to name. They’re both good enough to set records during games, and they’re both smooth enough to sell you expensive watches or Oreos during the commercials. They’re also friends.

On Sunday night, Brady and Manning will face each other for the 10th time, including playoffs, since Brady began his tenure as the Patriots’ starting quarterback. They will not once occupy the field at the same time, but the story line no doubt will focus on the two quarterbacks who not only are the best players of their era, but who help define it.

“I’m always keeping up on Peyton,’’ Brady said. “We talk from time to time. I have a lot of respect for him as a player and the kind of role model that he is, and for the way he carries himself, and for the way he leads his team, and for the way he’s a representative for the league. All those things.’’

Brady and Manning, to different degrees, also share the experience of returning after a knee injury. When Brady developed a staph infection during the rehab from his major knee surgery, he called Manning, who had endured the same affliction after his own, less-extensive knee injury.

“That is a true story,’’ Brady said. “I called him and I said, ‘Tell me about your knee and what you went through.’ He provided a little bit of insight. He was very encouraging. Always has been. He’s just that kind of a guy. He’s a very classy guy.’’

Brady has never played in the Colts’ new Lucas Oil Stadium, but he already knows it’s not as loud as the old RCA Dome. “Peyton told me,’’ Brady said. When Manning and Brady see each other in the offseason, they talk football. They dish on games they played, players and teams around the league. They discuss strategy. They compare how they prepare.

“It kind of runs the gamut,’’ Brady said. “He’s got great knowledge of the game. He really studies it and understands it and understands what he does well and what his team does well.’’

“What Tom has done in this decade, it’s hard to do it justice,’’ Manning said. “He’s been unbelievably consistent and just seems to get better year after year. He’s had multiple players around him, he’s had some coaching changes. Even though he said he may have had the same system, he’s had some offensive coordinator changes, he’s had different guys to throw it to, yet he’s remained unbelievably consistent and accurate throughout.’’

Playing a team sport, they have each other to measure individual accolades. Manning set the NFL record for touchdown passes at 49 in 2004. Brady threw 50 in 2007. Manning was seen as shaky in big moments until he finally toppled Brady and the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship game.

In the nine games in which they have faced one another, Brady is 6-3, but all of Manning’s wins have come in the past four meetings. Of course, Manning and Brady never actually play against each other, only the opposing defense.

“The matchups for the quarterbacks, that’s probably more for everybody else than it is for us,’’ Brady said. “I’m more interested in those defensive guys.’’

That doesn’t stop one of the most delicious, unsolvable debates in sports: Brady or Manning? Manning or Brady? There is no right answer, and it’s a difficult question even for the most opinionated football minds.

“I feel like Peyton Manning is the best pure quarterback in the NFL,’’ said retired Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, now an analyst for NBC. “Peyton just puts the ball in places no one else does.’’

After he praised Manning, Harrison changed course. “Tom Brady is my quarterback when there’s a minute left, and we’re down 4 points and we need a touchdown,’’ he said.

Brady dodged the hype about his rivalry with Manning. But he acknowledged that he’ll be paying close attention Sunday when Manning, the quarterback history will likely link him with more than any other, takes the field.

“I’m always watching,’’ Brady said.

And everyone else will be, too.

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com.

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