It doesn't get any bigger than Brady vs. Manning.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have engaged in a number of classic matchups over the course of their record-setting careers, but never before have the Denver Broncos been involved in one of those battles.
Manning's new club gets a front seat for the latest installment in this quarterback duel on Sunday when the Patriots host the Broncos in a battle of 2-2 clubs coming off needed wins.
The two superstars have met 12 times previously with Brady holding an 8-4 advantage.
Tom Terrific and Co. bested Peyton and the Indianapolis Colts during the AFC playoffs en route to two of their Super Bowl titles (XXXVIII and XXXIX), first in the AFC Championship Game in 2003, then a year later in a divisional matchup, both played in Foxboro.
Manning exacted a bit of revenge during the Colts' Super Bowl XLI run, passing for 349 yards and rallying his team back from an 18-point deficit to win the 2006 AFC Championship Game, 38-34, in Indianapolis.
"It seems like it has always come down to the end against [him]," Brady said on Wednesday. "When he was playing for the Colts, it was always close games."
After missing all of last season due to multiple neck surgeries, Manning was let go by the Colts and signed as a free agent with the Broncos. He had a solid debut with Denver, throwing a pair of touchdown passes in a Week 1 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers before dropping back-to-back games to the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans.
Manning and the Broncos rebounded this past weekend in a win over the Oakland Raiders, with the veteran throwing for 338 yards on an efficient 30-of-38 passing. He also connected on a season-high three TD passes and was not intercepted for the third time in his four games
"The greatest attribute of Peyton Manning is his ability to really understand what defenses are doing to him," NFL Network analyst and former NFL MVP Kurt Warner said. "He's able to react before the snap. That's what is unique about him. A lot of guys can react after the snap, but very few can have that understanding before the snap."
Brady, meanwhile, threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns in the Patriots' 52-28 comeback win at Buffalo, extending his streak of consecutive games with a TD pass to 36 games -- tied for the third-longest in NFL history.
The Pats also became just the second team ever with a 300-yard passer, two 100-yard rushers (Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley) and two 100-yard receivers (Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski) in the same game and the first team since the 1950 New York Giants to score at least 45 second-half points in a game in which it trailed at halftime.
"(Brady) plays the game hard with knowledge and passion," former Dolphins Hall of Famer Dan Marino said. "He is a guy that is very competitive, makes those around him better and has won."
When Manning, the only four-time MVP in history, and the Broncos visit Foxboro on Sunday, it will mark just the second time in NFL history that two starting quarterbacks with 125-plus career regular-season wins meet in a game. Brady, a two-time MVP, has a gaudy winning percentage of .773 as a starter (126-37) and Manning is behind only Brett Favre, Elway and Marino with 143 victories as a starting quarterback.
The only other matchup featuring two such quarterbacks was Marino vs. John Elway of the Broncos back on Dec. 21, 1998.
"You are talking about greatness on the field with two guys that have done things that nobody else has ever done at the position," NFL Network analyst and former NFL head coach Steve Mariucci said.
"They both have had tremendous impact by playing the quarterback position at such a high level for so many years," added Marino, who is now an analyst with CBS Sports. "They really brought the position to new levels."
Each superstar fuels the other but they are now in different stages of their careers.
Brady remains at the top of his profession -- an unquestioned superstar. Manning, on the other hand, faces an uncertain future. His arm has looked pedestrian at times, more R.A. Dickey than Nolan Ryan, and the aftereffects of the neck surgeries are ever present in the doubters' minds. He's also 36 and the one game everyone loses in the end is the fight against Father Time.
Never underestimate Manning's intangibles, however.
"I think he's someone that certainly I've always looked up to and admired and really respected the way he plays the position, the way he works, the way he leads," Brady said when discussing Manning.
Denver leads 25-17 in the all-time series and has won 15 of the last 20. The Patriots, however, won both of their meetings with the Broncos last season, a 41-23 road win on Dec. 18 prior to routing Denver at home 45-10 in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
While all eyes will be on Manning and Brady, let's remember they don't play against each other. It will be Denver's defense trying to shut down the explosive Pats offense which now has a more consistent running game to compliment its explosive passing game.
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey is as cagey as they come. His 32 interceptions rank fifth in the NFL since he joined the Broncos in 2004 and he played in his 11th Pro Bowl in 2011, tying for the third-most in NFL history. Bailey's running mate, Tracy Porter, is also a playmaker, totaling three career game- sealing interceptions returned for touchdowns with all three of those plays occurring with less than 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter and his team leading by one score or less.
Whether they, along with safeties Mike Adams and Rahim Moore, can hold up against the law firm of Brady, Welker and Gronkowski should determine whether the Broncos can stay in this game.
Otherwise it becomes a track meet and New England's back seven on defense, which features stud linebacker Jerod Mayo as well as solid if unspectacular corners in Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington is much better equipped to stop Manning than anything the Raiders threw at him last week.
Brady is just 2-5 against the Broncos in the regular season and 1-1 against Denver in the postseason following a 2005 AFC Divisional playoff loss in Denver and last season's AFC Divisional victory at Gillette Stadium. The Broncos are the only team that Brady has a losing record against.
Meanwhile, when facing Manning with the Colts, Brady has 22 TDs compared to 12 interceptions but has thrown for over 200 yards in just two of the meetings
Just when you think the Brady Bunch in New England might be poised for cancellation, "Tom Terrific" pulls out the equivalent of a 35 rating and a 25 share in Buffalo. Order has been restored in the AFC and the big bad bully on the block is back.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 34, Broncos 24