Even if, by Peyton Manning's assessment, the latest installment of his great rivalry with Tom Brady "stunk," it remains something to treasure.

Yes, Brady's Patriots routed Manning's Broncos 43-21 at Gillette Stadium, a personal house of horrors for the record-setting Manning. And, sure, there have been much better games involving their teams.

What both of them — and all football fans — need to recognize is that with Manning at 38 and Brady at 37, these matchups won't occur many more times. So if their teams find their way into a playoff meeting in January, it will deserve the same kind of hype this one got.

Let's just hope it's more competitive.

What was on display Sunday was Brady at his best, helped by a rapidly improving receiving corps and offensive line, terrific special teams and the usual befuddling defensive schemes that Manning can't seem to conquer in Foxborough. Most telling as he fell to 2-7 in the venue — and 5-11 overall against Brady — was how often the Broncos had to rush to get the snap off before the play clock expired.

Manning, of course, is a master of histrionics at the line of scrimmage. But in this game, he seemed more like the one confused than the one confusing the defense.

That happens a lot against New England.

"I guess I'm not smart enough to draw that many connections," said Manning, perhaps the smartest quarterback to play the game. "I kind of take them one year at a time. (There are) different players and we didn't on offense do the things we talked about doing. That starts with me; I've got to play better. That's pretty plain and simple. When the quarterback stinks, usually you're not going to win too many games."

Manning didn't come close to Brady's performance Sunday, but he didn't stink. He and his team, whose defense was ranked fourth in the NFL heading into the matchup, played their worst game of the year, though.

That makes another potential Manning-Brady encounter even more intriguing. That it would have to come in the playoffs if it happens this season is something to cherish.

Brady, who threw for four touchdowns and had open receivers all over the field in the final three periods, seems to expect at least one more head-to-head encounter. And after the Broncos beat the Patriots to get to the Super Bowl last winter, Brady awaits such a rematch.

He seems amused by the prospect.

"I think it's just a topic for people to talk about," Brady said. "It's hard to compare anybody; that's how I always feel. I've been lucky enough to play here. He's had an incredible career. Football has changed since I got in the league.

"He's always set a really high bar for how to play. I've tried to do the same through my efforts with my team. You know, the only thing I really care about is the respect of my teammates and trying to go out there every day and earn it. There are a lot of things that I can't control ... You've just got to try to figure out the things you can control and work hard at them and earn it every day.

"There's nothing that's given to you in this league. Peyton understands that. I've known him long enough. Like I said, that team is going to have a great record at the end of the year."

With the way New England (7-2) is playing, with five straight victories in which Brady has thrown for 18 TDs and one interception, his Patriots might be the team to fear most. Then again, the Broncos overall are the more talented club and are just as capable of getting on a roll.

There's always the chance that another division leader, perhaps Indianapolis or one of the AFC Central teams, also gets hot; Pittsburgh is that team now.

In the end, though, it's difficult to imagine that Manning-Brady XVII isn't coming up.

"I think it doesn't matter who you were playing. If I played the way I did today and we got beat like we did today I'd like to think I would be just as disappointed," Manning said after Sunday's debacle. "So I don't really feel it's more because it's one particular team, I guess. It's your job to execute and perform and that's what I expect to do myself, and when I don't I'm disappointed.

"So I'm going to do my job better no matter who we're playing."

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