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What We Learned From Patriots Vs. Colts Is Bigger Than Just The Game

Reflecting on the impact of the Manning-era Colts on the legacy of the Brady-era Patriots.

FOXBORO MA - NOVERMBER 21:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots shakes hands with Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts after their game at Gillette Stadium on November 21 2010 in Foxboro Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
FOXBORO MA - NOVERMBER 21: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots shakes hands with Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts after their game at Gillette Stadium on November 21 2010 in Foxboro Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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After the Colts loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium this past Sunday afternoon, Peyton Manning had this to say to Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe:

"These Patriots fans, who obviously while I'm playing through the years, like good fans, they make it tough on the opposing quarterback. But they were sincere about, ‘Hey, I hope you get back. We miss seeing you out there. Sorry you're not playing this game.' So it was classy. I was real appreciative...This is such an intense rivalry," he said. "Your own fans are going to tell you they miss seeing you out there and get back soon, but when kind of your biggest rival does it, I don't think they'd be saying it if they didn't mean it."

If that is not a poignant representation of the effect that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have had on NFL fans, and the respect that they have earned as worth adversaries, then I don't know what is.

As a passionate fan, there is nothing more satisfying than to have a rival. Every important cultural function or interest is measured largely by its polarity. The human brain places greater significance on the ideals, places, people etc. that are associated as opposite to something that it can hate; or something that it can view as antagonistic to one's own beliefs and appeals. We inherently attach greater value to something when it has an adversary, be it real or imaginary or somewhere in between: Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, yin and yang, war and peace, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Coke and Pepsi, LA and NYC.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

Everyone has their pick in the debate of ‘Brady or Manning'. The deliberation has extended far beyond the fan bases of Boston and Indianapolis and extends into the overall American sports psyche. It's funny how the adversary can often be the one place or person with which you have the most in common, or by which you have been influenced. One name can hardly ever be uttered without the mention of the other, and vice versa, and when people roam the halls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in twenty years, there will be men and women telling their kids about the greatest quarterback rivalry there ever was.

Natives of Indiana will speak glowingly of all the records Peyton broke, how many times he diced apart a secondary throwing deep to Marvin Harrison and over the middle to Dallas Clark, and how glorious it was when he led them back from an 18 point deficit after the first half of the 2006 AFC Championship game to go to the Super Bowl.

New Englanders will tell stories of the 6th round pick that took over for Drew Bledsoe-the Chosen One, and won the Pats their first Super Bowl. Then won them their 2nd and 3rd as well. Then went undefeated and threw 50 touchdowns to Randy Moss. They will also recall with a shudder the "4th and 2" game; the reminder to all of Brady Nation that when Peyton Manning was on the field, there was no such thing as a sure thing.

Their Dueling Legacies

Brady's legacy is a rich one already: three time Super Bowl champion, four-time AFC Champion, two-time Super Bowl MVP, two-time NFL MVP and two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year. His story is endearing and inspiring, and he is perhaps the greatest underdog the sport has ever seen.

We've all heard the story, but does it ever get old? He was an afterthought in the 2000 NFL draft despite two excellent years starting for Michigan, including the type of game that would eventually come to define him; an overtime win over Alabama in the Orange Bowl in which he threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns. He came to New England to back-up the golden child Bledsoe, who was then considered to have saved the Patriot franchise, bringing them out of obscurity and giving them something to brag about. When Bledsoe went down after a big hit in their second game of the 2001 season, Brady stepped in as the starter in Week 3. Two games later, the Patriots were down 26-16 in the fourth quarter against the Chargers when he led his team on two scoring drives to force overtime, in which he drove again to set up the winning field goal.

The Patriots won the Super Bowl that year, and in his second year in the league Tom Brady was named Super Bowl MVP.

As underrated as Brady was, that's how celebrated Manning was. He was the first pick in the draft after an illustrious and highly acclaimed four years at the University of Tennessee. He was NFL royalty, as his father was a two-time Pro Bowler and played the quarterback position in the league for thirteen seasons. In fact, he had been elected to the Pro Bowl twice and named AFC Player of the Year before Brady had even started a game in the NFL. Manning has since racked up four NFL MVP Awards, he has a Super Bowl title, two-time AFC Champion and an incredible 11-time Pro Bowler.

Their Combined Legacy

Brady and Manning have battled twelve times, three times in the playoffs. Twice, Brady and the Patriots had to get by Manning and the Colts on their path to win the Super Bowl. In his only Super Bowl victory, Manning had to do it by beating New England.

It seems almost divine intervention that these two have played in the same era. As we look over the past twelve seasons of football, it is obvious that they have transformed the position itself. They redefined how quarterbacks are evaluated and judged, and concurrently set themselves as the standard by which those conclusions are made. As incredible and outstanding as their individual achievements are, their combined effect on each other and on the game is even more impressive.

They each have legacies exclusive to themselves, and their bodies of work stand out because of what they have done day in and out for the span of their careers. In fact, what makes Brady and Manning such great players and competitors is that unlike the rest of the world they don't measure themselves by each other; they don't even measure themselves at all. They are the ultimate sportsmen; men who have never achieved enough greatness, and who do not count the other's failures as contemporaneous to their own success.

It's for that reason that they may be the greatest individual rivals in modern sports, along with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Similar to their 1980's basketball counterparts, they respect each other almost as much as they respect the game itself. They have become friends and mentors to each other off of the field, and they each have a sense that perhaps the whole journey would have been a little bit less meaningful without the other one there.

There is nothing else like that in sports right now. Yesterday as Peyton Manning walked off the field, no uniform and wearing a cap rather than the signature red blotch from his helmet, New England fans realized with a mix of sadness and nostalgia something very important and rare. They realized that in sports you are only as good as your greatest rival; and that's why Brady and Manning are two of the best.