FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The folks who market the NFL certainly aren’t stupid.

They know a sure-bet television ratings bonanza when they see it, which is why the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts have played every year since 2003 despite being in different divisions.

Not only are these two of the NFL’s most successful teams over the last decade, they also have two of the league’s marquee players: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

NFL executives know even the most casual football fans know the quarterbacks: Brady, whose good looks and marriage to supermodel Gisele Bundchen have made him a pop culture icon, and Manning, the Gatorade-drinking, cell-phone pitchman. In the ultimate team sport, their man-to-man rivalry is perhaps the best in NFL history.

So hunker down at 4:15 p.m. Sunday to watch the latest installment as the Patriots (7-2) play the Colts (6-3) at Gillette Stadium.

“This is a game that has almost become like a division game because we have played every year since 2003,” said Manning in a conference call Wednesday. “They’ve always been a good team when we play them and it’s always going to be a challenge.”

With Manning and Brady, the teams are always contenders. Their supporting casts always change, yet they always seem to have their teams in the postseason. This year, both teams have dealt with injuries knocking out many impact players.

Their games are great theater. Since 2003 they have played nine games, two in the playoffs. The Colts hold a 5-4 edge, and six of the games have been decided by four points or fewer, including last year’s 35-34 win by the Colts when the Patriots were stopped on a fourth-and-2 at their 28, leading to Manning’s touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 13 seconds left.

“It’s been a great rivalry for a lot of reasons,” said Brady. “We’ve played so many meaningful games against them. I’d say this one is pretty meaningful, too. It’s going to be a great test for us.”

Neither quarterback will put too much into their individual rivalry. Asked if it could be compared to Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, Manning said the two sports were far too different.

“All I can say about Tom, and I feel it’s pretty well documented about what I think about him as a player and all he’s been able to do as a player, he’s just been outstanding,” Manning said. “He’s got better every year.

“I know from talking to our defensive players what kind of challenge it is to get ready for him. It’s always been a real challenge to play against Tom and his teams because, even though you’re worried about the defense, you know you’re going to have to score points because you know he’s going to put points up for their offense.”

Brady feels that same kind of pressure going against Manning.

“You just can’t make a lot of mistakes against this team because they really capitalize,” Brady said, standing at his locker while looking over a swarm of television cameras and digital recorders. “If you give them a short field, turn it over, all of a sudden it’s seven points. You turn it over again and it’s 14 points.

“I’ve watched plenty of Colts games where the game’s over at halftime. So you’ve got to be really conscious of that, protect the ball when we get in the red area get the ball in the end zone, got to go out and make a bunch of big plays.”

The two are as close as they can be. Their relationship began when Brady made his first NFL start, which coincidentally came against Manning and the Colts on Sept. 30, 2001. New England won 44-13 as Manning was intercepted three times.

“You’ll never forget the first time you started a game in the NFL,” said Brady. “I remember meeting Peyton before the game. I was surprised he knew me, as a matter of fact. He said, ‘Hi Tom, I’m Peyton,’ as he was out there warming up, which I thought was pretty cool.”

They still talk to and text each other occasionally. Most important in terms of their careers, they push each other.

“He’s been a great quarterback for a very long time,” said Brady. “Whenever I’m watching film of the opponents that we’re playing, I always watch the Colts game because I want to see how he’s playing.”

Brady won’t, however, spend a whole lot of time watching Manning from the sideline. He’ll be too busy trying to figure out how to beat the Colts’ defense.

“I love watching him play, there’s no doubt about that,” said Brady. “Like I said, there’s a lot of things that he does that I wish I could do, so I’m always trying to evaluate what he’s doing and how he’s doing it. But during the game, I’m pretty much focused on what we’re doing offensively.”

Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, who has been involved in professional football since 1975 when he was a special assistant for the Baltimore Colts, has seen many great players over the years. He smartly sidestepped any questions regarding the Brady-Manning rivalry.

“I’ll leave that up to you experts,” he said, addressing the media.

About a minute later, without prompting, he added: “Look, I have a lot of respect for Peyton Manning. He’s a tremendous quarterback. But there is no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady.”

Let the debate continue.

 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]