FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning did their best to downplay their rivalry this week.

As Brady’s 7-3 New England Patriots and Manning’s 9-1 Denver Broncos prepare to play each other Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, the Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks said they were more focused on preparing for the opposing defenses than looking back at their roles in past games.

“It’s just hard to think about too much in the past with kind of just what’s going on now,” said Manning.

“We’re in the middle of an extremely tough conference stretch coming off a physical game, going to play New England, who’s always been outstanding at home, and I just know that every game is just so critical in the conference right now, so it’s hard to think about anything else really besides that.”

Everyone else knows better.

NBC has been promoting the game as Brady vs. Manning XIV. And we all know that Roman numerals magnify a game’s significance.

Sports Illustrated devoted seven pages of its current issue to the matchup, even using a graphic that showed their hair styles through the years.

Make no mistake, this is a significant event. It will be the first game in NFL history in which both starting quarterbacks are at least 90 games over .500 in the regular season. Brady is 143-42 (plus-101) and Manning 163-71 (plus-92).

“What’s remarkable is that these two guys have been able to keep their teams on top, almost no matter what,’’ said Cris Collinsworth, the NBC analyst, in an NFL release. “All they do is keep winning. That’s how great they are.”

But beyond that, even the most casual fan knows who Brady and Manning are, and that heightens the attraction.

Manning, who has one Super Bowl ring, is one of the most sought-after pitchmen in the NFL, his face and dry wit helping sell Papa John’s pizza, DirectTV, Sprint, MasterCard and Buick, among others. Brady, who has three Super Bowl rings, is married to a supermodel. Both have hosted “Saturday Night Live.”

“Two tremendous quarterbacks,” said Jack Del Rio, the Broncos’ interim head coach while John Fox recovers from heart surgery. “Gifted, been part of some great matchups. Both have won the big game, played in several against each other with the opportunity to go (to the Super Bowl) and all that. It’s one where TV obviously wants to have it on. It’s a primetime matchup and it’s great theater.

“But,” he added, echoing a theme the quarterbacks stressed, “it really comes down to two football teams. Whichever football team executes the best is going to win.”

For the most part, Brady’s Patriots have executed the best.

Brady has won nine of the previous 13 games between the two, including the first start of his career, a 44-13 decision at old Foxboro Stadium on Sept. 30, 2001. Manning, who was with the Indianapolis Colts for all but one of these matchups, has won four of the last seven. But Brady has won the last two, including last year’s game against Manning and the Broncos in Foxborough, 31-21.

The Patriots have averaged 29.7 points in those 13 games, Manning’s teams have averaged 24.2.

“We’ve had some great games against them when he was with the Colts, and certainly last year,” said Brady. “We’ve had some pretty good teams that we’ve played with. The games are always enjoyable. It’s always tough competition.

“You just know that with a great player like (Manning) on the other side of the ball, there’s a very slim margin of error. They’re never out of it. We’re really never out of it. It’s just a matter of who makes the plays at the end.”

Most times these two quarterbacks make those plays.

Manning has an NFL record 50 come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter or overtime. Brady has 38.

“It’s great, any time you get two quarterbacks who are arguably two of the best to play all-time, that’s a great matchup,” said Steve Gregory, the Patriots’ safety. “Obviously it’s going to create some hype.”

Gregory is simply glad to be part of the rivalry.

“It’s great to play on a team with Tom,” he said. “He’s the ultimate competitor and leader, somebody who’s gained a lot of respect over the course of his career. Same with Peyton.

“Those are two of the most respected guys in the league.”

That’s perhaps because of what they mean to their teams. The Patriots, under Brady, have been one of the NFL’s elite franchises, even as the roster around him changes year to year. While his passing statistics are down this year because of a new group of receivers, including three rookies, Brady has New England sitting in first place in the AFC East.

Manning made a smooth transition to Denver last year after establishing his legacy in Indianapolis.

“Both of these quarterbacks are super players,” said Del Rio. “They are great competitors. They have that drive not only to excel individually, but to ensure that their team and their teammates around them, that they are all doing their part. That’s what makes them special.”

That’s what makes these games special.

After Brady concluded his press conference last Wednesday and returned to the Patriots’ locker room, he stopped to answer one more question: “What makes playing against Peyton so special?”

“Well, it makes you a better player,” he said. “You also feel like you don’t know how many more of these there are going to be.”

Manning is 37, Brady is 36. Their careers are closer to the finish than the beginning, though no one can say how many more years that will be.

“For me, I want to play as long as I possibly can,” said Brady. “I don’t know what Peyton’s plans are. I’ve never really talked about that with him.

“It’ll be a sad day when he does retire because he’s been an incredible player and representative to this league.”

Their careers will forever be linked, on the field and in the record books.

Brady has the best wining percentage in NFL history (.773) and Manning is fourth (.697). Manning is second all-time in wins (163), Brady fifth (143). Manning is second in career touchdown passes (470), Brady fifth (348). Manning has the most 10-plus wins season in NFL history (12), Brady is tied for second (10).

And while Brady said his focus is on guys like Von Miller and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, he admits that he doesn’t mind seeing Manning either.

“I’d like to play him every year,” said Brady.

For now, we have Sunday.

Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:

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