Tom Brady appreciates more than ever his high-profile rivalry with Peyton Manning as the two modern marvels face off again Sunday in the twilight of their storied careers.
They seem to be getting better with age, and the 37-year-old New England Patriot is looking forward to another matchup with his 38-year-old Denver Broncos counterpart.
“Five, six years ago you don’t think about those things,” Brady said Monday in a radio interview with WEEI in Boston. “But as you mature a little bit and realize this could always be the last one, then you do. It’s pretty special.
“(Manning has) been one of the greatest players to ever play. I’ve been fortunate to share a field with one of the best players that has ever played the game. And every time we play a Peyton Manning-led team, it comes down to the wire. Everything is usually at stake.”
Since a 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4, the Patriots (6-2) have been on a roll with four straight wins, including a 51-23 blowout of the Chicago Bears in Week 8.
“We brought in some great players to our offense over the last few years, and we are trying to do the best we can do,” Brady said. “And other teams are doing that, too.”
The Broncos (6-1) are rolling, too, and the appreciation of the matchup spills into the Denver locker room. Cornerback Aqib Talib, who signed with the Broncos as a free agent after a season-plus with the Patriots, encouraged players to savor their part in the AFC showdown.
“I grew up watching it,” Talib said of Brady-Manning. “I grew up catching it on TV any time I could. Got to live in it a couple times. And then on Sunday, I get a chance to see it again. So it’s definitely always a good matchup with those two guys. You definitely get your money’s worth.”
Manning, who two games ago passed Brett Favre to gain the top spot on the NFL’s all-time passing touchdown list, has plenty of weapons again this season. In his past 23 games for the Broncos, Manning has 77 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions.
“What can you say more about what Peyton Manning has been able to accomplish? It’s been the greatest season-and-a-half stretch in the history of the NFL,” Brady said. “Nobody has really matched what he has been able to do, what that offense has been able to do most importantly. When we play this weekend, we are going to have to try to match it because that is what it is going to take. They have a great team, and we are going to have to be at our best.”
Denver is 1-1 on the road, losing 26-20 at Seattle and beating the 1-7 Jets at MetLife Stadium. Cornerback Chris Harris, one of the NFL’s leaders in man-coverage completion percentage against, said there is one factor that makes Gillette Stadium a unique stop for visitors.
“Brady,” Harris said. “He just turns his game up another level at home. And so we’ve got to try to take our game up another level on the road. It’s always harder. We came out and we started out fast on them last year. If we can start out fast again and just maintain that the whole game, that’d be good for us.”
The Patriots faced the Broncos twice last season, winning in an epic comeback during the regular season and losing in the AFC title game.
In the last four games, Brady has thrown for 14 touchdowns and no interceptions. He topped 100 for a passer rating in all four games. New England is averaged 39.5 points a game in that span, including three over 37 points. And this is coming after averaging only 20 points a game over the first four weeks, and reaching 30 points just once.
In Sunday’s big win Brady, was ridiculously efficient. His top three receiving targets combined to catch all 27 passes thrown their way. In completing 30 of 35 passes, Brady fell victim to three clear drops that would have made his 354-yard, five-touchdown performance even that more eye-opening.
Not surprisingly, the New England offensive outburst coincided with tight end Rob Gronkowski rounding into form returning from the torn ACL he suffered last December. Gronk, as his super hero-like on-field persona is known, had nine catches for 149 yards and three touchdowns against Chicago, including a tackle-breaking 46-yard rumble on his final play of the day in the third quarter.
Gronkowski left the game due to dehydration, the only thing that’s slowed him of late. Big No. 87 has notched a reception of at least 24 yards or longer in four straight games, and topped 94 yards receiving or better in three of those four contests.
“That’s the way he’s been since he got to our team, fortunately for us,” Brady said of his playmaking tight end. “He’s a tough matchup. He’s big, fast, strong and when he plays like beast mode, he’s tough to stop.”
While Brady and Gronkowski are rounding into their traditional roles pacing the Patriots offense, they’re not the only weapons getting it done in the passing game.
Offseason free agent addition Brandon LaFell has seen his role growing dramatically. Sunday afternoon that included a game-high 11 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown. He was Brady’s first target on each of the game’s first three drives for New England. LaFell topped 97 yards or better in three of the last five games, rounding into the complementary role that the Patriots probably envisioned when they signed the former Panther this spring.