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Drew Brees-Peyton Manning V, Sunday night in Denver ... certainly a place neither man ever thought they'd meet for maybe the last time of professional careers likely to end, for both, in Canton.
The personal series is tied at two. Manning beat Brees the Charger in 2004, and then Brees walked into the RCA Dome in his third-to-last game as a Charger, when the Colts were 13-0 in 2005 ... and beat the mistake-prone Manning 26-17. The Colts waxed the defenseless Saints 41-10 on opening day 2007. And, of course, their last meeting: the Super Bowl three seasons ago. Saints up by seven, fourth quarter, Colts driving inexorably to tie, Manning throws and Tracy Porter steps in front of Reggie Wayne for the pick heard round the world. Super Bowl MVP Brees was 32-of-39 that day.
(Porter, the hero of that Super Bowl, plays for the Broncos now, as Champ Bailey's partner at cornerback. He's been sidelined recently after suffering some seizures, so the Broncos aren't sure if he'll play Sunday night.)
Back to the headliners Sunday night, Manning and Brees are friends, and Brees has become a good friend of the third Manning brother, Cooper, in New Orleans. In fact, when the Saints had a bye on Wild Card weekend of the 2006 playoffs, Brees watched the Giants-Bucs playoff game at Cooper Manning's house in New Orleans.
That Brees and Peyton will meet for perhaps the last time is a matter of schedule (because AFC teams meet NFC teams once every four years) and age (Brees is 33 and Manning 36). So this is not only for playoff relevance -- the Saints are trying to battle back in the NFC playoff race at 2-4, winners of two in a row, and the Broncos, 3-3 and coming off their bye -- but it's for the personal championship in the best-of-five playoff series between two great Super Bowl winners.
What I love about this game is the fact that both quarterbacks are playing so well. Brees had 317 yards passing and three touchdowns last week at Tampa Bay -- by halftime. And Manning, trailing 24-0 at the half of the Week 6 Monday-nighter at San Diego, had a near-perfect second half as the Broncos came back to win, 35-24.
Check out how well Manning has played in the past month:
I talked to Manning this week for a midseason NFL story in next week's Sports Illustrated, and the comeback at San Diego was still fresh in his mind, the kind of memory he wants to hold on to after he retires. He told me the game reminded him of a 2003 game in Tampa, when the Colts trailed by 21 with 5:09 to play and came back to win 38-35 in one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history (obviously). "Both games,'' he told me, "I got messages from friends during the game -- a voice mail in '03, a text message this time -- with the same thing. You know, 'Bounce back next week, hang in there, you're fine,' you know, all the clichés you can think of. This friend of mine sent the text at halftime of the San Diego game. He went to bed thinking, well, this is a lost cause. And you know, you appreciate things like that with the support. But it's funny we won both of those games.
"And this reminded me of that last game because of the locker room and the plane ride. Same kind of joy each time. Our locker room in San Diego, it was so great because we're so tight as a team. After the Bucs game, our plane ride home, everyone had sort of a permanent smile on his face. Same thing here. On this plane ride, everyone's kidding [wide receiver Eric Decker] because of his trip [Decker tripped over nothing in the first half in the open field]. And everyone, including Decker, had that same permanent smile.
"On the plane flight home, [coach] John Fox came back to the back of the plane to enjoy it with us. You know, you've got a game coming up that you've got to prepare for, but one thing I like about John is he embraces the moment and we enjoy the moments like that. It's important to enjoy the moment.''
I asked Manning about his health. A reasonable person might think: You're on pace to throw for more yards than you ever have, so you must be pretty close to 100 percent, if you're not there.
"That's how it might look like to someone on the outside,'' he said. "Some things are harder than they used to be. The game is harder. The whole goal was try to get better every week, even if only a little bit better every week. And I knew all along the nerve would take a long time [to heal], and you couldn't rush it. It'll be a tad better in two weeks, then a tad better two weeks after that. On game day, I get a little juice and feel pretty good. All I'm saying is, I still have strength to recover and rehab to do. But like Bill Parcells said to me in the off-season, talking about a baseball pitcher, 'Can you still get 'em out?' ''
He still can, obviously. And he'll be facing a second Sunday night that should allow his renaissance to continue.
Well, who saw 37-16, Tampa, coming? Not me. But the one thing that is patently obvious about the way the Bucs play is the emphasis on the run. Greg Schiano is using Doug Martin the way he used Ray Rice at Rutgers. Using a 53 percent-47 percent run-pass ratio, the Bucs ran Martin 29 times and passed to him six times (completing three, including a 64-yard touchdown catch-and-run). Schiano is defying the rest of the league -- I have a feeling that's going to be a recurring theme -- by running so much with Martin, but why wouldn't he? If he's going to have a quarterback completing 50-something percent of his throws, which Josh Freeman has in each of his last three games, why not move the chains the way your grandfather did?