In fact, each quarterback has unabashedly spoofed himself--Manning in popular MasterCard commercials in which he turns the tables on adulatory fans, and Brady in a surprisingly deft hosting stint on Saturday Night Live last April. In the show's last skit Brady gets grief from Manning (played by Seth Myers) and Donovan McNabb's mother, Wilma (played by Kenan Thompson), with the Manning character citing his superior statistics as proof that he should have gotten the hosting gig.
This year, as Brady's father, Tom Sr., points out, "The funny thing is, it's a role reversal. Tommy's got all the yards [2,020 after seven games, third in the NFL], and Peyton has his team at the top of the league."
When I met Manning, in 1999, midway through his breakout second season, he was like that guy in the recent TV ad who, in his first job out of college, answers his cellphone in the elevator and hears his derelict buddies howling, "Schmitty!" Though Manning was still turning his underwear inside out to avoid doing laundry, he had already begun to mature professionally. "I've put a lot of thought into being a leader," he said then, citing, among other things, his insistence on having his locker placed amid those of his offensive linemen.
After emerging from fourth-string obscurity to earn his first of two Super Bowl MVP trophies in February 2002, Brady struck me as a man almost tormented by his exponentially growing fame: It was a blast, to be sure, but every trip on Donald Trump's jet and every beefcake photo spread separated him from the team framework that was at the heart of the Patriots' success. "There's a lot of workmanship in Tommy's approach to being a leader," says his older sister Nancy, a Boston pharmaceutical rep who once moonlighted as Tom's personal assistant. "He consciously makes sure not to put himself above the team. The locker room really is where he's most comfortable--it's probably the one place in the world where he does feel like he's one of the guys, and he finds peace in that."
Brady also put his money where his heart is: Last spring, a year after Manning had signed a seven-year, $98 million deal with Indianapolis (including a $34.5 million signing bonus), Brady agreed to a comparatively discounted six-year, $60 million extension (including a $14.5 million bonus) with New England. "What he wants more than anything is to win about eight Super Bowls," Tom Sr. says of his son, "and you can't be winning eight Super Bowls if you're taking 70 percent of the money."
Pay stubs, passer ratings, parades in February--they're all fair game when dissecting the most dynamic duel the NFL has to offer. Choosing one quarterback above the other isn't necessarily the point, so uniquely situated is each player for his particular skills. "I'll give you Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan," says Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Mike Peterson, who played with Manning in Indy. "Take which one you want." Adds Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, "They're two of the very best quarterbacks ever."
"Everybody will probably always compare Tommy to Peyton," Nancy Brady says. "That's the nature of sports; it's where great debates are made." Last month, while attending a Boston Celtics-- New Jersey Nets exhibition game at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., Nancy looked across the aisle and noticed a pair of middle-aged women sitting together. One wore a Brady jersey, the other a Manning replica. "I thought it was adorable," she says.
Come Monday there won't be warm and fuzzy feelings coming from the Gillette Stadium sidelines. Bonded by circumstance and mutual appreciation as they might be, Manning and Brady know that in the games that matter, there can be no ties.