THE CLIP ran all
week, in slow motion and high definition, prompting a cycle of anguish in New
England and a twisted sense of optimism everywhere else. But the rival who
might have the most to gain from what the footage showed could not bring
himself to watch it. ¶ For all the video that Peyton Manning pores over each
week, he does not watch many highlight shows; he's more interested in the
nuances of the game than the theatrics. But this particular highlight, of
Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard's hit on Patriots quarterback Tom
Brady's left knee, was practically unavoidable—shown at the top and bottom of
every hour, and at countless intervals in between. Each time Manning heard a
teaser for the clip, he turned away from the tube. "I couldn't look,"
he said with a wince last week. "I'm sick about what happened."
would have been a lot more straightforward had Brady never come along. He
probably would have won another Super Bowl or two. He might have built a
dynasty in Indianapolis. There would certainly be no debate about the best
quarterback of this era. But now that Brady is gone for the season, replaced by
Matt Cassel after tearing his medial collateral and anterior cruciate
ligaments, Manning finds himself like Magic without Bird, missing the one
player against whom he has been constantly measured.
By halftime on
Sunday in Minneapolis it seemed that the NFL had lost not one of its marquee
quarterbacks, but two. Manning, skittish for the second game in a row, had
passed for only 86 yards. The Colts were down 9--0 to the Vikings at the
Metrodome and were headed toward an 0--2 start for the first time in a decade.
Something had to be wrong with Manning. Was his achy left knee throwing off his
game, his leaky offensive line leaving him exposed, his dormant running game
failing to provide support? Or was it a hint of self-doubt in the wake of the
injury to his great rival?
All of it
bothered Manning, but none of it broke him. Just when the AFC landscape was
about to shift permanently, he willed it back into place. He led the Colts on a
touchdown drive in the third quarter, another in the fourth and then a drive in
the final minute that led to a game-winning, 47-yard field goal by Adam
Vinatieri with eight seconds on the clock. It was not the most glamorous
performance of his 11-year career, but the 18--15 win was among his most gutsy.
"Vintage Manning," Colts running back Dominic Rhodes gushed. "To
me, this ranks right up there with the Super Bowl."
Such hyperbole is
usually reserved for Colts versus Patriots. But when those teams meet this
year, on Nov. 2 in Indianapolis, the matchup will not gain a catchy nickname
like Super Bowl XLII1/2. It will be big, undoubtedly, with playoff
implications, but Manning-Cassel does not have the ring of Manning-Brady.
"You know, I am going to miss Tom Brady," Colts defensive tackle Raheem
Brock says. "He's put us through a lot over the years, so I like hitting
Since Sept. 30,
2001, when Brady made his first career start, against Manning and the Colts,
the NFL has revolved around those two teams and those two quarterbacks. Manning
and Brady were easy to sell as opposites. One was country, the other
California. One married his college girlfriend, the other dated an actress and
a supermodel. One was drafted No. 1 and supposedly could not win the big games.
The other was drafted 199th and supposedly could not lose them.
But the two could
never muster the personal enmity that fuels classic rivalries. Manning and
Brady first hung out together in 2002 at the Quarterback Challenge, a skills
competition in Hawaii, and over the course of that week in paradise discovered
how much they had in common. After they teamed up in '06 to successfully
petition the NFL to allow visiting quarterbacks to use their own footballs in
road games, Tom Brady Sr. told a reporter that his son and Manning were
"like soul brothers."
Theirs is a
21st-century friendship, sustained by text messages and occasional phone calls.
During training camp this year they traded texts lamenting their injuries,
Brady a bum foot and Manning a bad knee. Before the opener they wished each
other luck. And on the morning after the season opener, when Manning knew that
Brady was injured but not how severely, he sent wishes for a speedy recovery.
By the afternoon, when it became obvious that a speedy recovery was out of the
question, Manning recognized that a text message would not do.
"I called him
and told him I was sorry," Manning says. "He got back to me and said it
must not have been in the cards for him to play this year."
Manning shook his
head as he recalled the exchange, disappointed for a peer and fully aware that
it could happen to anybody—even him. After all, he is the one who had surgery
on his left knee in July to repair an infected bursa sac and did not play or
practice in the preseason. He is the one who in the second half on Sunday
crouched behind four offensive linemen new to the team or to their position,
including a rookie at center in Jamey Richard, drafted in the seventh round out
of Buffalo, and another at left tackle in Steve Justice, drafted in the sixth
out of Wake Forest. And Manning is the one who has thrown 91 passes in the
first two games as the Colts have played from behind, allowing defenses to come