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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."
Manning's career 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 him."
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 after him.