Winslow Townson/SI

The future Hall of Famers will duel for the 14th time on Sunday. But the winner won’t prove himself the best quarterback—he’ll just have the better supporting cast ... plus, the matchup to watch and five bold predictions for Week 12

By Greg A. Bedard
November 22, 2013

We all can’t wait to settle in front of the television on Sunday night to watch the 14th installment of Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. Whatever your opinion of the two, whatever your rooting interest may be, we can all agree that it’s just fun to watch those two go against each other.

They are masters of their craft, even in the twilight of their careers. They have set the standard for winning plays before the snap by reading the defense and getting their offense in the best position possible—one of the subtle keys to being an elite quarterback. After the snap they know how a glance here or a shoulder twitch there can mean the difference between an exhilarating touchdown and a game-turning interception.

They are maestros of the gridiron symphony. They are to football stadiums what Carlos Kleiber and Leonard Bernstein were to concert halls. Sweet, sweet music.

It’s easy to get caught up in all that. I totally get it; they’re two first-ballot Hall of Famers in the flesh. Instead of watching Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw face off on NFL Films, you get to see the greatness as it happens. But as great as Brady and Manning have been, the undeniable truth about football is that it’s the ultimate team sport. And because the skill-sets of the quarterbacks are so similar, their head-to-head matchups almost always come down to how others perform around them.

Just look at the history:

2012 Week 5: Patriots 31, Broncos 21

Both quarterbacks completed more than 70% of their passes, with a total of four touchdowns with no interceptions. The difference? The Patriots unleashed their turbo, one-word no-huddle offense for the first time and ran for 251 yards and three scores while Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio (now the interim head coach) stood on the sideline with no answers.

2010 Week 11: Patriots 31, Colts 28

This season, and this game in particular, was the beginning of the end for Manning in Indianapolis. He looked to be affected by something physically—his throws were soft and not very deep—but Manning said he was fine. He would have offseason neck surgery and miss the 2011 season before suiting up for the Broncos in ’12. The 2010 loss to the Patriots came during a 1-4 stretch for the Colts, who were beaten up. It wasn’t just Manning, either. With tight end Dallas Clark and receiver Anthony Gonalez injured, it was basically Reggie Wayne and a bunch of then-unproven targets: Jacob Tamme, Pierre Garçon, Austin Collie, Blair White, Javarris James and Donald Brown. Sounds a lot like the ’13 Patriots, and we know how Brady fared early on this season.

2009 Week 10: Colts 35, Patriots 34

After watching his young defense struggle to protect two 17-point leads, one in the second quarter and the other in the fourth, Bill Belichick decided to go for it instead of punting on 4th-and-2 from his own 28 with 2:08 left in the game. Colts backup safety Melvin Bullitt tackled Kevin Faulk just shy of the sticks, and the Patriots’ six-point lead turned into a defeat four plays later.

words tk (Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated :: Jamie Squire/Getty Images) Melvin Bullitt's hit on Kevin Faulk in 2009 gave the Colts the ball back on downs and led to the game-winning touchdown, a 1-yard pass from Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne with 13 seconds left to play. (Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated :: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

2007 Week 9: Patriots 24, Colts 20

Extra defensive backs flooded the field, and both quarterbacks largely struggled for three quarters. The game was decided when Patriots end Jarvis Green forced a Manning fumble that got recovered by Rosevelt Colvin.

2006 AFC Championship Game: Colts 38, Patriots 34

Patriots linebacker Eric Alexander’s losing track of Colts tight end Bryan Fletcher on a 32-yard gain with the clock winding down was symbolic of the New England defense’s futility as it blew an 18-point lead in the second half.

2006 Week 9: Colts 27, Patriots 20

Yes, Brady threw four interceptions (the final one was tipped), but the Patriots were thoroughly dominated in every phase.

Words TK for the Nov. 7, 2005 cover of SI (Bob Rosato/Sports Illustrated) The SI cover hyping up the Monday night showdown—a Colts’ blowout—on Nov. 7, 2005. (Bob Rosato/Sports Illustrated)

2005 Week 9: Colts 40, Patriots 21

A lot like this year’s team, the Patriots were ravaged by injuries on both sides of the ball (Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, James Sanders, Chad Scott, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk), and it showed, especially the defense, which surrendered 453 yards and forced just one punt.

2004 Divisional Round: Patriots 20, Colts 3

Corey Dillon ran for exactly as many yards as Brady threw (144), and Tedy Bruschi’s strip of Colts running back Dominic Rhodes in the second quarter was the play of the game.

2004 Week 1: Patriots 27, Colts 24

This one came down to two huge plays in the fourth quarter by the Patriots’ defense: Eugene Wilson forced Edgerrin James’s second fumble at the 1-yard line, and Willie McGinest’s 12-yard sack of Manning on third down forced a 48-yard field goal attempt with 24 seconds remaining that Mike Vanderjagt missed wide right.

2003 AFC Championship Game:

Patriots 24, Colts 14

This is one of the most important games in the modern NFL because of the way the Patriots’ defense played. They were so physical and dominating with their press coverage (four interceptions) that the league made the rules more passer-friendly in the offseason and set the stage for today’s high-powered offenses.

2003 Week 13: Patriots 38, Colts 34

The Stand. After the Colts had 1st-and-goal at the 2, Willie McGinest and Ted Washington ended the game by stuffing Edgerrin James on 4th-and-goal from the 1 with 14 seconds to go.

2001 Week 6: Patriots 38, Colts 17

Don’t take this one away from Patriots receiver David Patten, who caught two touchdown passes, rushed for one and threw another. (The second of two regular-season meetings in 2001; Indianapolis moved from the AFC East to the newly formed AFC South the following year.)

2001 Week 3: Patriots 44, Colts 13

Brady made his first career start in this game, following Drew Bledsoe’s injury, and the future Super Bowl champs were born as the Patriots played stifling defense, rushed for 141 yards in the first half and got a timely, mistake-free performance from their new QB.

Brady and Manning have obviously played a factor in each of these games, but the outcomes were almost always decided by who had the better team. It wasn’t that “Manning couldn’t get it done” in the early years; it was that the Patriots were simply better, and won championships to prove it. Nor did Manning “have Belichick’s number” for a spell because he had finally figured him out; once the downfield contact rules became more stringent, Belichick’s personnel wasn’t built for that type of game.

Go ahead, hype this as Manning vs. Brady XIV, but that’s not what this game will come down to. It will be decided by which team is better in all phases—not just at quarterback.

Get your popcorn ready

words tk (David Richard/AP :: Joe Sargent/Getty Images) Joe Haden (l.) is playing like an All-Pro corner, while Antonio Brown leads the league with 74 receptions. (David Richard/AP :: Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

The one-on-one battle to watch closely in Week 12: Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Browns CB Joe Haden.

After shutting down Bengals receiver A.J. Green (two catches for seven yards?!) last week, Haden deserves a spot on the All-Pro team. He has shut down all comers this season, and he’s got three big matchups to go: two against Brown, who leads the league with 74 catches, and one with the Bears’ Brandon Marshall. Brown is a shiftier receiver than Haden is used to seeing, so he presents a different challenge than a typical boundary receiver.

caption tk (David Manning/USA TODAY Sports :: Paul Sancya/AP) Bucs coach Greg Schiano could earn some good will by letting Darrelle Revis (l.) battle Calvin Johnson man-to-man. (David Manning/USA TODAY Sports :: Paul Sancya/AP)

Honorable mention: Lions WR Calvin Johnson vs. Bucs CB Darrelle Revis. If Greg Schiano had any shred of humanity in him, he would give us what we want and let Revis go mano-a-mano with Megatron every single play.

Last week’s verdict: I picked Steelers RG David DeCastro vs. Lions DT Ndamukong Suh as the matchup to watch ... and DeCastro won with a majority decision over Suh.

There are lies, damn lies, and the game statistics from the Steelers-Lions game in Week 11. According to box score, Suh was essentially wiped from the game by DeCastro; he doesn’t appear anywhere. I saw otherwise, with four quarterback hurries and Suh’s causing a no-gain run in the second quarter. Still, DeCastro was terrific and ultimately won this matchup, which was a big key to the Steelers’ 37-27 victory.

Five bold predictions for Week 12

caption tk (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) Taken in the fifth round last April, Rams running back Zac Stacy is averaging 4.2 yards per carry and has gone for at least 127 yards in two of his last three games. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

1. Rams rookie running back Zac Stacy will run for more than 100 yards against the Bears. The Ravens’ Ray Rice had rushed for more than three yards per carry just once this season before facing Chicago last week. He had 131 yards on 25 carries (5.4 average) against the Bears. Everybody feasts against the Bears.

2. The Panthers’ offense will struggle against the Dolphins. Carolina is coming off an emotionally and physically draining signature win against the Patriots on Monday night. It’s hard to see them getting up for this one at Miami.

3. Bill Belichick will have something special for Wes Welker. The last thing Belichick and the Krafts want is for the Broncos and Peyton Manning to come into Gillette Stadium and leave with a victory that features Welker in a starring role. A Broncos win would be bad enough. But for Welker, the former Pats receiver who refused to take a contract extension in 2012 and forced Belichick to pay $9.5 million on the tag at a position where he hates to spend money, to rub it in the Patriots’ faces as well? I can’t see Belichick standing for that. Cornerback Aqib Talib and his 80-year-old hip isn’t great against small and shifty receivers. So expect Belichick to either put Welker in a tight bracket, knock the stuffing out of him off the line, funnel him inside to the hard-hitting Brandon Spikes, or throw a curveball by placing receiver Julian Edelman on him—or all of the above.

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4. The Cardinals will bounce Colts quarterback Andrew Luck around like a pinball. If you’re a Colts fan, you may want to hide your eyes. This is not a good matchup for Indianapolis up front. At all. The Cardinals are big, fast and blitz-crazy. The Colts are slow-footed on the offensive line, and only have one viable receiver (T.Y. Hilton), who will probably be smothered by cornerback Patrick Peterson. That’s all a very bad combination.

5. The Cowboys may throw the ball 57 times against the Giants. Dallas has a total of 25 rushing attempts over the past two weeks and has thrown 75 passes. Now that wideout Miles Austin is back, look for the Cowboys to spread the field and throw even more. That may or may not work, as the Giants are becoming sneaky good on defense after a terrible start.

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