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Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning: The NFL version of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird?

This 17th meeting of two storied quarterbacks should have happened on a snowy night in late November, when the then-undefeated New England Patriots played a Week 12 game in the Mile High City.

But instead of being on the sideline opposite Tom Brady at Sports Authority Field, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was cloistered in the equipment room, watching on TV with fellow injured teammate DeMarcus Ware.

"DeMarcus is a big-time second guesser . . . I really enjoyed his commentary during the game," Manning recalled this week during a break from preparations for Sunday's AFC championship game against the Patriots.

"The hot dogs aren't bad in there, I'll say that. But I'd much prefer to be on the playing field. I know he does as well."

The Broncos wound up winning that November game, with Brock Osweiler at quarterback, and that proved to be the reason Sunday's game will be played in Denver and not Foxborough, Mass.

Either way, the centerpiece of this conference title game is yet another chapter of Brady versus Manning, the NFL's version of Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson — although you won't catch Manning making that analogy.

"That's probably an uncomfortable comparison for me to comment on. Obviously, I grew up a big Larry Bird-Magic Johnson fan. I had some of those old posters of Larry and Magic in their very short shorts . . ." Manning said with a laugh.

"I have felt very fortunate to play 18 years like I have, and I know how hard I've worked to play this long. When I look across at the New England Patriots and see Tom Brady is their quarterback, I just know how hard he's worked, as well."

Whereas the NFC title game pits Arizona's Carson Palmer and Carolina's Cam Newton, two quarterbacks who have never been to a Super Bowl, the AFC version features two who have played on the league's biggest stage nine times, with Brady winning four rings and Manning one.

The mutual respect shared by Brady and Manning is predictable. Each said all the right things this week about the other. But while Brady has had a typically spectacular season with his hodgepodge cast of receivers — 36 touchdowns and seven interceptions with a 102.2 passer rating, the best in four years — Manning's fall was the epitome of frustration.

Manning, who turns 40 in March, wallowed through the first nine games with nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions, before missing the final seven starts of the regular season because of a plantar fascia injury in his left foot that made it painful to walk let alone play. He sat out six full games before replacing an ineffective Osweiler in the season finale against San Diego and leading the Broncos to victory.

In a divisional playoff game against Pittsburgh last Sunday, Manning didn't shine but made the key plays, although his passes — never fastballs in the first place — appeared to have lost even more velocity.

Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower acknowledged that deficiency could make Denver more susceptible to turnovers.

"I'm sure he knows that we're looking at that too, and I'm sure he's going to protect that," Hightower said. "We're definitely looking at that and we're hopefully going to take advantage of that too."

Still, both Manning and Brady, 38, are so crafty and have such great field vision, they can make up for the effects of age with uncanny anticipation.

Brady was asked this week about teammate Julian Edelman's needling nickname for him, "Clydesdale," a reference to the quarterback's running style, which is more clomping than cruising. Newton, Brady is not.

"Yeah," Brady said with a smile, "I probably look like a Clydesdale when I was running in that [scouting] combine video 16 years ago too. So at least I haven't slowed down."

His career certainly hasn't. Brady is coming off his fourth Super Bowl victory, tied with Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for the most by a quarterback. Should the Patriots win at Denver, Brady would have a chance to win an unprecedented fifth ring in the Bay Area, the place where he was raised.

Whereas the other three quarterbacks playing this weekend were all No. 1 overall picks — Manning (1998), Palmer (2003) and Newton (2011) — Brady was selection No. 199, a compensatory sixth-round pick in the 2000 draft.

While Manning is the NFL's only five-time most valuable player, Brady has four times as many championship rings and an 11-5 record against his counterpart (Broncos and Indianapolis Colts combined). They are 2-2 against each other in the postseason, however, and neither has beaten the other on the road since 2007.

Each opposing defense understands the inherent challenge of facing a quarterback bound for Canton, Ohio, but each defense is confident and ready too.

Denver outside linebacker Von Miller was informed this week that, on average, Brady got the ball out of his hands in about two seconds during a divisional victory over Kansas City.

"You said two seconds?" Miller said. "Sometimes I only need like one."

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 23, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "SPRY MASTERS - Brady, 38, and Manning, 39, are getting up there, but storied rivalry doesn't feel old to them" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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