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One of the biggest rivalries in NFL history has been the one unfolding before our eyes for the last decade and a half, as the two best quarterbacks of this generation and two of the best all-time have met an incredible 16 times. On Sunday, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady's teams will face off for the 17th time, the fourth time in an AFC Championship game. It's a rivalry that will go down in NFL history and will long be remembered, and it has produced a number of memorable games. Let's count down the top five games from the Manning vs. Brady rivalry in advance of Sunday's meeting - one that will, perhaps, be the final one between the two legends.
5. The goal-line stand
One of the earliest Manning vs. Brady matchups provided one of the most memorable results. In 2003, both teams entered a late November matchup at 9-2 on the year in a game that would be a preview of that season's AFC title game. This meeting, however, took place at the RCA Dome, and it proved to be an instant classic. The Patriots took a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter, but a Mike Vanderjagt field goal and Peyton Manning touchdown pass to Marcus Pollard with 12 seconds left in the half cut the Patriots' lead to seven. As time expired in the first half, however, Bethel Johnson took the kickoff back 92-yards to give New England a 24-10 halftime lead. Mike Cloud's second rushing touchdown of the game would extend that lead to 31-10 midway through the third quarter, but Manning and the Colts didn't go down without a fight. Manning closed the third quarter by hitting Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison for touchdown passes to draw within one score, 31-24, heading into the final period. The game was tied up a few minutes later when Manning hit Troy Walters for a touchdown, Manning's fourth scoring toss of the day. The Patriots made quick work of getting the lead back, however, as Bethel Johnson added another nice kickoff return and a few plays later Tom Brady hit Deion Branch for the score to give the Patriots the 38-31 lead with 8:41 left.
The Colts' next drive faltered around midfield and resulted in a punt, but on the second play of the Patriots' drive Kevin Faulk fumbled and Indy recovered at the Patriots' 11-yard line. Despite the great field position, three straight Manning passes fell incomplete and Vanderjagt drilled the easy field goal to make it 38-34 Patriots with 3:31 left. The Colts forced a quick three and out on the Patriots' next possession and got the ball back in Manning's hands for one final shot at winning the game with three minutes left to play. Before long, the Colts were inside the red zone, and after an Edgerrin James seven-yard run the Colts had first and goal at the Patriots' two yard line with less than a minute left to play. The Colts gave it to Edge again - gain of one yard, second and goal from the one. They hurried to the line and gave it to Edge again - no gain, timeout Colts with 18 seconds left (no timeouts remaining). Manning then threw it and the pass fell incomplete in the end zone. With 14 seconds left and down four, the Colts now faced fourth and goal from the Patriots' one yard line. They gave it to Edge one more time - and he was stopped for a loss of one by Willie McGinest. Game over. The Patriots' defense had held at the goal line to preserve the victory, one that was a crucial one in gaining home field advantage for the playoffs.
4. The Patriots' 24-point comeback
In 2013, Peyton Manning was in his second year with the Denver Broncos and was in the midst of leading one of the most successful offenses in NFL history when the mid-season matchup with Tom Brady and the Patriots rolled around. The Broncos, 9-1, traveled to New England to face the 7-3 Patriots, and the game couldn't have started much better for Denver. On a cold November night, the Broncos opened up a 17-0 first quarter lead behind a Von Miller fumble recovery, a Knowshon Moreno touchdown rush, and a Matt Prater field goal. Then, midway through the second quarter, Manning hit tight end Jacob Tamme to give the Broncos a 24-0 lead at halftime. The Patriots then stormed back, however, scoring the next 31 points in the contest thanks to three Tom Brady touchdown passes, and suddenly the Patriots had overcome a 24-point halftime deficit to actually lead 31-24 midway through the fourth quarter. Manning got the ball back and led the Broncos down the field, capping the drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas to tie the game at 31 with 3:10 left to play. Both quarterbacks got another shot to try to win it in regulation but didn't, so the game headed to overtime. The first three drives of the extra period ended in punts, but on the fourth, Steven Gostkowski hit a 31-yard field goal with just two minutes left to play to win it for New England, 34-31. Tom Brady and the Patriots had erased a 24-point deficit at halftime to wind up winning the game in overtime, adding another classic to the rivalry.
3. The battle of the unbeatens
In 2007, the Colts and the Patriots met for a monumental, historic game - one that led to people calling it the biggest regular season game in NFL history in the week leading up to the game. The Colts were 7-0 and the Patriots were 8-0, the two best teams meeting while both undefeated. The winner would have cleared the biggest hurdle to an undefeated regular season. The game lived up to expectations on the late Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis. The Colts jumped out to a first quarter lead with an Adam Vinatieri field goal, but early in the second quarter Tom Brady hit Randy Moss to put New England on top. Vinatieri would hit another field goal to make the score 7-6 before Peyton Manning found Joseph Addai for a huge 73-yard catch and run with just 13 seconds remaining before halftime. At the break, the Colts led 13-7. Steven Gostkowski added a field goal for the Patriots in the third quarter to make it 13-10, but Manning rushed for a score early in the fourth quarter to give the Colts a ten-point lead with 9:42 to go. Brady got it going at that point, however, and hit Wes Welker for a three-yard score. A few minutes later, Brady hit Kevin Faulk for a 13-yard touchdown pass that gave the Patriots the 24-20 lead. Manning got the ball back with just a few minutes left on the clock and quickly got the Colts near midfield, but he was then sacked and lost a fumble, and the Patriots' recovery sealed the victory. The game was a matchup of the two best teams and the two best quarterbacks in the NFL, and it didn't disappoint. The win propelled the Patriots to 9-0 en route to a perfect regular season, while Brady set a new NFL record with 50 touchdown passes that year en route to winning the league MVP award (Brady's record, which broke Manning's record, was later broken by Manning).
2. The "4th and 2" game
One of the most memorable in the 16-game history between Manning and Brady's teams was the 2009 regular season matchup in Indianapolis, which was packed with plenty of excitement. The Colts entered the game 8-0 while the Patriots were 6-2, and it was their first matchup in two years after Brady missed the 2008 season with a torn ACL. The Colts got on the board first on Sunday Night Football on a Peyton Manning touchdown pass to Joseph Addai, but the Patriots would then score the next 24 points behind two Tom Brady touchdown passes. Before halftime, Manning added another score by hitting Reggie Wayne to draw the score to 24-14 at the break. After a scoreless third quarter, the Patriots got on the board less than a minute into the fourth on Brady's third scoring toss of the day to give the Patriots a 31-14 lead. If the Colts were to stay undefeated, they would need to wipe away a 17-point fourth quarter deficit - and that's exactly what they did. Manning hit Pierre Garcon for a 29-yard score, and then the Patriots added a field goal. Then Joseph Addai scored on a four-yard rush with 2:23 left, and the Colts trailed 34-28. What happened next, of course, is still talked about today.
Kevin Faulk was stuffed for a gain of zero on the run. The Colts called their first timeout. Brady hit Wes Welker for a gain of eight. The Colts called their second timeout. And then, on third down, Brady's pass to Welker fell incomplete. It was 4th and 2 at the Patriots' 28 yard line with just over two minutes left, so the Patriots would have to punt. Bill Belichick, however, had other ideas. Realizing that the league's reigning MVP (and the eventual MVP of that season, too) was on the other sidelines and had gotten hot in the fourth quarter, Belichick didn't want to punt the ball back to Manning with two minutes left. Instead, he decided to go for it. On fourth and 2, with the game on the line, Brady hit Kevin Faulk in the flat for a gain of one, but Melvin Bullitt made a huge game-saving stop and prevented the back from getting anything more. After running the clock some, Manning hit Reggie Wayne for the one-yard with 16 seconds left that, with the extra point, gave the Colts the 35-34 lead and the win. Something that may be surprising to many is that, of the 16 games that Manning and Brady have played in against each other, only twice have they both thrown for at least 300 yards in the same game - and this 2009 matchup was one of them. A 17-point fourth quarter comeback, coupled with Belichick's fourth-and-two gamble, give this game a deserving spot on the list, topped only by another dramatic, memorable comeback victory on a much bigger stage.
1. The 2006 AFC Championship game
There's really no other choice for the top spot on this list, as the finest game in a long history of them in this rivalry came on January 21, 2007. At that point, the Colts were 2-6 all-time against the Patriots when Tom Brady was the starting quarterback and Indy had been knocked out of the playoffs twice in the previous three years by New England. The Patriots were the dynasty, looking to advance to their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons. The Colts, on the other hand, were routinely one of the league's best teams but hadn't gotten to the big game - in large part because of the Patriots. In January of 2007, after an improbable playoff run, however, the RCA Dome was rocking as the Colts hosted the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Before long, however, the fans in attendance were shocked. It was the same old story, once again. When Asante Samuel jumped a Peyton Manning pass in the second quarter and took it back for a score, it opened up a 21-3 Patriots lead. The rout was on.
Manning and the Colts slowly began working away at the deficit, adding a key field goal right before halftime. 21-6. Then Manning ran a QB sneak midway through the third quarter. 21-13. A few minutes later, Manning hit fullback Dan Klecko for the one yard touchdown, and then he hit Marvin Harrison for the two-point conversion. Amazingly, it was tied up at 21, at which point the game turned into a shootout between the NFL's best two quarterbacks. Jabar Gaffney caught a six-yard pass from Brady for the score to re-take the lead. Jeff Saturday recovered a fumble in the end zone to tie it back up. Stephen Gostkowski and Adam Vinatieri traded field goals, and then Gostkowski hit another one. The Patriots were up 34-31 with just a few minutes separating them from another Super Bowl berth. Manning took the field facing the biggest stage of his NFL career up to that point, trailing by three with the ball in his hands and the Super Bowl on the line. Reggie Wayne for 11. Bryan Fletcher for 32. Reggie Wayne for 14. After only a few plays, the Colts were at the Patriots' 11 yard line, and Indy then handed it to Joseph Addai three straight times. On the third, he scored to give the Colts the 38-34 lead with 1:02 left. Tom Brady then took the field, facing yet another opportunity for a game-winning drive and looking to re-take the lead and send the Patriots to the Super Bowl. After just a few plays, the Patriots were already near mid-field - but then Marlin Jackson stepped in front of Brady's pass and picked it off. Game over. Manning and the Colts, finally, were heading to the Super Bowl, and it came in dramatic fashion, defeating Brady and the Patriots after erasing an 18-point deficit.