Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have defined the NFL over the last decade and a half, and the rivalry of the two great quarterbacks has been the signature for an entire generation of sports fans. There have been great playoff battles, memorable regular season games, be it prime-time or the late afternoon window. Where did it all start?
Officially, the answer to that question is 2001, when Brady took over the starting reins of the New England Patriots—and ironically made his first start against Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. But how about we dig a little deeper. 1999 was the first football season that both quarterbacks made a significant mark simultaneously, even if Brady was still at college.
Peyton was in his second year in the NFL, and led the Indianapolis Colts to 13 wins and a division title. A seminal moment in the season came when he outgunned Miami Dolphins’ legend Dan Marino in a 37-34 shootout. Marino would retire after the season and the game was a symbolic changing of the guard. With Peyton at the helm, the Colts had the third-best offense in the NFL and he threw for over 4,100 yards.
The season ended in a disappointing home playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round—an ominous foreshadowing of what the Colts would endure until they got the combination of more experience for Manning, better defensive play and an improved running game. But the 1999 Indianapolis Colts season was still a success by any reasonable standard, and in the context of Manning’s developing career, was positively stupendous.
Brady was, at Michigan, and unlike Manning, he had to fight for his playing time at the college level. Michigan had a more touted quarterback in Drew Henson and while Brady started every game of his senior year, the shadow of Henson always lurked.
But with Brady at the helm in 1999, the Wolverines won at Wisconsin, beat Notre Dame, blasted Drew Brees’ Purdue team and pulled out a comeback win on the road against a good Penn State team. The crowning moment came in the Orange Bowl when Brady threw for 369 yards, four touchdown passes and led the Wolverines to a 35-34 overtime win over Alabama, who had a future NFL MVP in the backfield in Shaun Alexander.
It wasn’t enough to get Brady higher than the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft, but it was also a foreshadowing—that maybe this kid in Ann Arbor had a clutch gene and should be getting a little more respect.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have given all of us great moments and memories, whether you’re a fan of them and their teams or not. 1999 was the first year they did so simultaneously.