DENVER — This 17th meeting of two storied quarterbacks should have happened on a snowy November night when the then-undefeated Patriots played in the Mile High City in Week 12.
But instead of opposing Tom Brady at Sports Authority Field, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was in the equipment room, watching on TV with teammate DeMarcus Ware, who was also out injured.
"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 (Ware) does as well."
Instead, the latest chapter of Brady-Manning will happen on a bigger stage: Today's AFC Championship Game.
The Broncos won that November game, with Brock Osweiler at quarterback, and that tiebreaker put today's game in Denver and not Foxborough, Mass.
Either way, the centerpiece is Manning vs. Brady, the NFL version of Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. Though Manning won't 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."
The mutual respect by Brady (with four Super Bowl rings) and Manning (with one) is predictable. Each says all the right things about the other. But while Brady has had a typically spectacular season with a hodgepodge cast of receivers — 36 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 102.2 passer rating — Manning's injury-marred fall was the epitome of frustration.
Still, 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 about teammate Julian Edelman's needling nickname for him, "Clydesdale," a reference to the quarterback's running style, which is more clomping than cruising.
"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."
While Manning is the NFL's only five-time most valuable player, Brady is 11-5 head-to-head. 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 told that, on average, Brady got the ball out of his hands in about two seconds during last weekend's playoff victory over Kansas City.
"You said two seconds?" Miller said. "Sometimes I only need like one."