(Reuters) - There may be two teams battling for the AFC title and a spot in the Super Bowl on Sunday but the spotlight will be on the latest round in a heavyweight gridiron showdown between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
The AFC Championship game features the top-seeded Denver Broncos and second-seed New England Patriots but it is No. 18 (Peyton Manning) versus No. 12 (Tom Brady) that has dominated the buildup to the Mile High city clash.
Seconds after Denver beat the San Diego Chargers last Sunday to reach the conference championship the first question put to Manning as he walked off the field was how he felt going against longtime rival Brady for the 15th time.
“It’s Broncos versus the Patriots and certainly Tom and I have played against each other a lot, but when you get to the AFC Championship it’s about two good teams that did a lot to get there,” said Manning.
“They’re a great team, they had a big win last night so we are going to enjoy this one tonight and start to work on them tomorrow and it ought to be a heck of a game.”
Manning versus Brady in a high-stakes game is a the NFL’s marquee rivalry, attracting as much hype and anticipation as heavyweights Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier or tennis sensations Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer.
Few could argue that Manning and Brady are not two of the all-time greatest quarterbacks to grace the American gridiron.
Manning is a four-time NFL most valuable player while Brady has claimed the honor twice. Brady has three Super Bowl rings and two Super Bowl MVP awards, Manning has one of each.
Where there is considerable debate, however, is when it comes to which signal caller is better.
Manning spent this season once again rewriting the NFL record books while Brady has traditionally displayed his true brilliance in the playoffs.
Brady made his record 25th playoff start (18-7) last weekend against the Indianapolis Colts.
He has guided the Patriots to a record 11 AFC East division titles, more than any other starting quarterback, and ranks first in postseason completions (566), attempts (912) and passing yards (6,147).
He is three playoff touchdown passes away from surpassing Brett Favre (44) and moving into and tie with Hall of Famer Joe Montana (45) for most all-time.
Two seasons removed from missing a year due to neck surgeries, Manning produced a campaign for the ages setting a single season marks for touchdown passes (55) and yards (5,477).
With Manning at the controls of Denver’s powerhouse offense, the Broncos scored a record 606 points, 161 ahead of the next closest pursuer.
Denver became the first team to have five players score at least 10 touchdowns in the same season - Demaryius Thomas (14), Knowshon Moreno (13), Julius Thomas (12), Eric Decker (11) and Wes Welker (10).
While there is no disputing Manning’s Hall of Fame credentials, the one criticism hanging over his career has been mediocre results in the postseason where he has a 10-11 record and one championship.
Viewed as Super Bowl favorites from the start of season, Manning is under pressure to prove once and for all that he can also get the job done when it counts most and cap his record-smashing campaign with a Super Bowl title.
Sunday’s game will mark the second time the Broncos and Patriots have squared off against each other this season. In late November, the Patriots stormed back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to steal a 34-31 win.
The last time the teams met in the playoffs came in 2012 when Brady tied an NFL record with six touchdown passes in a 45-10 rout that came nine months before Manning joined Denver.
Perhaps the one player able to provide some insight into the two quarterbacks is Welker, who was Brady’s favorite target for six seasons before signing with Denver last year where he has become Manning’s go-to guy.
”They are obviously not too many differences,“ said Welker, unwilling to tip one quarterback over the other. ”They’re great quarterbacks.
”They do a great job keeping guys accountable with their leadership skills.
“If there’s two guys you want quarterbacking your team, it’s a toss-up between those two.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto