Sunday's AFC championship game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots will mark the 15th time Brady and Manning have played each other. It's the fourth postseason meeting, and third time in a championship game. Manning is 37, Brady is 36, and Sunday's game could be the final time they play with stakes this high.
"I think it's a pretty unique fraternity that all quarterbacks are in, and Tom's been playing the longest along with me during our career," Manning told reporters this past week. "We've played against each other a lot, and we've both played a lot of football."
Neither quarterback offered deep reflection or introspection last week. They were complimentary of each other: Brady called Manning "a great player"; Manning remarked on Brady's "consistency" and "refusal to be complacent or satisfied."
Both were asked about their first meeting, which was Brady's first start in 2001. The Patriots won, 44-13. Brady said the only thing that sticks out from that game is that New England won, and there's "nothing I can use for this week." Manning said he's "not sure how much relevance it has to this game."
Neither talked about Sunday's game from a historical viewpoint. All they publicly admitted is that they want to beat the other team, which is the expected response.
But make no mistake: Sunday's result could affect the legacy of both players. Manning's name appears repeatedly throughout the league's record books, and he is expected to win his fifth MVP award, yet he has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy only once. He is 10-11 in the postseason. After missing all of 2011 with a neck injury, his future is uncertain.
"When you go through a significant injury and a major career change, you truly do go one year at a time, and you don't look past what's going on now because you are not sure what's going to happen," Manning said. "Tomorrow is not promised."
Winning has marked Brady's career. He has won three Super Bowls, although he has not won one since beating the Eagles after the 2004 season and has lost his last two. A victory Sunday would make Brady the first quarterback to start in six Super Bowls. Two more wins would make Brady the third quarterback with four titles.
Their resumés will stand up regardless of what happens Sunday, but only one will have the opportunity to add another ring.
Klecko speculated that the quarterbacks measure themselves against each other. He said they're both competitive and aware of the history.
"They'll never say it publicly, but I think part of their makeup, part of their genetics, is to say: 'That guy's not better than me,' " Klecko said. "They'll both say the right things this week, and after Sunday they'll be the best of friends again and go out to dinner. But there has to be that part in each of them, where Peyton says, 'This is why I'm the best,' and Tom says, 'No, this is why I'm the best.' "
Klecko said their work ethics are "exactly the same." Broncos receiver Wes Welker, a former Patriots Pro Bowler and another player who has caught touchdowns from both quarterbacks, tried to remain impartial. He emphasized their similarities.
"I think with just the way they go about their business and the way they study, the way they keep guys accountable, the way they show it by what they do on the field and off the field and preparing, and they just keep guys accountable," Welker said.
The difference is the way their personalities are presented and the paths taken.
Manning is the coach playing quarterback, running the offense on the field. He is quarterback royalty who was a top recruit and top draft pick.
Brady was the overlooked college quarterback who slipped to the 199th pick in the draft. His opportunity with the Patriots came when Drew Bledsoe was injured.
"It's two different [paths] that have brought them to the same exact point in their lives," Klecko said. "They've just gotten there in different ways. One was a sixth-round pick. He's never let that go, and you see that on the field today. He's a killer. The other one was always supposed to be this, and he knows that."
Klecko emphasized that beyond the statistics and the commercials and the big contracts, they're both normal guys.
On flights after away games, Klecko said, Manning would make jokes over the intercom. When Manning said in his postgame news conference last week that he was thinking about how soon he could drink a beer, Klecko appreciated the reference. Klecko said no one is better at "shotgunning" a celebratory beer than Manning.
"He wasn't BS-ing," Klecko said. "He was dead serious."
The Patriots locker room had a giant picture of Brady from his Michigan days, sent by someone. Klecko would hang the picture in Brady's locker whenever the quarterback would leave the room.
"He would get so [ticked] off," Klecko said with a laugh.
These are the memories that linger with Klecko about the quarterbacks away from football.
"They couldn't be more real," Klecko said. "This is why you'd run through a wall for these guys. Because you see them on every commercial . . . but when they're sitting around with the guys drinking a beer, eating dinner after a game, it's nothing but, we're just a bunch of guys in it doing the same thing."
Manning and Brady have invariably been compared to each other. Sunday's game provides another opportunity for that. It's the third time the AFC title will be determined by a Manning-Brady showdown, and it might just be the last.
"Eventually, it has to stop. Something tells me we'll see this again, the optimist in me, that we'll be right back in this spot again," Klecko said. "But part of you wants to take a step back on Sunday and say, 'Wow, we're watching two of probably the four or five best football players to ever put on pads.' "