Watch with special care what takes place Sunday, Patriots fans and Broncos fans alike.
At Gillette Stadium, the Denver Broncos, manned by Peyton Manning, will face the New England Patriots, helmed once again by Tom Brady. The matchup is nothing new; Sunday will be the 11th time in 10 years that the premier quarterbacks of this generation square off.
But might it be the last?
The AFC East isn't scheduled to play the AFC West until 2014. Barring an identical finish in division standings, this is the last Patriots-Broncos game until some point two years from now, when Manning will be 38 years old and Brady 37.
Of course, there's more than a good chance that these teams could meet next year. New England is a near-lock to win the AFC East, while Denver, with Manning leading the way, has a great chance to emerge as the division winner from the four teams in the AFC West.
Regardless of when the next encore will be, however, this matchup deserves to be treated with some sentimentality.
It's rare to see the two best quarterbacks since John Elway retired, and two of the finest field generals of all time, go at it—and we saw how much this rivalry was missed last year, when Manning sat out the entire season.
The idea of Brady vs. Manning meeting an end seemed ridiculous from Brady's arrival in 2001 until last year. Both quarterbacks were the picture of health, and the premier examples on how to stretch careers. Brady knew how to avoid the rush. Manning knew how to get the ball out quickly and beat the rush.
Neither quarterback was hit that often, and rules enacted within the past few years seemed aimed to keep it that way. Brady vs. Manning was going to be the battle into the next decade as well.
Something funny happened.
Manning developed a neck injury anyway, and it lingered...and lingered...and lingered. It cost the future Hall of Famer the 2011 preseason...and then the regular season...and then his job at the head of the Indianapolis Colts offense, after 14 years in the organization.
Suddenly, seeing Manning's days atop the league leaders end was a matter of if, not when. Brady vs. Manning was on hold; hell, even Manning vs. anyone was to be determined, at best.
But Manning's back, Brady's still there and this one promises to be a doozy. Manning used to be a pawn in Bill Belichick's master defensive schemes; now, Belichick and his Patriots try to hold on for dear life. Manning has figured New England out, and has had a field day each time while going up against those defenses.
From 2005 on, Manning went 5-2 against the Patriots, sporting a rating of 97.3 over those seven contests. One loss came while New England was busy winning its first 16 games of the season in 2007. The other came in 2010, when Manning was driving the Colts down for a winning score in the closing minutes before throwing a decisive pick in New England territory.
This Manning-Brady showdown will look like the other ones. Whoever has the ball last will likely be the winner. Manning's Broncos will carve up this Patriots secondary, and does anyone take the Broncos defense over Brady after last year's playoff showing?
The game could move into the "anything you can do, I can do better" format they've been fond of during the years. The final minute will come and one of these quarterbacks will have the ball in his hands, likely with the chance to go out and win it for his team.
Brady vs. Manning will be what it's always been. It will be fun. It'll be tense, and it'll be down to the wire.
We can just hope it won't be the last of its kind.
Both Brady and Manning are on the wrong side of 35. As Manning showed last year, they're past the point of guarantees. Brady wants to play until he's 40? Good luck. As Manning has shown, the body can only take so much.
We, on the other hand, can take a lot more of this. Manning and Brady may have more chapters to write. But if not, if this truly is the end, what a story it has been.