In 1998 Peyton Manning was a highly touted rookie who already had questions about his ability to win the "big game" while Bill Belichick was a two time Super Bowl Champion defensive coordinator, but a failure as a head coach. On September 20, 1998 few would have projected that Manning would go on to become arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history while Belichick would go on to become arguably the greatest head coach in NFL history; but September 20, 1998 was the first time these two met, when Manning made his third career start at the Meadowlands to face the New York Jets.
I was at that game.
Though Bill Parcells was the head coach of the 98 Jets, and it was undeniably his team, Belichick was certainly the architect of the defense. That Sunday Belichick made the Manning Doubters look pretty good, holding Peyton 193 yards passing, 0 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. The Jets cruised that Sunday to a 44-6 win.
And round 1 went to Belichick.
But even at age 22, Peyton Manning was still Peyton Manning. The next time the Jets and the Colts met, Peyton added 80 passing yards and three touchdowns to the numbers he had in week 3, and it was not only enough to beat the Jets; but it was also enough to hand the team their first loss of the season under QB Vinny Testaverde; and it was the crown jewel in Manning's rookie campaign.
And round 2 went to Manning.
And thus the greatest individual rivalry in NFL history began. Not in 2001, not in 2003, not in 2006, but in 1998.
As we all know the 98 Jets would storm all the way to the AFC Championship game before losing to the Broncos, while the Colts would go 3-13; but in 1999 the rivalry would continue.
Testaverde would go down in week 1 of the NFL season against the New England Patriots. Meanwhile, Manning, now with 16 games under his belt, had risen to elite status as a 23 year old. The Colts would defeat the Jets twice in 1999, but for an offense that was ranked third in the NFL, Belichick managed to hold the Colts to only 29 points in two games. Mannings numbers in both games would be human, and you could sense that Belichick found Manning's Achilles heal while the rest of the NFL was still looking for it.
In 2000 Belichick would leave the Jets (ultimately turning down the teams head coaching position) to become the head coach of the New England Patriots, and yet again Manning and Belichick would split their season series.
Through three years the Score was Manning 4, Belichick 2, but things were about to change.
In week 3 of 2001, Patriots second year QB Tom Brady made his first career start and helped the Patriots crush the Colts 44-13. Things wouldn't get much better in week 6 for the Colts as the Patriots again dominated them 38-17. The Colts would finish 2001 6-10 and miss the playoffs for the first time since Peyton's rookie season, while Belichick would lead the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXVI, where he'd pick up his third Super Bowl win, and first as a head coach.
From 2002 to 2004 Belichick would go 4-0 vs Manning, including two playoff wins. Belichick would beat Manning in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs en route to two more Super Bowl rings. On top of that the Manning vs Belichick fight was now scored at 4-8 in favor of Belichick, and without a doubt Belichick was in Manning's head.
But things weren't as bad as they seemed. Though the Colts would lose all four games in 2003 and 2004 against New England, all four games were relatively close. In the 2003 regular season the Colts came up "one yard short," had the Colts won that game they would've hosted the Patriots in the AFC Championship game. That same AFC Championship Game saw Peyton with his first shot at a legendary drive in the 4th quarter, he'd fail on a "questionable call" that lead to new rules for "receiver protection." In the 2004 season opener the Colts lost on a last second field goal gone wrong, and in the AFC playoffs that season, the Colts would enter the second half trailing only 6-3. Though Peyton was 0-4 vs Belichick he was slowly gaining on him.
Then 2005 happened.
As Peyton entered Act II of his career as a player he began to "do less" while "doing more." No longer did Peyton force throws. He worked harder, and quickly developed into not only the best quarterback in the league, but the best player in the game. In the 2005 regular season Peyton lead the Colts into New England and crushed the Patriots 40-21.
In the 2006 regular season the Colts again beat the Patriots, and when the two met in that years AFC Championship game, Peyton pulled off what many consider the greatest comeback in NFL history when he lead the Colts back from 21-3 deficit to stun Belichick and the Patriots en route to a Super XLI championship.
At the end of 2006 the fight was score 7-8.
2007 and 2008 would see Manning and Belichick split the series to make it 8-9. In that time span Manning vs Belichick would feature a contest of undefeateds that would side with Belichick, and a Week 9 playoff game that would side with Peyton. Belichick would return to the Super Bowl where he'd lose for the first time as a head coach, and Peyton would pick up his league record third MVP.
Entering 2009 there was little question who the best coach and quarterback were in the NFL. Bill and Peyton.
And entering their 2009 showdown the only question was "who is in the others head more?"
With a 4th and 2 in the 4th quarter, on his own 28 yard line, with close to two minutes on the clock and a six point lead, Belichick answered the question.
In 2009, Peyton Manning, now a 33 year old, is in Bill Belichicks head. Belichick feared giving Manning the ball with 70+ yards to go; instead opting to make a call he knew would doom his team had it been unsuccessful.
And unsuccessful it was.
And successful was Manning's next jab. As we all now know, Manning yet again pulled a rabbit out the hat vs Belichick.
Unlike from 2003-2004, in 2006, 2008, and 2009, the Colts no longer lose the close ones to the Patriots. It has been Belichick who has gotten beaten, and it has been Peyton who has shattered Belichicks defenses when the game mattered most.
Like great fighters the two have fed off of one others previous rounds; learning from previous mistakes, making adjustments, psyching your opponent out.
At 9-9, this is undeniably the greatest rivalry in NFL history. At this point in time it has to favor Peyton; his failures were mostly when he was young; as a man he's done little but defy every scheme Belichick has thrown at him, and Sunday was no different. It was just a great fighter making another great comeback.
It's a testament to Manning's greatness, and Belichick's as well. Most QB's would've rolled over after 2004 and accepted Belichick's dominance the way Pedro Martinez once called the Yankees his "daddy." But Manning didn't, he kept fighting back the way he did in the 2006 and 2009 renditions of this rivalry. And most coaches get scared by Peyton and force unnecessary blitzes, 2nd quarter on-side kicks, and offensively play calling unfitting of their teams image. Belichick never does that versus Peyton, he sizes him up. You can't blame Belichick from trying to keep the ball out of Peyton's hands, it'd be a different story if he made dumber moves early in the game like most teams do versus the Colts.
So let's enjoy the rest of this heavyweight main event. We all know round 19 will be bigger than the last.