JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- On a slate gray morning at ALLTEL Stadium, Donovan McNabb shivered at Podium No. 8. The Philadelphia Eagles quarterback said he was cold, but maybe it was the mounting anticipation of Super Bowl XXXIX on Sunday.
"Having the field right behind you," McNabb said Tuesday, turning to look at the emerald expanse, "you kind of want to jump the fence and get started. Let's play the game. Right now, I'm up with the planes. I could float right now."
"Who are you rooting for in the Super Bowl?" Fridge asked.
"Who are you rooting for?" Brady asked back, without missing a beat. "That's probably the more pertinent question."
Perry, flustered, quickly retreated.
McNabb and Brady truly are the face of their respective teams. This is natural enough, for quarterbacks tend to have the ball in their hands in the moments of critical mass. But this year, it seems to be more true than usual.
On a day when the democratic elections in Iraq elicited a 60-point headline from the New York Times -- millions voted despite the killing of 44 people in suicide bombings and mortar attacks -- among the news that was fit to print was a matched set of two-by-three-inch photos of the Sunday arrival of Brady and McNabb in Jacksonville. Brady, it was noted, "was all business" in a suit and tie. McNabb, more casually dressed and bearing a camcorder, took a more "relaxed approach." For the next few days, McNabb will be portrayed as the persevering man who can deliver a championship for tough-minded Philadelphia. Brady will be seen as the earnest and efficient New Englander.
Both men are burdened by history.
McNabb is the third African-American quarterback to start a Super Bowl, following Doug Williams (1987) and Steve McNair (1999). Commentator Rush Limbaugh was fired from ESPN's NFL Countdown show in 2003 in the wake of his comments that included: "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well."
But just as important in McNabb's mind -- according to the man himself -- is the fact the Eagles have never won a Super Bowl.
Brady, really, has become a prisoner of his own success. He is 8-0 in playoff games, an unheard of number, and is looking for his third Super Bowl MVP award -- at the age of 27. Joe Montana, the only man with three MVPs, won his third championship in his 10th season. Brady is in his fifth.
Both Brady and McNabb repeatedly have demonstrated that, under duress, they have the stuff of champions. History does not daunt them; rather, it seems to motivate them.
The strange thing? While Brady has had almost ludicrous and unprecedented success in the bottom-line business of winning, he is -- relatively speaking -- overlooked on a regular basis. You will not find his attempts, completions and touchdown statistics in the NFL record book. Think back to the Patriots' first playoff game. The Colts' Peyton Manning, coming off perhaps the greatest regular season ever by a quarterback, threw no touchdowns and one interception in a 20-3 loss, while Brady's numbers were reversed. All eyes in the AFC championship game were on the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. Predictably, the rookie threw three interceptions (Brady had none) and the Patriots were 41-27 winners.
Maybe the success Brady has enjoyed, so early and so often, no longer resonates as news. McNabb, however, is aware of what he's accomplished.
"Tom Brady may not be a guy that people want to put in the upper echelon of quarterbacks," McNabb said Monday, "but in my mind he should be No. 1. He has something that all of us quarterbacks want, and that's the Super Bowl ring.
"Tom Brady is a great quarterback. I am excited to see that people are starting to talk about him now."
Brady, of course, begs to differ.
"I have had more attention than anybody in the league," he said. "I'm definitely not slighted for attention. We play some great opponents. You talk about McNabb, because he's been the best player on Philly's team for a long time.
"What an unbelievable player. He's overcome a lot. He's playing the best football of his career. He's the leader of that team."
"There's tons of respect," he said.
Both of these guys win games like none of their peers. Certainly, Manning had a terrific season, but he won't be on the field at ALLTEL Stadium. McNabb and Brady, in so many ways, are on the top of, and at the top of their game.
The Patriots' and Eagles' public relation staffs have outdone themselves in providing the numbers that describe the greatness of their two quarterbacks. But, in the Super Bowl within the Super Bowl -- inside the inside of the numbers -- you will find this marvelous bit of gamesmanship:
The Eagles' massive Super Bowl media book notes that McNabb, at 56-23 (.709), has the highest winning percentage among active quarterbacks. He's ahead of Brett Favre (.658), Steve McNair (.615) and Manning (.589). In parenthesis, you'll find the caveat -- the numbers are based on a minimum of 64 starts, a full four seasons.
It's an odd number, since McNabb is in his sixth season -- until you consider Brady's numbers. Because he didn't replace starter Drew Bledsoe until the third game of the 2001 season, Brady hasn't played four full seasons. His 48-14 record (.774) is not only superior to McNabb's, it's the best winning percentage for any quarterback in the Super Bowl era -- ahead of Roger Staubach (.746), Joe Montana (.713) and, yes, McNabb. The Patriots' cutoff, conveniently, is a minimum of 40 games. Factor in Brady's playoff games and he's an incandescent 56-14 (.800)
So, it turns out, Brady and McNabb are two of the four winningest quarterbacks in history. Isn't it appropriate that they will meet on Sunday?
Dreaming the dream
He was the second overall choice in the 1999 NFL draft, a superb quarterback at Syracuse, but McNabb was booed by Philadelphia fans when the announcement came. Of course, this was the town that (in)famously booed Santa Claus in 1968, the season the Eagles started 0-11 and finished 2-12. Until the Eagles beat the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game, things didn't change much in McNabb's six seasons.
Losing three straight NFC championship games -- to the Rams, Buccaneers and Panthers -- weighed heavily on McNabb. In the games leading up to this year's NFC title game, McNabb insisted these Eagles were different. Against the Falcons, they played that way. McNabb, as he always seems to do, led the way.
Without wide receiver Terrell Owens in the lineup, he completed 17 of 26 passes for 180 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The numbers were nearly identical in the divisional-round game against the Minnesota Vikings. His sleek passer rating in those games -- 111.4 and 111.1 -- underlined the mature and consistent performer McNabb has become.
On Tuesday, he talked about the painful near misses.
"When you're here you look back and say, 'Wow, we were one step away,' " McNabb said. "You see the other guys sitting in this [podium] spot and you wish it was you.
"[Losing those games] was tough to swallow. Basically, patience is everything. You continue to work and have dreams and visualize that it could happen."
"Donovan is a guy that has been able to play with a lot of pressure," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said last week. "That pressure he had in the NFC championship game, people telling him he had to win that or the city of Philadelphia might go into a shambles or something like that. They wanted that game so bad, the city of Philadelphia, and Donovan has sort of embraced all of that and accepted and acknowledged it all, and to still go out and perform the way he did really speaks volumes about the quarterback and the mental stability he has as a player."
As the season has progressed, Eagles head coach Andy Reid has said that McNabb's play reminds him of Favre when he was winning Super Bowls and MVP awards. Reid was the Green Bay Packers' quarterbacks coach for two years in that great run.
"There's not one thing that makes you a great quarterback," Reid said earlier this week. "But if you had to pick one, I'd say intelligence. He's a smart guy, and he has the confidence of the guys around him."
While the issue of McNabb's color is not the dominant theme it was when Williams carried the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl victory, it has been a factor here. It took six minutes on Tuesday for the subject to come up. McNabb, who has heard this line of questioning a few times, showed a sense of history, and respect, by listing some of the other black quarterbacks: Warren Moon, Rodney Peete, Andre Ware, Shaun King, Daunte Culpepper and McNair.
After several more questions in that vein, McNabb said, with a hint of irritation, "Look, we're quarterbacks first. Let's talk about playing the quarterback position. They always have one thing to say -- 'He's smart, he's got a strong arm, he runs well.' Let's talk about the position.
"If it's Michael Vick or Daunte Culpepper or Aaron Brooks here at the Super Bowl next year, you'll ask them what it will be like to be the third African-American to win. For me, it's all about the game. I'm focused in on winning. I'm a role-model playing in this game -- regardless [of the outcome]."
The legend grows
It wasn't enough that Brady would slice up the Steelers and land in his third Super Bowl in four seasons. No. Naturally, there was a dramatic back story -- another scenario that is threatening to put Brady in a class with fictional sports heroes like Roy Hobbs, Chip Hilton and Matt Christopher.
Turns out the quarterback was laid out in the team hotel the night before the game, an IV in his left arm and his temperature spiking at 103 degrees. Brady himself, it was reported by Sports Illustrated, worried that he might be forced to miss the game.
It was reminiscent -- some would say it reeked -- of the Joe Montana story. Montana, stricken with the flu, downed chicken soup and rallied Notre Dame to a come-from-behind victory in the 1979 Cotton Bowl.
When the news leaked, Brady was asked how bad he felt.
"I never talk about injuries," Brady said. "I never talk about any of that. It's over with and we're moving on. There's guys in that locker room that play with broken bones and messed up backs and necks. I didn't deal with any of that."
Like Montana, Brady exhibits an unnatural grace and aplomb under pressure. In his brief career, he has authored 16 game-winning drives to break a tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter or overtime. He did it in each of his two previous Super Bowls. Brady is 7-0 in overtime games -- the best mark in NFL history -- followed by Terry Bradshaw (5-0) and Ken Stabler (5-1).
"The last two minutes of the game, you get in the huddle and he'll say, 'All right, guys, it's up to this, let's do this thing,' " said Patriots guard Joe Andruzzi. "He's calm, cool and collected."
Brady, who has won 31 of his last 33 starts, revered Montana as a child. His parents had 49ers season tickets and there is a faded snapshot at the Brady home outside of San Francisco of young Tom in a maroon No. 16 jersey. There were the usual posters and trading cards.
"He is a guy who has portrayed the very best of football quarterbacking the past couple of years," Bruschi said of Brady. "So, Joe Montana was the best in his day and I think we have the best quarterback today."
A few years ago, Montana approached Brady about a business deal. They had breakfast and, in some small way, Brady felt he had arrived. The amazing thing? If Brady wins a third Super Bowl MVP he will have matched Montana's record of three -- and he might have another decade to try to break it.
"I don't think it's really been a goal of mine or ours to win Super Bowls faster than anybody else," Brady said. "I think as they present themselves, the goal is just to continue playing."
"Joe Montana, he was the best of all time. When you hear that comparison, you say, 'That's neat,' or, sometimes, 'They're full of it.' This is my fifth year -- hopefully there's many more games to play."
While winning this game would go a considerable way toward burnishing the legend of Brady, it is far more important to McNabb in the context of his career. McNabb said he would like to think that a single game wouldn't be the basis for judgment.
"It's sad," McNabb said. "There have been quarterbacks who lost this game and people say it defines your career. It doesn't. Your career defines your career.
"I could see this day coming, believe me. The dream is still going. Hopefully, it will happen Sunday."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.