[Editor's note: This story was originally published in advance of the Broncos-Patriots game in Week 12. All statistics and charts in this story have been updated as of Jan. 15, 2014, in advance of the teams' rematch in the AFC Championship Game.]
Dean Pees doesn't play fantasy football, but he has more than a passing appreciation for talented quarterbacks. In his day-job reality, Pees is the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens.
Thanks in part to Tom Brady, he has a Super Bowl ring (XXXIX) from his days with the Patriots. Pees won his second in February in New Orleans (XLVII) after the Ravens beat Peyton Manning and Brady on the road in a startling span of nine days, making them look semi-ordinary.
"The difference in these two guys is they can read the coverage presnap and postsnap," Pees said. "Some guys can read it presnap and go back and it's like a blur back there because you change on them. You can change all you want on these two guys. They know body language. They know stance. And they just know.
"They're in a class by themselves."
But which one is the valedictorian?
They've both studied their way to the top. "Being around Tom, and I've heard the same thing Jim [Caldwell, Ravens offensive coordinator] said about Peyton, they study more than anybody that I've ever known," Pees said.
When Brady met Robert Kraft for the first time, on the steps of the old Foxboro Stadium with a pizza box under his arm, he told the Patriots' owner, "I'm the best decision this organization ever made." And then he proved it by using his private key to the team facility to watch film early in the morning before the rest of his teammates arrived, and after they left, too.
But probably no one has a more encyclopedic knowledge of the game than Manning. Informed earlier this year that he had tied a record of Milt Plum (16 touchdown passes, no interceptions to start the season), Manning surprised reporters by citing Plum's uniform number: 16. He can accurately recall play-by-play details of drives he engineered nearly two decades ago while in college at Tennessee. When he was introduced as a Bronco in March 2012, Manning held up his jersey for the cameras -- then retired to a meeting room to watch more film.
Not only are Brady and Manning the most decorated active quarterbacks, they are statistically among the elite of all time.
But which one has better credentials?
Between them, they have won four Super Bowls, three Super Bowl MVP awards and six league MVPs. In the bottom-line category of winning games -- a quarterback's first responsibility -- they are virtually unparalleled. Since the 1970 merger, Brady is history's best in career winning percentage (.775), and Manning (.696) is third. They are separated only by a guy named Joe Montana. Incredibly, Brady could go 0-16 next season and still have a better percentage than the second-place Montana.
But which one is more difficult to prepare for?
"Their win-loss record will tell you what kind of quarterbacks they are," said Dick LeBeau, the 76-year-old Steelers defensive coordinator who's been trying to solve Manning and Brady for a combined 30 seasons. "[Tom] and Peyton Manning are just extremely smart guys. They are going to put their team in the right position. They are going to get the right routes called and adjusted. That's just another weapon that they have. They are tremendous quarterbacks in any era. They are just great."
No, really: Which one is better?
We ask this rhetorically because the two legends face each other again Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. It doesn't happen often; this is only the fourth game in NFL history featuring two quarterbacks who each have at least 125 wins. Enjoy it, because this 15th summit could be one of the last -- although the Broncos are slated to play at New England in the 2014 regular season.
Brady, the 199th overall draft choice in 2000, holds a commanding 10-4 head-to-head edge, including the postseason, thanks in part to stout Patriots defenses over the years.
The gross numbers, however, belong to Manning, the No. 1 overall draft choice in 1998.
He's thrown for 491 touchdowns, trailing only Brett Favre (508) on the all-time list. Likewise, his passing yards (64,964) and victory total (167) are second to Favre. Presuming his good health continues, Manning will have a chance to retire on top in all those important categories.
"How do you choose between either guy?" asked longtime executive and ESPN analyst Bill Polian, who guided six teams to the Super Bowl, including the Colts and Manning, who won to punctuate the 2006 season. "Vanilla and strawberry -- which one do you like better?
"There's no logical way to determine. Why do we have to pick one?"
Why? A shameless grab for massive page views? Well, there's that, but it's really because the debate is just so much fun.
Heads (and feet) above the field
This season, it's been no contest.
At the advanced age of 37, just two years removed from a career-threatening neck injury, Manning enjoyed a season for the ages. He set a new league record for passing touchdowns, 55, in a season. The Dolphins' Dan Marino, with 48 in 1984, held the mark for 20 years until Manning threw for 49, only to be surpassed by Brady's 50 in 2007.
Manning also broke the single-season record for passing yards (5,477), eclipsing the previous mark, set by Drew Brees in 2011, by a single yard. Brady, of course, has the third-best total ever: 5,235, also in 2011. Manning is almost certain to win an unprecedented fifth MVP award when the winner is revealed on Feb. 1. His fourth, achieved in 2009, is already the standard.
At age 36, Brady scuffled statistically this season. His 60.5 completion percentage ranked 21st in the league, and his 25 touchdown passes ranked 11th.
Still, it can be argued that Brady, given his depleted weaponry, was just as valuable to his team. Tight end Aaron Hernandez is in jail, receiver Wes Welker is catching passes from Manning in Denver and running back Danny Woodhead went to San Diego. Tight end Rob Gronkowski missed nine games due to injury, and wideout Danny Amendola missed five. Brady was been forced to rely heavily on rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. That the Patriots wemt 12-4 is a tribute to Brady's patience and presence.
Rich Gannon played quarterback for the Vikings, Redskins, Chiefs and Raiders from 1987 to 2004, was a two-time Pro Bowl MVP and the 2002 NFL MVP. He was on the other side of the field in January 2002 when Brady got the benefit of the "Tuck Rule" and the Patriots beat the Raiders on their way to the franchise's first Super Bowl victory.
"Both guys understand their own strengths and limitations as well as anyone," said Gannon, now an analyst for CBS and SiriusXM. "They are masters of their domain, understanding personnel around them and what they're able to do.
"They both have a terrific understanding of defensive football. You never see them surprised -- by a corner blitz, a free safety blitz -- or get hit in the back of the head. It never happens."
Gannon says their longevity and sustained excellence begins with their heads -- and feet.
"Sure, they're genetically gifted," Gannon said, "but they have a great understanding of what's happening around them, where the hot throw is, how long exactly can I hold it? Neither runs particularly well, but if you study them in pocket, they both have good lower body strength and what I call short-area quicks. Slide, reset, slide, reset, and yet always keeping their eyes on the downfield target."
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher spent his last nine years in Tennessee battling Manning's Colts twice a year.
"It's a database," Fisher said. "He doesn't just study what you're doing on defense. He studies you. He knows where you came from, how you got there and what you've called against him 10 years before. I assume he remembers everything."
Both passers have weathered serious injuries and displayed tenacity in returning. Brady was the league's Comeback Player of the Year in 2009 after having the ACL in his left knee shredded the season before. After passing for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns last season, Manning won the same award. He was second to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in the MVP balloting.
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, not surprisingly, has been duly impressed with his new teammate.
"There have been times this season when I haven't seen any quarterback as sharp as he has been," he said of Manning. "The ball just goes where it needs to be. As a defensive back when you play Peyton or Brady, that's the most frustrating thing, because you can do everything right – everything -- with almost no window and the ball is still in there.
"It's not the big-arm guys who scare you, it's the guys who know what to do with the ball and have the accuracy to put it in there where their guy makes a play. Peyton has it. He knows you, how you play, how you played in the past, how you probably will play in the future."
Tedy Bruschi, who played linebacker for the Patriots from 1996 to 2008, said he never played against a better quarterback than Manning.
"I've been around a quarterback but never played against a quarterback that challenged you so much intellectually," said Bruschi, who is now an ESPN analyst. "He's running plays based on what he studied in the film, so it's like you have to study not just him, but study yourself. Self-scouting. When we're in this look, this is what we've always done. He knows this, so we have to show something else to get to that.
"The word disguise is used, but I think it's more of a self-scout. If you self-scout yourself well and realize what you're telling an offense, what you've shown before, that's key, because otherwise he's going to find an answer."
The inescapable postseason factor
The other major difference in these two careers is postseason play. Brady is 18-7 in playoff games, and Manning is 10-11. Eight of the 13 times Manning has led his team into the postseason, his team lost its first game.
The three times they've met in the postseason -- Brady is 2-1 -- the winner has gone on to win the Super Bowl. Three times in fives Super Bowl trips, Brady has won the ultimate game. Manning has one championship ring in two trips. In the minds of many observers, that is the deciding factor in the Brady-Manning debate.
Trent Dilfer, who quarterbacked the Ravens to victory in Super Bowl XXXV and now works as an ESPN analyst, has a unique perspective on "that championship thing."
Dilfer laughed when the subject came up and offered, "They are two of the best to win the Super Bowl. I'm known as the worst. Everybody can weigh in on stats and arm strength, but the essence of these two guys is their souls. They get the gravity of the position.
"At the end of the day, it's their minds. They beat you before the snap 80 percent of the time. They've already opened up the envelope and read your mail before you have. The other 20? Their ability to process information means they're going to beat you on 15 of the remaining 20. They torch you 95 percent of the day."
For what it's worth, Brady's and Manning's career playoff statistics are fairly comparable. Brady's career postseason passer rating is 87.2. Manning's is 88.6.
Polian thinks both quarterbacks, like Marino was, will be first-ballot Hall of Famers and could wind up ranked among the top five ever. Like Dilfer, he discounts the value of Super Bowl rings -- although he clearly is biased.
"That is to me an artificial argument," said Polian, who was the Colts' team president from 1997 to 2011. "First of all, Peyton Manning has been to two Super Bowls, Tom Brady to five. The three Tom won were largely because of a phenomenal defense. The two he lost was because the defense wasn't as good.
"The one Peyton won was because of how well the defense played through the playoffs, when we finally got things straightened out. The Super Bowl we lost, the defense played as poorly as it did all year."
Some league insiders, who wish to remain anonymous, believe it will take at least one more Super Bowl ring for Manning to pass Brady in the legacy department.
"Manning's statistical accomplishments mask to some degree the number of Super Bowls he didn't win," said Casserly, an NFL Network analyst. "Brady, you can't look past the three Super Bowls he won -- could have been five. Those two losses were both a matter of inches.
"I think our era will appreciate Brady more."
Picasso versus Michelangelo
Welker averaged 112 receptions per season in his six years with New England and led the league three times. Welker, who signed a two-year, $12 million deal with Denver in the offseason, found another schematic soul mate in Manning, who says they sometimes discuss coverages that defenses showed five and six years ago.
"It was by design; it was intentional," Welker said. "There weren't too many places I was going to go if I had to go. It's a great situation to be in.
"It's everything you thought. The ball is always just there; it's like a handoff."
Welker has been productive in Denver, too, with 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns despite missing three games. Surely he is as well-positioned as anyone to weigh in on who's better. Unfortunately, Welker consistently has declined to make any kind of comparison.
"They're both spectacular, so I don't think there's too much of a difference between them," he said. "It's like comparing Picasso and Michelangelo."
Bruschi has great respect for Manning but, like Polian, he is biased. He does have an interesting psychological take, though.
"There's always one more level a quarterback needs beyond the arm, the accuracy, the intellect," Bruschi said. "To bring a team to believe that a game can be won at any moment. Peyton has that, but it's more evident with Tom.
"Tom always feels like he has something to prove. He wasn't the golden boy, as Peyton was. High school, college, professional ranks. [Manning's] father was a professional quarterback; he's lived that life. It's his being. Their football childhood was much different, and with that comes different mentalities. Maybe that's to Tom's advantage."
Trying to conclude the debate, as Dilfer points out, is futile.
"It's like in politics," he said. "You'll never see a liberal convince a conservative his way is the right way. No one in the Peyton camp will ever be convinced that Brady's better.
"Both of these guys will go to the Hall of Fame -- and their graves -- with a smile on their face. Why argue? let's put them on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks. In the final analysis, it's not final."
To be determined.
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Scott Brown, Jamison Hensley and Jeff Legwold contributed to this report. Statistics provided by ESPN Stats & Info.