The instinct is to savor this moment. Peyton Manning is 38. Tom Brady is 37. They will oppose one another for the 16th time in 13 years Sunday at Gillette Stadium, and the passive observer might conjure an image of two old gladiators preparing for what could be their final fight.
In reality, of course, Manning and Brady will renew their rivalry at its height. Manning won the NFL MVP award last season and owns the league's highest Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) at the midpoint of 2014. Brady has rebounded from a rough start to match Manning completion-for-completion and touchdown-for-touchdown over the past month.
Manning's Denver Broncos and Brady's New England Patriots are among five teams to have posted six victories already this season, and it isn't out of the question that Sunday's game could figure prominently in determining the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff race.
This will all end someday, not nearly as soon as their ages suggest but quicker than the NFL and its fans would like. How long will this rivalry extend? What does the future hold for Manning and Brady, besides of course their eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement? Will we see one (or both) on another Super Bowl trophy presentation stage? For those answers and more, let's turn to a cross section of NFL experts.
How many years do Brady and Manning have left?
Kevin Seifert: Manning has always refused to put a timetable on the endgame of his career, partially because he has seen how quickly an injury can redirect its flow. There is no way to know how long his body will hold up. We do know this: Manning will turn 39 in March, and only four quarterbacks in NFL history have thrown at least 300 passes in a season at age 39 or older: Brett Favre, Warren Moon, Vinny Testaverde and Doug Flutie. The odds are increasingly against him. Manning already owns the career touchdown record (513 and counting), and at his current pace, he could break Favre's record of 71,838 yards sometime next season. Perhaps a Super Bowl victory this season will prompt a retirement, but the guess is he will be back for at least one more season of chasing history.
Field Yates: Brady is currently under contract through the 2017 season, and while he is a ferocious competitor, I do believe he will walk away from the game on his own terms, not simply when his performance dips to the point that he is no longer effective. The metric I always use when assessing how much Brady has left in the tank is this: If you watch him on film and imagine you didn't know his age, would he look like a 37-year-old? My answer is no. Mobility has never been the hallmark of Brady's game, so as long as he stays functionally athletic enough to move in the pocket -- something he has always excelled at -- I envision he'll play through his current contract plus two more years, taking him to age 42.
Jeff Saturday: I think Manning probably has three and, honestly, maybe 10. The way the guy takes care of himself, focuses and studies. I don't see him taking himself out until he feels like doing it. He is so smart. He doesn't take any unnecessary shots and understands the principle of playing another play to extend his career. That allows him to be effective and continue to be as productive as he has been.
Christian Fauria: I'd say Brady probably realistically has four years left. You usually play until you physically and mentally can't take it anymore. Once you physically and mentally can't take it anymore, you usually get two more years after that. So I give him four.
Will either quarterback win another Super Bowl?
Jackie MacMullan: The Patriots always have a chance with Brady behind center, but in recent seasons they've failed to surround him with a supporting cast worthy of the quarterback's skill set. I wonder if Brady plays the game the rest of us in New England do -- peruse opposing rosters and say, "Man, if only I had Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte, like Jay Cutler does." A word of caution: Do not try this at home. Too depressing.
Jeff Legwold: The numbers say the answer is yes for Manning. The Broncos are 32-7 in his regular-season starts, they were the AFC's No. 1 seed in the 2012 and 2013 postseasons, and they are again in the Super Bowl conversation. John Elway and the football staff have positioned this team to be good enough to win the title game. When Manning was trying to decide which team to sign with after his release by the Colts, Elway essentially promised Manning the team would do everything in its power to make sure Manning could end his career the same way Elway did. Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls in his final two seasons.
Matt Williamson: Yes. As it stands right now in late October, I see the Broncos as easily the best team in football. And the path in the AFC to the Super Bowl looks to be much easier than in the NFC. Now, that isn't much different from one year ago, and we know how that worked out, but this Broncos defense is far better than the unit we saw against Seattle in the Super Bowl. If I were to bet right now, I would bet on Denver winning it all this year.
Yates: This is a fascinating question that can probably be framed in a couple of different ways: Is Brady capable of being a Super Bowl-winning quarterback again? Unquestionably. Will he -- be it with the Patriots or another team -- win another Super Bowl? That's not an easy task, as the NFL has a sampling of terrific quarterbacks who are all capable of carrying their team to a Lombardi trophy. Given that, I believe Brady has a window of up to six more years (this season included) that he will play, I'll say yes that Brady will win another Super Bowl.
Will either win another league MVP award?
MacMullan: It seems unlikely that Brady can haul away the coveted MVP hardware at this juncture of his career. His numbers have declined since the salad days of 2007 and Randy Moss. It also doesn't help that Manning, his legend-in-residence measuring stick, continues to generate gaudy numbers week after week after week after week. The names of the league's top running backs will change in the years ahead, but there will always be one like DeMarco Murray waiting in the weeds.
Seifert: Manning not only has a great chance to win another MVP, it could happen this year. He is the NFL's top-rated quarterback, via both passer rating (119.0) and Total QBR (90.1), thanks in part to an NFL-high 8.47 yards per attempt. At the moment, he is completing a higher percentage of his passes (69.0) than he did during his MVP performance in 2013 (68.3). Just as important, Manning is the best player on the best team in the NFL.
Mike Reiss: No for Brady. This latest remarkable four-game stretch aside, Brady's days of putting up the type of statistics that generally warrant MVP consideration are probably in the rearview mirror. That doesn't mean he isn't MVP-worthy, it's just that the things that add up to his excellence are rarely cited when it comes to MVP, such as limiting mistakes with pinpoint accuracy and sharp decision-making (two INTs this year), getting the offense out of bad plays pre-snap and displaying unmatched leadership.
Saturday: Manning's chances are high. Here's the biggest issue for him when you're talking about MVP. He threw 55 touchdown passes last year, and he keeps raising the bar for himself. How many does he have to throw now to be MVP? Everyone is looking at you to one-up your mark, and that may not be possible.
Will they finish their careers with their current teams?
Reiss: Yes for Brady. But truthfully, who really knows? This is a team that traded quarterback Drew Bledsoe, defensive lineman Richard Seymour and guard Logan Mankins, all of whom were viewed as franchise pillars. So to say that Brady will definitely end his career in New England is to ignore the team's unemotional history with top players. But I'll say yes, mainly to counter some of the Boston-based media chatter from just a few weeks ago that perhaps the Patriots would trade Brady this year.
Legwold: Manning has consistently said it was difficult for him to wrap his head around the idea of coming to a new team when the Colts released him. And he has said a search for a new team was not all that enjoyable of an experience. He also has settled in nicely in the Denver, and Elway would want Manning to finish his career with the team. And the way he's playing, Manning would also give the Broncos the best chance to compete for Super Bowls.
Williamson: For sure. I don't have a lot to say about this one other than Manning would be nuts to leave this team, and the Broncos would be nuts to push him away. The only way I see him not finishing his career in Denver is if his game or body would deteriorate rapidly and he decided that he still wasn't ready to hang it up, thus forcing the Broncos' hand to release him.
Fauria: Brady will. You wonder if there's an understanding there between all involved about making sure it will end that way. You saw how it ended with [Brett] Favre, and I don't think he'd want to go the Peyton Manning route. I don't think there are a lot of Troy Browns and Tedy Bruschis out there who start and end with one team, but I'm thinking Brady goes on the same path as a John Elway and end the way he did.
Who will wind up with the better career, Brady or Manning?
MacMullan: This is like asking someone if they like hot fudge sundaes or Boston cream pie. I love 'em both and can easily expound on the qualities of each. If you judge it strictly on rings, Brady will be your man. Peyton will continue his assault on the record books, and his prolific numbers and the impeccable manner in which he carries himself may convince some to nudge the needle in his direction. Give me championships every time.
Seifert: History will view Manning as the better quarterback because of the way he changed the game and the unique way he did it. Quarterbacks had called plays on the field before, but never in the way Manning has developed. He also helped usher in an era in which teams realized they could, and in most cases should, be pass-first teams after decades of run-oriented schemes. And finally, he is playing at least as well at age 38 as he did at age 28, a remarkable achievement. At his height, Brady was as accurate and effective a passer as Manning. But in part because of the Patriots' changing schemes, and in part because of his own fluctuations, Brady didn't sustain the kind of high-level performance that Manning has annually produced. Brady's supporters will note his five Super Bowl appearances and three victories, compared to three and one for Manning. The quarterback is the most important single contributor to championships, but he isn't the only one. The discrepancy is a factor in a comparison between the two, but it shouldn't override the rest.
Reiss: Do we really have to choose? It bothers me that by picking one you almost have to downgrade the other. You can't go wrong either way. The two areas I'd cite in touting Brady are the total championships and the conditions with which he often had to contend. Playing quarterback in New England, as opposed to an indoor environment for half of his games each season as Manning did for 13 years in Indianapolis, is part of the context I always consider when measuring Brady's production.
Legwold: If both did not throw another pass in the NFL, Brady and Manning are already on the shortest of lists when it comes to quarterbacks, and given they played in the same era, they will always be compared to one another. Should Manning close the Super Bowl gap before the two close out what will be Hall of Fame careers, the argument becomes even more difficult. At his current pace, if he plays one more season, Manning will own every significant passing mark in the league's record book, and he could win his sixth MVP award this year, which would extend his own record. Since his spinal fusion surgery, Manning has thrown 114 touchdown passes in 39 games with the Broncos. Manning threw 55 of those touchdown passes at age 37 and has thrown 22 touchdown passes in seven games at age 38. That, too, puts him alone in the league's history. In a career that may already be the league's best in so many ways, Manning is now on uncharted ground, and if he adds one more Super Bowl to his résumé, his career would stand alone.
Williamson: Of course, this is about the most difficult question that I have been consistently asked over the almost 10 years I have been working for ESPN. Both are great. Both are legends. We all know this. My thoughts are that if it ended today, Brady gets the nod. His supporting casts changed much more so than Manning's, and Brady has the rings and postseason acumen, although Brady hasn't exactly been perfect in the postseason of late. However, the longer both play, I think Manning's case gets stronger and stronger -- and we are splitting hairs to begin with. If Denver wins it all this year, Manning is the choice.
Yates: Put it this way: If the two win one more Super Bowl combined during the rest of their NFL careers, I'd give the nod to whichever of those quarterbacks hoists the Lombardi trophy once more. Brady's three Super Bowl championships should not be discounted, but neither should Manning's statistical dominance. If Brady gets one more ring and Manning does not, the four-to-one Super Bowl wins edge trumps Manning's gaudy stats. If Manning wins a second Super Bowl, the one Super Bowl win difference between the two is more than offset by his production -- he'd go down as the better quarterback.
Saturday: Manning. And that's no disrespect to Brady, a Hall of Famer beyond a shadow of a doubt. But you look at Manning -- five MVPs, Super Bowl champion, and when you talk about the quarterback position, Manning has redefined it. He'll essentially break every NFL passing record. How can you not say he's the greatest to play the game? You hear all the talk about Super Bowls being how you're measured. He has been to three. And he can only do his part. The rest of the players have to do their jobs, too. It's team football. But QBs will get all the blame. Peyton has been the best at his position. If you break down what he has done that's under his control, he has maxed it out and redefined the position in the NFL.
Fauria: This question stinks! I'm obviously biased, so you're not going to get an unbiased answer from me regardless of what I do for a living. I won championships with Brady. I was in the trenches with him. I went through tough times with him. I went through good times with him. I'm now watching his career as a retired football player. So I cannot be objective. That's my full disclosure. It's just the way it goes. Brady!