INDIANAPOLIS >> New England quarterback Tom Brady’s competitive juices were stewing in the locker room, and even his Patriots teammates were surprised.
It was just the Pro Bowl, after all.
The Patriots were fresh off their second straight Super Bowl victory following the 2004 season and confetti was still in their pockets from the parade when Brady and the other Patriots Pro Bowlers waited to be introduced before the game in Honolulu.
Brady leaned between Tedy Bruschi, Adam Vinatieri and some other Patriots and looked at them almost defiantly.
“No one’s ever won three in a row guys,” Brady said, already thinking about a three-peat. “This is what I want, and this is a goal.”
Bruschi was dumbfounded.
“We all looked at him and said, ’Come on Tom!’ It was like ’Take a break,”’ Bruschi remembered. “’Take a little bit of a break and enjoy it.’ I was sort of in disbelief that he was already thinking about what was next, but that’s his competitive drive.”
The Patriots didn’t get their three-peat, and they have not won a Super Bowl since beating Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla.
They reached Super Bowl XLII undefeated following the 2007 season but were upset by the New York Giants, 17-14, on a last-minute pass thrown by Eli Manning.
And tonight, Brady and Manning meet in a Super Bowl rematch dripping with historical overtones for both quarterbacks.
Brady, 34, is on the precipice of winning a fourth Super Bowl championship, which would tie Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw and his boyhood hero Joe Montana for the most by a quarterback.
Manning, playing in the home stadium of his brother, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, will tie his older brother with two Super Bowl appearances and can surpass him with a second victory and a second Super Bowl MVP.
In fact, this is the first Super Bowl in which both starting quarterbacks have won a Super Bowl MVP award. Brady has been the Super Bowl MVP twice and is one of only four players to win the award multiple times, joining two-time winners Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw, and three-time winner Montana.
During the 2011 regular season, Brady passed for a franchise-record 5,235 yards and Manning threw for a club-record 4,933 yards. Their 10,168 combined passing yards will be the most ever by starting quarterbacks in a Super Bowl.
“I expect greatness from this game,” said former NFL wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, who will serve as game analyst for NBC.
Tom Brady and Eli Manning arrived in the NFL in totally different manners.
Brady was a sixth-round pick and the 199th player taken in the 2000 draft. He can rattle off the names of the six quarterbacks drafted ahead of him, including Giovanni Carmazzi of Hofstra, taken in the third round by Brady’s hometown San Francisco 49ers, and Spergon Wynn of West Texas State, taken 16 spots ahead of Brady in the sixth round by Cleveland.
“I remember Tom Brady coming down the old Foxboro Stadium steps with that pizza box under his arm, the skinny beanpole,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said of his first meeting with Brady at a minicamp. “When he introduced himself to me and he said, ’Hi, Mr. Kraft’ and he was about to say who he was and (I said) ’I know who you are, you’re Tom Brady, you’re our sixth-round draft choice.’
“He looked me in the eye and said, ’I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.’ ”
Brady got emotional during an ESPN documentary detailing the six quarterbacks who were drafted ahead of him, and said this week it wasn’t just the 2000 draft that motivated him.
“What you’re always trying to do as an athlete is prove it to yourself,” he said. “You go through a college career and think you do a decent job b?& not that you get overlooked, it’s just that there are other guys who they feel can do a better job b?& so you just keep working hard, you just keep believing in yourself and looking for an opportunity.”
Brady was active for only one game as a rookie and his opportunity came when he was thrust into action in 2001 because of an injury to Drew Bledsoe. In storybook fashion, Brady guided the Patriots to an upset of St. Louis in the Super Bowl, the first of three NFL titles and two Super Bowl MVP awards.
Manning is the son of former NFL MVP quarterback Archie Manning and the younger brother of four-time MVP Peyton Manning . Eli Manning was the first pick in the 2004 draft but was unwilling to play for the San Diego Chargers, so he forced a trade to the Giants.
He served as an understudy to veteran Kurt Warner before before making his first start in the Giants’ ninth game. They lost their first six games Manning started before winning the season finale against Dallas.
No other quarterback has started a game for the Giants since Manning’s first start, a streak of 129 in a row, including the postseason. That’s now the longest streak in the NFL, surpassing Peyton Manning, whose string of 226 ended this year.
But until Eli made that miraculous escape against the New England pass rush and threw to David Tyree, who clutched the football against his helmet for a 32-yard gain in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII, and then the game-winning, 13-yard pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds to play, the feeling around football was that Eli Manning hadn’t lived up to the hype.
He had been 0-2 in the playoffs until 2007, while his brother owned a Super Bowl ring and Super Bowl MVP award.
“Eli has been playing at a high level for a long time,” Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. “It really confuses me when people say he hasn’t played at a high level. At the beginning of the season I said that Eli was in the ’wheelhouse’ of his career.”
The Giants missed the playoffs in 2010, and Manning threw a career-most 25 interceptions. A year later, he shattered franchise records for completions (359), attempts (589) and yards (4,933) with 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
“Last year, he was trying to do so much, and we talked about it,” Reese said. “Our offensive line was banged up, our receivers were banged up. Really, he has been a good quarterback for a long time. People think he just started to play good now. I am not sure who they have been looking at.
“When he was back at Ole Miss in his senior year we went out to scout the guy. He had some very marginal players around him, and they were winning games in the SEC b?& they were beating LSU, they were beating Florida, and he had some little tiny receivers out there, and he just made them better.
“That is one of his strong points that we highlighted is this guy makes everyone around him better. He has continued to do that at this level.”
Brady’s place in NFL history is already assured. He doesn’t need to play another game and his bust will be displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
If Manning were to lose today’s game, he’d still be regarded an elite quarterback. But a win today would almost assure him a spot in the Hall of Fame as well, especially if he has more rings than Peyton.
“There have been very few quarterbacks who have been able to leave this game without having won a Super Bowl and be regarded as one of the greats,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, a three-time Super Bowl champion and former Super Bowl MVP.
“We look at Eli Manning differently after he won the Super Bowl. Whether it’s right or not is irrelevant. The quarterback is ultimately judged on whether you’re able to win championships. b?& when you win a second Super Bowl or multiple Super Bowls b?& if Eli Manning wins another Super Bowl, it puts him in the conversation as one of the all-time greats, and it puts him in the conversation of the Hall of Fame.”
Eli Manning, 31, won’t even touch the subject of what a second Super Bowl win would mean to him.
“As a player, I don’t think about your legacy,” he said. “You prepare to play games, to win games. We have an opportunity to win a championship. That is all I’m thinking about, what this will mean to the New York Giants organization and our fans?
“What will it mean for certain players b?& for a guy like Deon Grant, who has played 12, 13 years and never won a championship? You put your teammates and coaches above yourself, and what it would mean to them.”
Manning, in fact, gave an impassioned speech to his team before it arrived in Indianapolis on how rare this opportunity is. There was little doubt the neck injury that prevented Peyton Manning from playing in 2011 and could put his NFL future in jeopardy was part of the message.
“If you play this game long enough, you realize how precious each season is, and how precious these opportunities are,” Eli Manning said. “You don’t know if you’re going to get a chance to play in another Super Bowl. You don’t know when a season might be cut short on you.
“You understand that in a season when you feel like you have a good team and you have good players, and you have an opportunity where you can win a championship, you don’t want to let those things slip away because you just don’t know if you’re going to get another opportunity.”
Brady said a year ago that he’d like to play until he’s 40 years old. He and coach Bill Belichick already have combined for the most victories by a quarterback-coach tandem since the 1970 merger, with 124 regular-season wins, and there’s no telling how many more Super Bowls they can win.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer said of Brady playing at a high level for the next six years. “Tom is a unique competitor. I think we throw around the term ’great’ too easily. I don’t think we do it with Tom. He’s truly one of the greatest competitors we’ve seen in football. The more people say he can’t, the more he will.
“Tom Brady might have as great a will as anybody in football. Tom works hard enough to maintain the leg strength he needs to be as precise as he is, and if he puts something in his mind that he’s going to do something, he’s a guy that goes out and does it, and there’s very few people in sports like that, talk about the Kobe Bryants and the greats in all sports. So I fully expect him to be playing at 40 if he says he’s going to.”
Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel saw that will first-hand in Super Bowl XXXVI following the 2001 season when the Patriots took over at their 17 with 1:21 left in regulation and the game tied 17-17.
“(Offensive coordinator) Charlie Weis told him, ’Don’t take any chances,’ ” Crennel, the Patriots’ defensive coordinator at the time, recalled, “and Drew was telling him, ’Go for it.’
“And he went for it. On the very first play, one of the Rams players came so close to hitting his passing arm, but he was able to step up, deliver the ball on a crossing pattern.”
Running back J.R. Redmond caught the short pass for 5 yards and got out of bounds to stop the clock. Brady kept pitching, completing five of eight passes for 53 yards, leading to Vinatieri’s game-winning, 48-yard field goal as time expired.
“That first play, in my mind, made the difference,” Crennel said. “It was really close to being a strip sack. He stepped up, got it out of bounds, and that started the drive b?&”
A drive that has led Brady and the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships, five Super Bowl appearances and the unquestioned title as the team of the 2000s.
Yet, the feeling that Brady cannot shake is the agony that followed his only Super Bowl loss, the one to Eli Manning and the Giants four years ago.
“I remember waking up in Arizona the next morning after an hour of sleep thinking, ’That was a nightmare. It didn’t happen.’ Anyone who loses in the playoffs knows it is a difficult thing to deal with.” Brady said.
“When you win, you still probably get an hour of sleep, but that feeling doesn’t go away for a long time.”