FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have six MVP awards between them in the regular season. They have three more in the Super Bowl.
On Sunday night, two of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks will meet for the 14th time. But there’s a new twist.
One of them is mired in the middle of the league’s passer ratings instead of being near the top.
Brady and his rebuilt receiving corps have suffered through growing pains while Manning’s deep group of pass catchers helped the Denver Broncos (9-1) become the NFL’s best offense going into the prime-time game against the New England Patriots (7-3).
So Brady must find a way to outscore a team averaging 39.8 points per game.
“Our offense right now is very different than it’s ever been,” he said. “Everything that we do has a different feel to it. We’ve had so many new players.”
Manning threw seven touchdown passes in the season opener and is the league’s second highest rated passer. Brady didn’t reach that total until his fourth game and was tied for 18th in the rankings after Monday night’s 24-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
But those numbers don’t fool the Broncos.
“He’s definitely one of the best,” Denver safety Mike Adams said. “You can never count him out, whether they’re leading, whether they’re down. He’s one of the comeback kids. He always comes back in the fourth quarter.”
He didn’t have to do that in the first matchup of his career with Manning. In Brady’s second start as a pro, the Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts 44-13 in the third game of 2001.
Now, 12 years later, Brady is 9-4 against Manning with 23 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Manning has thrown for 27 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in those games.
And he lost his first matchup with Brady after joining the Broncos, 31-21 in Week 5 last year. Both completed more than 70 percent of their passes in that game.
“That was early in the season for kind of a new team, certainly a new offense,” Manning said.
Since then, he’s led the Broncos to a 20-1 regular-season record.
Now he’s headed to a familiar place.
“It seems like I sure do go there a lot, out there to Foxborough,” Manning said. “I think it’s pretty well documented my respect for Tom as a quarterback, the way he prepares.”
The feeling, of course, is mutual.
“He’s got those guys going since the moment he walked into that program,” Brady said of Manning. “He seems to have brought a different dynamic to it and they’ve been winning a bunch of games.
“He’s a great player, a great motivator and a great leader.”
Manning’s only defeat this season came in his return to Indianapolis, a 39-33 loss in the seventh game. He threw an interception, lost a fumble, was sacked four times and had passes sail on him. But with Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas, he has plenty of talented targets.
Brady’s three losses have been by a total of 14 points. Not bad for a quarterback who lost his best receiver, Welker, to free agency, played without Rob Gronkowski for the first six games and had to get used to rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins.
“Both of these quarterbacks are super players,” Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio said. “They are great competitors. They have that drive not only to excel individually but to ensure that their team and their teammates around them, that they are all doing their part. That’s what makes them special.”
Manning is coming off his lowest scoring game of the year, a 27-17 win over the stout defense of the previously unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs.
Brady had his third lowest scoring game of the season against the stingy Panthers.
But the Broncos have allowed the 10th most yards and the Patriots the 13th most, so Manning and Brady could put up some big numbers on Sunday night.
“Our offense knows what kind of challenge our defense is facing going against Tom and that offense,” Manning said. “Their offense is capable of scoring points, scoring points quickly, and, certainly, if you had a lead how quickly they’re able to come back.”
So can the Broncos.
“It starts with Peyton,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. “They do a great job, especially with Peyton being able to understand what the defense is that you’re in.”
Brady is 36, Manning is 37, and both quarterbacks could excel for several more years.
“They have both impacted their respective organizations, where they’ve been, in an incredible way,” Del Rio said. “They have played at the highest level and they have had some great matchups.”