When Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are set to square off, questions are inevitably asked about the rivalry they’ve developed over the years.
Some involved choose to steer away from that narrative.
"At the end of the day, it’s Broncos versus Patriots," Denver coach John Fox said.
Others, like Brady, can’t deny the history between quarterbacks who have each surpassed the other for the single-season record for touchdowns.
"Peyton has been a phenomenal player – so consistent and durable for a long period of time," Brady said. "We’ve had a great rivalry in the AFC East (when Manning was with Indianapolis), and this year is no different."
The best record in the AFC is on the line in this matchup as Manning’s Broncos visit Brady and the New England Patriots on Sunday.
Brady is 10-5 in his career against Manning’s teams, including the playoffs, but the Broncos (6-1) won the most recent matchup 26-16 in last season’s AFC championship game.
Denver jumped out to a 20-point lead in that contest, and it was too late for Brady to engineer a miraculous comeback similar to the one New England completed in last year’s regular-season meeting.
The Broncos led 24-0 at halftime, but Brady threw three touchdown passes as the Patriots won 34-31 in overtime. New England hopes for a better start this time against Denver, which has scored first five times this season.
"They’ve played from ahead, which has been a great advantage for them all season," Brady said. "Hopefully we can get off to a fast start and make them play from behind for once, because you don’t want to get behind these guys too much."
Manning’s 22 touchdown passes are tied for the NFL lead with Andrew Luck after he threw three in last Thursday’s 35-21 win over San Diego. Each of those scores went to Emmanuel Sanders, who signed as a free agent in the offseason and has benefited from Manning spreading the ball around to a plethora of receivers.
"Peyton uses all of his options," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "If they’re open, he throws it to them. Sanders has good speed, good route-running ability, good quickness; smart receiver."
Denver ranks sixth in total offense at 398.4 yards per game, but Manning believes there are improvements to be made.
"It’s still early in the season," he said. "We’re still trying to figure out some things that we’re doing well and that we’re not doing well. Anytime you can win games while still trying to figure out what your identity is, that’s a good thing. We’re starting out on a three-game road stretch in one of the toughest places to play, so it’ll be tough."
The Patriots (6-2) have won 13 straight in Foxborough after routing Chicago 51-23 last week. Brady finished 30 of 35 for 354 yards and five touchdowns – his most since tying his career high of six against Tennessee in 2009.
Three of those scores went to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had nine catches for 149 yards.
"It’s special playing at home. With the crowd noise, it’s going to be a great game," Gronkowski said. "The Denver Broncos are a very, very, very good team – one of the best in the league, if not the best right now. So, we’re very excited for the game. Just have to keep on practicing hard this week."
New England has won four straight since an embarrassing 41-14 loss at Kansas City on Sept. 29, when Brady finished with just 159 yards and threw two interceptions.
Questions arose if Brady was beginning to regress after throwing just four touchdown passes during the Patriots’ 2-2 start, but he’s tossed 14 with zero interceptions during the current winning streak.
"Not much he does surprises me. The guy’s an incredible player," Fox said. "I know we’ve had our problems winning at their place, so it’ll be a huge challenge."
The Broncos have lost four straight in Foxborough, but defensive back Aqib Talib, who made his first Pro Bowl with the Patriots in 2013, will be on their side in this contest.
Talib downplayed facing his former team, but Brady said he knows he’s in for a tough test after going up against Talib in practice during parts of the last two seasons.
Manning has his own challenge with the Patriots’ secondary, such as trying to keep the ball away from cornerback Darrelle Revis.
"We’re trying to get everybody involved," Manning said. "If you’re throwing against (Revis), you better be accurate."
Brady remains focused on the big picture, but he embraces his rivalry with Manning, whose 55 touchdowns last season broke the record of 50 Brady had held since 2007 – when he eclipsed Manning’s previous mark of 49 in 2004.
"Look, you wait a year to play this game," Brady said. "You get one of the best teams in the league against us, and we feel like we’re a pretty good team, and that’s why you play the game. It doesn’t get any better than this."