- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH -- You wonder if they even recognized each other, these two veteran champions who for more than a decade so ardently competed against one another during one grueling, violent and draining NFL season after another, yet still managed to slip into a familar, even congenial relationship when the games finally ceased.
For as long as Tom Brady has played professional football, his rival (and offseason friend) Peyton Manning lined up with a blue horseshoe on his helmet. On Sunday, Manning, resplendent in orange, donned a bucking Denver Bronco while he barked orders, redirected receivers and took charge the way he used to when it was the New England Patriots against the Indianapolis Colts and there seemed to be so very much at stake.
Conference championships, tickets to the Super Bowl, bragging rights, MVP trophies, dibs on Adam Vinatieri.
The rivalry was heated, passionate, even nasty at times, yet the quarterbacks always managed to emerge from the battles with their dignity and their respect for one another intact.
That reverence still exists, but it was different Sunday. Weird, even. Manning isn't throwing to Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison anymore (although Demaryius Thomas is certainly an intriguing replacement).
Brady is still a Patriot, but he no longer operates in an empty backfield with four wideouts.
You wonder if it struck Manning as odd that Brady got the better of him in a 31-21 Patriots victory by handing off to Stevan Ridley?
Yes, times have changed for both quarterbacks, each a champion with a cemented legacy, each hungry for another chance to slip on a Super Bowl ring.
Brady has come to accept his best opportunity to snag some additional championship bling is to shepherd a multipronged attack that includes running the ball.
New England rushed the ball 54 times for 251 yards on Sunday, with Brady passing it 31 times.
"It's just time, you know?" veteran receiver Deion Branch said. "It's so important for us to be balanced. For years, it was pass, pass, pass, pass.
"It wasn't bad, but it catches up with you in the end, when you need to run the ball and everyone knows you hardly ever do it."
New England's rushing total against the Denver Broncos was the third most in the Bill Belichick era and marked the first time in 34 years the Patriots have rushed for more than 200 yards in consecutive games.
Remember three short weeks ago when frustrated fans were booing the dysfunctional Patriots for their "run" mentality? Two things have transpired since then: Arizona's stingy defense left town and New England has become more cohesive in its approach.
Against Denver, the Patriots were up to their hips in no-huddle calls, with the goal clearly to hurry up and be quick about being really, really, really fast to the line.
"It takes a lot of concentration," tight end Rob Gronkowski reported, "and all 11 guys working at the same pace."
The idea was to wear down Denver's "new look" defense by forcing the Broncos to make snap decisions as New England implemented its hurry-up attack, in addition to preventing them from being able to usher in fresh substitutes.
The Broncos acknowledged the effect of the Patriots' no-huddle in the quiet of their locker room after the game.
"It was just the speed of the game," linebacker Joe Mays conceded. "We weren't ready for that. We prepared for it but when we came out on the field, it surprised us a little bit."
Branch said it was apparent to him that Denver's defense was expecting Brady to go aerial, like always, and that it was not fully prepared for the pace of the no-huddle.
"I saw it early," Branch said. "You looked at their guys and you could see the fatigue. You could see guys standing around with their hands on their waists."
In the late stages of the second quarter, when New England took over on its own 2-yard line, Brady threw the ball on four of the first five plays of the series.
But once the Patriots got the ball to their 36-yard line, seven of the final eight calls on the drive were running plays. By the time Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 23-yard field goal, New England had chewed up 90 yards and 5:01 of the game clock.
You can be sure Manning was wondering what was going on with his former gun-slinging pal. When Denver's QB was down 31-7 and starting at his own 10-yard line, he marched his team all the way to the end zone with nine passing plays and one anemic rushing attempt by Willis McGahee, who needed 1 yard to score and was stuffed for a loss of 1 instead.
Manning attempted to strike some old-fashioned fear into the hearts of the Patriots' defense (remember the 2006 AFC Championship Game when he led the Colts from a 21-3 deficit to a stunning 38-34 win?) in the waning moments of the game. He needed just 1:25 to coax his team into the end zone on a 5-yard Brandon Stokley touchdown catch. That six-play drive, which cut New England's lead to 31-21 consisted of -- you guessed it -- six passing plays.
Perhaps Brady became a tad nostalgic watching the man that he has measured himself against for most of his career throwing the ball all over the field. Conversely, 84 percent of Brady's passes were 14 yards or less. This was a dink-and-dunk attack.
Brady doesn't care. He hasn't won a Super Bowl ring since 2004. He is 35, has a rebuilt ACL in his knee and he knows the clock is ticking, both for him and for Peyton Manning, who is 36 and won his one and only championship in 2006. Since then he has undergone four neck surgeries and his brother has won twice as many rings, both at the expense of the Patriots and Brady.
It's all about the W's. It has to be -- which is why Manning has horses on his helmet while the Colts rebuild with wunderkind Andrew Luck, and Brady has turned to Ridley as one of his redoubtable weapons.
"You can't just drop back and throw it 60 times every game," Brady said.
He's right. The Patriots have built an offense for the long haul, one that is no longer one-dimensional, one that prevents teams from lining up and attempting to tee off on their quarterback every week.
Even so, forgive us if we stop to pause for a moment to appreciate the magnitude of the experience, poise and excellence that graced Gillette Stadium on Sunday. There may never have been another duo like Brady and Manning, who remain as dangerous as any quarterbacks in the league.
"[Manning] still did the things he's done in the past," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "You know, checking plays at the line of scrimmage. Even if it's not vocally, he's still doing hand signals and subtle little things that change the entire play. It's like a chess match out there."
Manning's numbers were superb: 31-of-44 for 345 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. His passer rating was a sparkling 116.2.
Brady checked in with more modest numbers: 23-of-31 for 223 yards and 1 touchdown.
We all know Manning would take Brady's numbers in a heartbeat if they came with a win in tow.
Patriots offensive lineman Donald Thomas grew up watching Manning and Brady dominate the NFL. He confessed that being on the field with both of them was special.
"It's kind of surreal," he admitted, "but you can't really get caught up in it because you're part of it out there.
"It's something I can tell my grandchildren about someday."
Sunday night's win gives Brady a 9-4 advantage in head-to-head meetings with Manning. Asked about that statistic, Brady responded, "Well, I mean, it's Patriots-Broncos."
Manning also refused to engage in the individual rivalry chatter. When asked whether he remembered Brady and the Patriots ever playing at such a high tempo, Manning answered, "It's hard to compare other past games."
Tom and Peyton. Patriots and Broncos. One in orange, the other handing the ball off, and neither with dibs on Vinatieri any longer.
Brady and Manning.
Somehow on Sunday, it just wasn't the same.
Old rivals Tom Brady and Peyton Manning showed some new wrinkles.