Jim Kelly, fresh from an elk-hunting expedition in New Mexico, is sitting in the Buffalo Bills' media room in Orchard Park, N.Y., when, almost imperceptibly, his eyes narrow.
"You're a coach," the interviewer begins, "you're playing in the Super Bowl "
Kelly, who has been gamely answering questions about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, was always a quick study, even against the NFL's best defenses.
"Nice try," the former Bills quarterback says, laughing. "I'm not going to answer your question -- even before you ask it."
" who starts?" the interviewer concludes.
Kelly shakes his head and closes his eyes.
"I've seen them both do things and see things that your average quarterback would not see -- I probably might not have seen," he says. "They're in a league of their own right now."
As the breathless countdown to Armageddon winds down -- even many nonfans know that Brady's 8-0 Patriots visit Manning's 7-0 Colts on Sunday afternoon -- this question has dominated the watercooler, sports talk radio circuit:
Who's the better quarterback: Manning or Brady?
This is a loaded question because there are so many variables in play. Manning, who has played three more full seasons than Brady, has a huge advantage in regular-season statistics. He has thrown for 111 more touchdowns and more than 15,000 more yards. Last season, Manning broke through and won his first Super Bowl ring. Brady, of course, already had three.
What makes the question so suddenly arresting is the odd trading-places phenomenon we're seeing this season. With the addition of receivers Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth, and a mad-at-the-world head coach, Brady looks like the flame-throwing Manning circa 2004. At the same time, Manning's numbers have grown more modest and he's managing games in the same meticulous fashion as Brady in the Patriots' Super Bowl runs of 2001, 2003 and 2004.
Brady leads the league in completions (198), yards (2,431), completion percentage (74.2), touchdowns (30) and passer rating (136.2). He is on pace to obliterate Manning's season record of 49 touchdown passes and his passer-rating mark of 121.1, both set in 2004. The Patriots have scored 149 points in their past three games, the most by any team in a three-game span since the 1950 Los Angeles Rams.
Manning, meanwhile, is tied with Jacksonville's David Garrard for the league's second-best passer rating, 102.9, sits No. 5 in passing yardage (1,832) and is tied for No. 6 in touchdowns (13) with his brother Eli.
Not only are Manning and Brady viewed as the best quarterbacks in the game by a wide margin, they are supported by two of the best organizations. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, Manning and head coach Tony Dungy have forged the best coach-QB record, 67-20 (.770). Brady and Bill Belichick are next, at 78-24 (.765).
Between them, they've won four of the past six Super Bowls. One of them is likely to make it five of seven, which probably will skew the argument in favor of the winner -- at least for a year.
None of this is lost on their fellow quarterbacks. But to find true peers for these two, you need to go to Canton, Ohio -- destined to be the final football address for Manning and Brady. Of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 241 enshrined players, 28 played quarterback. ESPN queried four of them within the past week on these two ethereal signal-callers.
Warren Moon, Steve Young and Bob Griese, like Kelly, declined to choose one as their favored Super Bowl starter. Still, clearly, they have been watching. Their insights, assembled in the style of a roundtable:
How good are they?
Griese: They're both on good teams, but they have a lot of talent, a lot of skill, smart, tall -- something I never had -- strong arms -- something I never had. Just because they have talent doesn't mean they stop there; they spend a lot of time working at it and trying to get better when other guys that maybe were as talented wouldn't do that.
Moon: There are so many similarities. With these two guys, you could almost take them and put them inside the same body.
Young: They have a passion for the position. There's an art form to the position. It's about mastering everything that happens on the field. You know more about what's going on the football field than anybody else, and when you master that, that's when you truly can play the art form of quarterback. I mean, a lot of the quarterbacks are like "I'm a player, I just make plays, I don't need to study, I don't need to get into the nitty-gritty." I appreciate both of these guys for continuing the legacy of great quarterbacks because of what they're willing to sacrifice to master the position.
Griese: They get along with their teammates, they pass the credit around. You always see these guys going after a good drive, after a good touchdown, they'll always go over to the offensive line, slapping hands, head-butting. You love to see that.
Kelly: Tom's picture-perfect. And I [first] saw that in a playoff game [versus the Raiders in the 2001 divisional playoffs]. The wind was blowing hard, and he was just throwing darts -- comebacks and deep square-ins. He's putting the ball on the money, and I'm saying, "That guy's going to be good." But I never thought he'd be this good.
Griese: Whoever said you had to establish the run before you got to the pass? I mean, these guys don't do that. They just come out, "All right, we're going to spread you out from one sideline to the next, and you've got to cover Welker, and you've got to cover Moss, you've got cover this guy."
Kelly: One of the main ingredients is having people around you. Tom's finally got another guy in Randy Moss. When I saw that addition to that team, I was like, "Ouch!" And I'm speaking from the Buffalo Bills' side when I say "Ouch!"
Griese: What's he [Brady] got, 30 touchdown passes? Does that mean he's going to have 30 touchdown passes in the second half? I don't think so, because that never happens. I still think he has a ways to go before he breaks the record.
Kelly: The 30 touchdowns, I mean, that is remarkable, it really is. That's astonishing. But more than just the touchdowns, the interceptions. Two picks? That, to me, is almost as startling as the touchdowns are, because you know you have to drop back, they studied their film, you're playing against teams that have watched you week in and week out and getting prepared for you. I don't even know if you can dream of having a year like he's having.
Young: The first thing that sticks to my mind [about Brady] is Joe Montana. There's been a couple guys that are accurate with the football, that are uncannily accurate like off balance. When I see Tom play, and when he throws the football it's as if the ball leaves the end of his finger and it's like pointed right where it needs to go and it ends up going right there.
Griese: Brady's offense sometimes just comes out and says the hell with the run, we're going to spread you out and we're going to throw from the opening get-go. Fifteen of the first 18 plays sometimes are passes, but that's not the way Indianapolis does it. They want to establish the run or at least do a lot of run fakes, play-action passes.
Kelly: [I'm impressed with Peyton's] quickness, as far as his release. He's willing to throw it into double-, triple-coverage, but the thing about him is he can do it. Peyton seems to get it where nobody else can with the rifle arm that he has.
Griese: I think Peyton is more of a coach on the field. When he gets to the line of scrimmage, he has the option of calling two or three different plays that he called in the huddle. He sees what they're doing, and he gets them into the best play.
Kelly: [They are] probably even. As far as Peyton, he does a lot more audibling. I think people might feel he prepares more, but I'm sure Tom has dissected every defense he's gone against. And that's how you become great, how you throw 30 touchdowns and only two interceptions. You've got to prepare to throw those numbers out there.
Moon: They both put so much time into it, probably as much as any quarterback not just in the league right now, but probably any that have ever played the game. Because of their preparation, they're a step ahead of everybody, and they almost know at the snap of the ball where the defense is going to be and where they're going with the football.
Young: I don't see a differentiation, I really don't. Nice long balls from both of them, both very accurate.
Moon: I'd have to say Peyton has probably the stronger arm, just from what I see, but Tom will surprise you every now and then with some of his throws down the field that he really puts some mustard on.
Kelly: Peyton's deep ball, the ones I've always seen, he's hitting them between 30 and 40 yards. I've seen Tom unleash a few bombs. Maybe I'll give that one to Tom.
Kelly: Well, they both have great offensive lines, they don't need to move too much. I would say Peyton Manning, because I think he's a little quicker in the feet. Tom just glides.
Moon: They don't scramble very much, but they move around so well in the pocket. I think because maybe Tom is a little bit younger maybe he might have the advantage now, just because he hasn't been beaten on as much.
Griese: They're horrible runners, lousy runners, [but] I'd say Brady. Peyton's more of a guy that's going to get rid of the ball if he sees he's running out of time. Tom is more likely maybe to slide around a little bit, step up, step around, move around and buy time that way and not throw it away so quickly.
Young: I think they're both sneaky mobile. None of them is going to run for 40 yards a game, but I think they are uncanny in their ability to move in the pocket, make the first guy miss. You can't play in this game unless you can make the unblocked guy miss and then deliver the football, and both can do that.
Young: You see the subtleties in both of their games, little pump fakes, shoulder turns, eyes move one direction and then they come back and deliver the football to somebody else. They are toying with defenses at this point.
Kelly: Again, a toss-up, but maybe Peyton because his system, he has to come up with so many more audibles. And I think maybe Tom relies on the play coming in from the sideline. With their decision-making, that's why they're at the top of their game now.
Moon: I'd probably give Tom the advantage there. He's probably not going to force as many things. Because Peyton does have the great arm, he feels like sometimes he can get balls in there that maybe some other quarterbacks can't, and that might get him into trouble every now and then.
Griese: One might be a little bit better than the other, but what difference does it make? They're so much farther along than all the rest that it doesn't make any difference.
Young: Peyton [has] the ability, the uncanny ability to read kind of people's body language, but neither of them is deficient in any way in reading blitz and finding out formation changes, personnel. I have a feeling that both of them enjoy attacking defenses personally. It's like they pick people out to go pick on.
Kelly: Neither one of them really needs a two-minute drill, do they? Since Peyton runs the no-huddle, maybe give it to him.
Griese: I'm just trying to think how many times I've seen these guys do a two-minute drill. I mean, they're both undefeated.
Moon: I'd give the edge right now to Tom only because he's won some big Super Bowls with those two-minute drills at the end of the ballgame getting into field goal range.
Young: Both of them do a great job in a two-minute drill of not trying to take too much early; throw the flat, throw the flat, check it down, get the ball moving and then they make that big strike right around midfield. That's all you need in a two-minute drill is one big play right around midfield, and both of them definitely have that down.
Griese: I can't separate them as far as leadership's concerned.
Young: I think more has been asked of Peyton because of the team that he plays for, that defense he had to carry. Last year he carried that team a number of weekends where they really wouldn't have even had a chance without him.
Moon: You look at their football teams and you ask anybody on their team who the leader of their team is and they're going to say Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Peyton has been in the league a little bit longer than Tom and has probably established himself as the leader on his team earlier in his career.
The last word(s)
Young: You can't say to me, "Pick one," because the truth is if I had a team at a Super Bowl and one of them had to come out the door and it was either one of them, I would say "Hey, great, no problem, no regrets."
Griese: People don't understand that it's a whole team. I mean the defense is very important obviously, the kicking game is very important. Brady, he's been there and done that, but he's had the better team, he's had the better defense. Your offense can be as good as anybody's -- which Indianapolis' had been for the last few years -- but until they got that defense, they didn't get to the Super Bowl.
Kelly: When I talk about Peyton Manning and I talk about Tom Brady, I think of the love of the game. They just love to go out there and play. And, they make it look so easy. They don't like bragging about what they do, they go about their business, they do it the way a classy guy should go about doing it, and that's what I love about those two guys.
Please don't spend your time worrying about who's better, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Truly just get some kind of way to watch them every week and appreciate what they do because it's very rare.
--Steve Young, Hall of Fame QB
Griese: It shouldn't come down to Super Bowl rings because one guy is on a better team than another guy. Both are going to be in the Hall of Fame, both are going to be thought of as two of the best that ever played the game.
Moon: If the season continues to go the way it has for Tom, he'll start to close the gap, because Peyton's numbers are off the chart. The only thing that Tom really had over Peyton was those Super Bowl rings. And now, Peyton has the Super Bowl ring and the numbers to go with it, so Tom is almost on the chase the other way, trying to get closer to him in numbers. But I don't think either one of those guys looks at any of that. They look at the bottom line -- they want to win football games.
Griese: Everybody wants to separate these guys. Who's better? Who's the best at this? This? This? This? This? Let's just sit back and enjoy them. I mean it's fun to watch them both, especially when they're both on the field at the same time.
Young: These are the two best football players, quarterbacks in the game. They've been that way for a number of years regardless of statistics. There are all kind of aspects to quarterbacking, and people are going to make that argument who's better would be a foolish argument. So please don't spend your time worrying about who's better, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Truly just get some kind of way to watch them every week and appreciate what they do because it's very rare.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.