For the past half-dozen years, Tom Brady has been the quarterback with the championships, not the stats. Peyton Manning was the opposite.
Now Manning has his Super Bowl ring and Brady has the statistics, numbers so astounding that if he continues at his current pace, he will throw 62 touchdown passes this season. Yes, 13 more than Manning had two seasons ago, when he broke Dan Marino's mark of 48.
Brady treats it with the ``Aw Shucks'' image he always has projected.
``Our long-term goals are this afternoon's practice,'' he said before preparations for Washington this weekend. That's what he says every time he is pressed about his numbers.
Then the New England quarterback credits everyone from owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick to the equipment manager for the fact he has 27 touchdown passes in seven games and a passer rating of 137.9. That's 20.6 points from perfect under the NFL's puzzling formula and 16.8 points better than Manning's single-season record.
Then he pays special attention to the Patriots' three new wide receivers: Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth. Welker and Moss alone have 91 receptions and 15 touchdown catches between them.
Add those numbers, including a record three or more TD passes in each of his first seven games, to New England's overwhelming start - seven wins, none by less than 17 points and no game with less than 34 points - and Brady could finish at a new level. He's won two Super Bowl MVP trophies, but doesn't have one in the regular season; Manning has two of those.
Ask the NFL's other two elite quarterbacks about Brady and they are alternately bemused and awed.
``I went into the production meeting with the Monday night crew this week and the first five questions were about Brady and the touchdown record and that kind of stuff. I said, 'Y'all know we are playing Jacksonville tomorrow and you are broadcasting it?' `` says Manning, who like Brady is concerned primarily about the next day's practice and the next week's game. He even gets annoyed when fantasy fans are upset with him after games when his stats are ordinary, even if the Colts win.
But Brett Favre, who has three regular-season MVP awards and a Super Bowl ring, seems in awe of Brady's numbers and accomplishments.
``If you go off of championships, he's maybe one of the all-time greatest. Compared to Joe Montana, I think the same thing when I hear those comparisons,'' Favre says. ``I think his footwork and his ability in the pocket is as good as any guy that's ever played. The way he orchestrates his team is as good as any that's ever played. Then you throw in those guys around him.
``If they stay healthy, they could break every record. Obviously it starts with him, but every passing record that's out there. And I thought Peyton's would never be broken. Of course, I'm sure people thought Dan's would never be broken. But he could hit 60 touchdown passes. That sounds crazy, but it could happen.''
The story of how Brady got here is old hat by now.
He was truly an afterthought, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000 after alternating with the much more ballyhooed Drew Henson at Michigan. That basically means when teams thought about him at all, they thought he might someday make a good backup.
But when Drew Bledsoe was seriously injured in the second game of the 2001 season, in stepped Brady. He orchestrated an improbable run to the Super Bowl, including that memorable playoff win over Oakland in the Foxborough snow. Brady and was the Super Bowl MVP in an upset of St. Louis, and really hasn't stopped winning since.
Until this season, however, he was celebrated less for individual accomplishments than for being the leader of championship teams put together perfectly by Belichick and Scott Pioli, New England's personnel director. In fact he was a symbol of the Patriots' makeup, just another piece of an integrated 53-man unit rather than an individual breaking records, as Manning was doing in Indy.
The difference this year is the receivers are so good that the Patriots released Reche Caldwell, who led them in catches last season with 67. Caldwell would have been no better than fifth on this year's depth chart.
Moss, the best wideout in the league when he was in Minnesota, regained that form after two injury-ridden and lackadaisical seasons in Oakland. Beyond that, he's playing hard every down, shedding the image of a self-interested slacker.
Add Welker, the perfect slot receiver, and the speedy Stallworth, plus returning tight end Benjamin Watson, and Brady has weapons like never before.
Now Brady and Manning have arrived from different directions at the same spot, heading for a meeting in Indianapolis next week that will have a major bearing on who goes to the Super Bowl from the AFC. The winner will have the first tiebreaker and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Manning went from being just a guy with records to a ``winner'' after the Colts won the Super Bowl last season, getting there by overcoming a 21-3 deficit to beat Brady and the Patriots in the AFC championship game.
Now Brady has stats that for seven games dwarf anything Manning has done.
It means little. Or so he says.
``I think this team faces challenges each and every week,'' he said last Wednesday. ``Coach told us this morning, `It's not even November yet. We're still in October.' ``
Yes, that's what they all say, especially when ``coach'' is someone with tunnel vision like Belichick. Brady has the same attitude as his coach. So do Manning and all the great QBs, from Favre back through Montana to Roger Staubach to John Unitas.
Brady has already won that three titles. Give him this season for records, but he'd rather have another ring. If he keeps playing this way, who is going to stop him from getting it?

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