Peyton Manning and his brother Eli talk often during the season, particularly during the week when one of them is facing a team the other has already played.
They are five years apart, and Peyton picked on Eli unmercifully as a kid — he used to pin him down and bang his knuckles against his chest until he was able to name all the schools in the Southeastern Conference and when he mastered that, Peyton used to test him on the names of all the NFL teams. But as adults, they count on each other as another trusted set of eyes and ears when studying an upcoming opponent.
In the final game of the 2007 season, Eli and the New York Giants were playing Tom Brady and the Patriots. The Patriots already had the number-one seed in the AFC wrapped up and the Giants had secured a wild-card spot in the NFC. In other years, this game would have had all the ingredients for a meaningless three hours with the goal to rest the starters and make sure they were healthy going into the playoffs.
In the days before the game, Eli’s phone rang. It was Peyton. He wasn’t offering advice on how to take advantage of the Patriots defense, although he finally seemed to have figured out how to beat Bill Belichick’s complex schemes. The Colts had lost to New England by four points earlier in the middle of the season when both teams were undefeated but Manning had won the previous three games.
Peyton needed a favor from Eli. More specifically, he needed Eli to ask the Giants defense for a favor.
Brady was having a magical season. He had thrown forty-eight touchdown passes in the first fifteen games and the Patriots had won them all. Two more touchdown passes and Brady would break the all-time single-season record, which happened to be held by Peyton Manning. He’d had forty-nine in 2004. One more victory and the Patriots would become the first team to put together a perfect 16-0 regular season.
Tom Coughlin decided he was going all-out to beat the Patriots and try to create momentum going into the playoffs after an up-and-down season. It was a questionable maneuver. New York was already locked into the number five playoff seed and couldn’t afford any more injuries. The risk, Coughlin decided, was worth the reward. That was good news for the Manning precinct in Indianapolis. The outcome of the game meant little to the Colts, but Brady’s stats meant everything to Peyton Manning.
He called his younger brother and asked him to relay a message to the Giants’ defensive leaders: If the Patriots were going to get into the end zone, he sure would appreciate if it happened on the ground. No touchdown passes, please.
“He said it jokingly, but maybe a little serious in the mix,” Eli Manning said. “I thought I would pass it on to Antonio Pierce.”
It was no joke.
Manning wanted that touchdown record to be enduring just as Dan Marino did when he threw forty-eight back in 1984, shattering the old record of 36 set by Y.A. Title that had stood since 1963. At least Marino’s record lasted twenty years. Manning’s was on the verge of being wiped out after just three years.
Pierce, the Giants middle linebacker, had created headlines that week by claiming Brady walks around “like he’s Prince Charles, like he’s the golden boy,” and complaining that Brady seemed indignant anytime a defensive player managed to lay their hands on him. The Giants did not like Brady. They wanted to knock him around. They were happy to give it their best shot to do Eli’s big brother a favor.
Eli walked over to Pierce in the locker room to relay the message from Peyton: “Hey, you know, if you guys can do whatever you can to not let him break the record, that would be great,” Eli said. “It would be nice if the defense can go out there and not give up any touchdown passes. Maybe let them run the ball in.”
Brady had thrown forty-eight touchdown passes, but that was against the rest of the league. Pierce did not want him breaking the record against the Giants. Eli Manning is hard to read sometimes, even for his teammates. “You think the guy is joking, but then you look at his face,” Pierce said. “He was serious about that.”
Then Pierce laughed. “There might have been a little bit of an incentive for us to try and stop Tom Brady from getting that record,” he said.
The Giants defensive players went out to dinner every Monday and Friday night. Pierce told Eli to inform Peyton that if the Giants prevented Brady from breaking the record, they expected a “parting gift.” He had it all planned out. He would round up the crew for a night in Manhattan with dinner at Del Frisco’s, one of the best steak houses in New York. Pierce got the word to Peyton that if the Giants came through, he would be expected to pick up the check.
The night before the game, at the Hilton Hasbrouck Heights, the Patriots team hotel in New Jersey five miles north of Giants Stadium, backup quarterback Matt Cassel was being prepared by the New England offensive coaches to come into the game in relief of Brady, but he knew he wouldn’t get in until the Patriots were comfortably ahead to secure the undefeated season and Brady had set the touchdown record. “They were talking to me like: What are your favorite passes on the call sheet?” Cassel said. “I’m like, okay, I’m going to get in there and rock and roll. Then it became a tight game and there wasn’t even a question on the sideline. Those guys weren’t coming out of the game. Brady definitely wasn’t getting taken out of the game. The next thing I know the fourth quarter rolls around and Brady is taking a knee and we just went 16-0. I was like, ‘Okay, well maybe next year.’”
The Giants held Brady without a touchdown pass in the first quarter. But on the first play of the second period, he completed a four-yard score to Randy Moss, tying Brady with Manning at forty-nine TD passes. It was also Moss’ twenty-second TD catch of the season, tying him with Jerry Rice for the single-season record. Brady didn’t throw a touchdown in the second or third quarter, giving Manning hope he would at least end the season with a share of the record. It was a lot to ask. Brady came into the game averaging more than three touchdown passes per game. By the fourth quarter, it became clear that the Giants defense could no longer contain him; he was operating the highest scoring offense in NFL history (a record Manning took ownership of in Denver in 2013). The Giants were playing inspired ball and giving the Patriots a huge scare, as they held a 28-16 lead early in the third quarter, still 28-23 going into the fourth.
Brady went deep to Moss down the right sideline on second down early in the fourth quarter, but he was unable to hold on. The Patriots came back with the exact same play on third down, knowing that the Giants secondary couldn’t keep up with Moss. This time, Brady and Moss connected on a 65-yard touchdown with 11:06 remaining, which broke the records of Manning and Rice, putting Brady and Moss on top. It gave New England the lead for good. The Patriots eventually won 38-35 but lost to the Giants five weeks later in the Super Bowl when Brady was held to just one TD pass. Brady got the regular season record. The Giants got the Super Bowl ring. On a smaller scale, they also would have liked to have stopped Brady from making history against them.
“We tried,” Pierce said. “We didn’t just try for Peyton. We obviously tried for ourselves. But that just tells you how competitive those guys are.”
Brady was later told that Manning had implored the Giants defense through Eli to prevent him from breaking the record. He grinned, noting that the Giants didn’t make it easy. “We worked for them that night,” he said.
Brady understood that Manning was trying to protect his turf. Six years later, Manning had forty-seven touchdowns going into the final two games of the 2013 season. He needed three to tie Brady and four to take back the record. He tossed four in the next-to-last game against the Texans to get to fifty-one. He was back on top. In the final game of the year, needing a victory to secure the AFC’s number-one seed over the Patriots, Manning threw another four in the first half against the Raiders. That gave him fifty-five. With the Broncos ahead 31-0 at the half, he sat out the second half.
“He wanted the record back,” Pierce said. “Then he wanted to crush that record a little bit. He went up plus five. As much as Brady and Manning are gentlemen on the field and shake hands and head nod, don’t ever get it twisted one way or the other that these guys don’t want to out-do the other.”
Even when he broke the record, Manning had Brady on his mind. He predicted Brady would break the record in 2014. “I have zero chance,” Brady laughed. “But it’s a very nice thing for him to say.”
Brady was right. He didn’t break the record, and he didn’t come close. He threw thirty-three touchdowns in 2014 but won his fourth Super Bowl. He says he doesn’t care about records. He cares about rings, and it became clear as the years ticked by in their careers that Manning would never catch Brady, even if the Giants tried to help Manning by defeating him twice in the Super Bowl.
Copyright © 2015 by Gary Myers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.