The events leading up to September 30, 2001 are detailed, somewhere — probably filed away in bankers boxes in a damp basement underneath NFL headquarters, never to be seen again. The records will show that football was played before then, but it wasn’t until that fateful September afternoon just over 12 years ago that football was really PLAYED.

That was the afternoon a young backup named Tom Brady took the reigns for the New England Patriots, filling in for an injured Drew Bledsoe. The high powered offense of the Indianapolis Colts, led by Peyton Manning, was coming to town, and Indy was heavily favored. A sixth-round pick out of Michigan, no one expected much from Brady — filling in as a serviceable stop-gap until Bledsoe was healthy was his ceiling. Instead, he pulled off the unthinkable, and led the Patriots to a 44-13 victory. They’d go on to win the Super Bowl later that season, the first of Brady’s three championships.

No one knew it at the time, but football wouldn’t be the same again.

Since that day, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have played against each other more times than any two opponents in the long, storied history of professional football. Usually in the playoffs. Each time it’s more magical, more spellbinding, than the last. On Sunday, this pair of legends, in the twilight of their careers, will lace it up one more time in the AFC Championship game.

This is the never-before-heard story of football’s most cherished rivalry, as told by those closest to them.

*****

This Sunday. Only, on CBS.

Jim Nantz: Manning vs. Brady? Well, it’s a tradition unlike any other. Two men, polar opposites — one brains, the other beauty — have managed to set the stage for a real barn-burner of an AFC Championship. Only one will go on to play in this year’s Super Bowl, but when THE BOOK is written, you’ll be able to find both in the chapter titled ELITE. Should be one for the ages, right partner?

Phil Simms: I think I’m sitting in pudding, JEEM.

*****

The Beginning

Jim Mora: Shiiiit. Yeah, I remember that first game. Brady beat our ass. Plain and simple. 2001 was a rough year. Didn’t even make the…well, you know.

Darren Rovell: .@coorslight posted a 37% increase in revenue after featuring NFL coaches in their commercials. #playoffs

Phil Lumbar, Colts Fan/truck driver on disability leave: Oooh, I love Coors Light. Can’t drink it any more on account a muh bum ticker though, you know? Anyway, Manning-Brady always was a big rivalry, they played it up all week on the TV, but Peyton never did have much luck in those early games. Reckon he lost more than he won. Really fell on his keyster in that first game in 2001. Threw a buncha interceptions. We’ll get that nancy boy Brady this go round, though.

[Wipes pork rind dust-covered hands on his half Colts, half Broncos #18 jersey]

Peyton Manning: Shucks, well I am 4-10 all time against Tom. The first game was a real fuddyduddy. We got pancaked, that’s for sure. Boy, did I spend a lotta time in the film room after that one. Speaking of pancakes, stop by a Denver area Denny’s this week, mention my name, and you’ll get 50% any order that includes Moons Over My Hammy!

[Cashes endorsement check]

Tom Brady: Oh yeah, 10-4 baby!

[Flashes toothy grin]

[Shrugs]

That first game against Peyton? Remember it like it was yesterday. They came into our house, supposedly the best offense in the NFL, and we beat them good. Real good. Got them the next several times after that too, didn’t we fellas?

[Goes for high five]

[Left hanging]

Seriously though, I have nothing but respect for Peyton and those guys. The Colts had good teams back then. Make sure you tell them that. Especially Marvin.

Marvin Harrison: [Files the serial number off a gun]

What was the question?

Mora: Peyton was the greatest quarterback I ever coached. And I’m not just saying that because he gave me a job at Denny’s.

*****

Family Men

Archie Manning: I’ll tell you this much…watching Peyton play football was the greatest gift I’ve been given as a father.

Eli Manning: [Puts a Slinky in the microwave]

Peyton Manning: Gosh, you know if there’s one thing in my life I love, it’s my family. But if there’s two things I love, it’s my family and football. It’s all we talk about! And thanks to the AT&T Wireless Family Plan, we can do that whether we’re together or far apart!

[Cashes endorsement check]

Cooper Manning: I fucking hate football.

Eli Manning: [Looks at his Super Bowl rings]

I have TWO knuckle sleeves. Peyton has ONE knuckle sleeve.

Peyton Manning: [Pushes Eli down the stairs]

Gisele Bündchen: Tom Brady is the kindest, sweetest, most gentle man I’ve ever known. He’s the love of my life, my reason for living, and I can’t imagine anyone I’d rather spend the rest of my life with, or call the father of my children.

Bridget Moynahan: Tom Brady is an asshole.

Tom Brady: [Flashes toothy grin]

[Shrugs]

Marshall Williams Manning, almost 3 years old: [Looks up from a stack of All-22 images]

Tom Brady won his first six games against my old man. If you’ve watched the tape, really poured over it, as I have thousands of times now, you’ll notice that pops is constantly making adjustments at the line, audibling here, redirecting receivers there. That makes him dangerous, but it also makes him vulnerable, especially to a devils-in-the-details guy like Bill Belichick, who’d constantly challenge him with new blitz packages and schemes, something my dad never quite had the right answer for. Here, look at this formation he threw at the Colts in 2005.

[Telestrates what Peyton should’ve done on his iPad]

Peyton Manning: That’s my boy!

Ashley Manning: Being the mother of Peyton Manning’s son is a unique responsibility. On good days, he’s brilliant. On bad days, it’s hard to find friends in daycare who understand the intricacies of picking apart a cover 2.

Marshall Williams Manning: Winners don’t need friends. Now if you’ll excuse me, this game plan isn’t going to draw itself up now, is it? Hand me that durable, long-lasting Sharpie pen, will you?

[Puts endorsement check in his piggy bank]

*****

But What Will Sunday’s Game Mean For Their Legacy?

Pete Prisco: Give me a break. Neither one of these chumps has shown me anything yet. Talk to me after the Super Bowl.

Peter King: You’ve got the record, Peyton. You’ve got the rings, Tom. When it comes time for me and my Hall of Fame colleagues to sit in the room and discuss these two men, there isn’t a question that both won’t not make it into Canton, methinks. Lofty numbers, they’ve got in spades.

Tony Dungy: Oh Peter. It’s colleagues and I. But on a more serious note, Peyton Manning is a fine Presbyterian, not to mention the greatest player I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching. His legacy, win or lose, is something any person of good character would be wise to emulate.

PK: You’re a good man, Tony Dungy. Whatever happens on Sunday, I know someone in Boston will be there to help Tom pick up the pieces and start training for next season. Isn’t that right, Dustin Pedroia?

Dan Shaughnessy: The Patriots are terrible. Everyone but me in Boston is just too stupid to realize that. Broncos by three touchdowns. And for the record, the only hall Tom Brady belongs in is one leading to the loser’s locker room. Sorry. But I’m really not.

Jerry O’Boyle, Patriots fan/member of Pipe Fitter’s Union #369: Dan Shaw-NAHSTY is NAWT welcome at the lahdge with me and the boys. Mattah fact, if I see that red haihed FACK owt at MY BAH aftah Sunday’s game, I’m gawna FACK UP his face with a SAHWKET WRENCH. TAWM BRAHDY IS A GAWD IN THESE PAHTS.

Prisco: Have they torn down that dump Candlestick Part yet?

Jon Gruden: I CALL PEYTON REX, BECAUSE WHEN THAT MANNING IS FIRING ON ALL CYLINDERS, IT’S “SAY NO MORE, MON AMOUR!

Roger Goodell: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are fine ambassadors for this league. Is it convenient they seem to command all the attention every time I’m getting sued? You’ll have to talk to my lawyers about that.

*****

The Supporting Cast

Bill Belichick: …grumblegrumble…ilovetombradylikeiloveyouraunt’stits…grumblegrumble…

Jim Caldwell:

Peyton Manning: Boy, I’ve had a lot of great teammates and coaches over the years. We’ve been through a lot together. Played in a lot of big games. And when you’re trying to satisfy that appetite you get after a big game, nothing does the trick like Papa John’s…

like Papa John’s…

like Papa John’s…

like Papa John’s…

like Papa John’s…

like Papa John’s…

Papa John: [Thumps Peyton in the head with a pizza peel]

Sometimes the branding algorithm misfires. That should fix it.

Peyton Manning: Thanks Papa.

[Cashes endorsement check]

Papa John: Any time.

[Heads to a swingers party with Rick Pitino]

Donald Brown: Go Pats.

Brandon Stokley: [Opens mouth to speak]

[Gets concussed]

Wes Welker: I’m a hands guy. Always have been. And I’ve spent my entire career playing with both of these fellas. On one hand, Peyton is more of a dirt and spit kinda guy. On the other hand, Tom is fancier, more of a soothing, perfumey, aloe-based lotion kinda guy. I would know. My palms have serviced both of them.

Peyton Manning: Aw, shucks Wes. Quit it with the dirty metaphors you rascal. What he meant to say is that his hands have, uh, caught more of our passes than anyone else. Yeah, that’s what you meant. Right?

Welker: Metaphor? I was talking about jerki…

Peyton Manning: WES!

Tom Brady: [Flashes toothy grin]

[Shrugs]