To show how Pro Bowl week can turn the fiercest competitors into a perpetual shaka state of tranquility, even Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick have been known to relax.
Unwind in each other's company, too. It was at the 2006 season's Pro Bowl in Honolulu when Manning and Belichick shared a poolside table. Talked and talked and talked. Phil Simms was there.
“It was a great day,” Simms said this week during a CBS conference call. “As we were doing it, Belichick was reluctant and Peyton goes, 'Come on, sit down. I get to ask you two questions. I get to ask you two questions and you get to ask me two.' ”
In some ways, Manning vs. Tom Brady has been an unfair fight. Brady always had Belichick on his side. Manning was on a playoff tear after torching the Broncos and Chiefs in the 2003 season. It was Belichick who devised a unique defense to shut down Manning and his Indianapolis Colts in 2003 and again in 2004.
Belichick has gone 11-6 against Manning since becoming the Patriots' coach in 2000. Manning finally broke through in 2006 — beating Belichick's Patriots in the AFC championship game, then going on to win the Super Bowl.
So perhaps Manning, who possesses perhaps the highest football IQ ever at the quarterback position, was a little more at ease in asking Belichick, a coaching genius and Manning's intellectual match, to swap thoughts.
“As I remember it, there was reluctance on both sides,” Manning said this week at his locker. “It was a guarded conversation, put it that way.”
Maybe, but there was talking, and there was reading each other, subtly picking up morsels of information to file away.
With Manning and Belichick, there usually is a day each season, sometimes two, when they match minds.
They will meet again Sunday for the second time this season, this time for another AFC championship with Manning playing for the Broncos and at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The biggest question leading into the game should be WWBD. What Will Belichick Do? Because he will come up with something.
“One of the greatest parts of this rivalry through the years has been the way Belichick operates his defense,” Jeff Saturday, Manning's longtime center with the Colts, said during an ESPN conference call Thursday. “We would have a number of football games and they may have been a 3-4 (defense) the whole season and you show up and they're playing a 4-3.
“We've had games where they would start out dropping eight and only rushing three. Not worrying about pressuring the quarterback, but trying to create lane matchups for the quarterback to fit the ball in. And then he would have other games where he would bring pressure and not worry about covering as much over the top.”
There was a famous game in 2009 when Belichick's Patriots had the lead late, but sensing his defense no longer could stop the hot-throwing Manning, went for it on fourth-and-2 deep in his own territory. That decision didn't work out.
But in a Nov. 24 game this season against Denver, Belichick gave Manning the ball first after winning the overtime coin toss. Belichick bet Manning couldn't score against a stiff wind in New England on his first possession.
He won that bet.
That also was the game during which Belichick used only five or six defenders in the box, daring Denver to run. And run Denver did: Knowshon Moreno gained 224 of the Broncos' 280 yards rushing that night. Problem is, Manning threw for only 150 yards and the Broncos lost 34-31. That strategy shouldn't have worked because the Broncos led 24-0 at halftime, but two second-half turnovers got New England back in the game.
“If you look at the last game, he still had the utmost respect for Peyton Manning because he says 'I don't believe Knowshon Moreno can beat me running the football,' ” said CBS analyst Shannon Sharpe, a former Broncos star. “'I'm so convinced of that, I'm going to let you rush for over 200 yards with one guy.'”
Where Belichick really made his mark against Manning, though, was in the AFC title game of the 2003 season. Manning was scorching hot, throwing for eight touchdowns (zero interceptions) and 681 yards while producing a combined 79 points in two playoff victories over the Broncos and Chiefs.
But in the AFC championship game against Belichick's Pats, Manning threw four interceptions in a 24-14 loss. By the start of the next season, the NFL had changed the rules so that defensive backs couldn't maul receivers — as Belichick's secondary did during that AFC title game against Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley.
“We had come off record numbers against the Chiefs and played really well, and we went into New England and those guys mugged our receivers,” Saturday said. “They jammed them on the line. They would grab or hold our tight ends, or Willie McGinest would give them a shot on the way out.
“It was particularly effective because no one had done that to us and it messed up the timing of the routes. They knew that if they could ride our receivers for three or four extra steps, they were willing to give up a holding call or willing to give up a potential penalty to not give up the big play. And what that did to an offense like ours is, it made us move into a slow, rushing style, or a check down, or even a screen-type team. Which played into their strength.”Solving Mr. Bill
Since Bill Belichick became New England's head coach in 2000, the Patriots are 11-6 against Peyton Manning-led teams, including a 2-1 record in playoff meetings. In those 17 games, Manning has thrown 35 touchdown passes and 23 interceptions while his teams have averaged 24.1 points per game. A look at Manning's three playoff games against the Belichick-coached Patriots:2003AFC championshipL, 24-142004DivisionalL, 20-32006AFC championshipW, 38-24
Mike Klis covers the Denver Broncos and the NFL for Digital First Media at The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @mikeklis.