Come now to a barely recognizable past.

Wake in New England on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 30, 2001. Midday temperature: 55 degrees. Winds: 22 mph. Relative humidity: 69 percent.

Over there and down there in Foxborough, the vaguely relevant Patriots, 5-11 the previous year and 0-2 after losing to the Bengals 23-17 and the Jets 10-3, will welcome the promising Indianapolis Peytons, 10-6 the previous year, and 2-0 after beating the Jets 45-24 and Buffalo 42-26. Remember, these two play in the same division. (Yes, they do.) Vegas line: Colts by 11.5. Over-under: 45.0.

Worse, New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe, a participant in 124 games out of a possible 130 to date over his career, has just emerged from Massachusetts General Hospital on Thursday after a chest injury that gushed blood. Spelling Bledsoe will be Tom Brady, the afterthought from the University of Michigan who went 5-for-10 for 46 yards in relief the previous week and 1-for-3 for 6 yards the previous year, and who will oppose Manning for the first time.

Nobody much cares.

Howard Ulman of the Associated Press, practicing reason: "It looms as a mammoth mismatch ..."


An NFL prognosticator at a Houston newspaper, cited here while praising the bravery of prognosticators everywhere: "Tom Brady?"

(Rest of his pick: "Colts 30-13.")

Kevin Mannix of the Boston Herald, unquestionably knowledgeable: "Brady doesn't have a great arm but based on what we saw in the preseason and briefly at the end of the Jets game, he's not John Friesz either. We also saw that Brady has a knack of finding receivers early in the routes and doesn't hold the ball for dangerously long periods of time. We also know it took him the entire preseason to beat out Damon Huard for the backup job, so we're not talking about a Pro Bowl player here."

(Damon Huard! John Friesz!)

And Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, postgame: "When you're 0-2 and you play football in New England, you have to expect the ugly chatter to begin. The comment heard most often last week was, 'Why did Bob Kraft hire Bill Belichick?'"

(That clueless Kraft.)

And now Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, wrapping up the NFL Sunday per custom: "The most surprising outcome of the day was New England, woeful and winless, whipping Indianapolis 44-13."

Belichick improved to 6-13 in Foxborough. Linebacker Bryan Cox assured, "We're not a bad football team. We suffer a little from confidence problems ...," quite an assessment of a team that would win that year's Super Bowl. New England outrushed the Colts 177-82, with Antowain Smith gaining 94, and isn't it amazing how these names blaze across our lives and then recede? Brady, manning the fort in his first NFL start, went 13-for-23 for 168 yards, zero touchdowns and zero interceptions for a rating of 79.6.

"It's not like they pulled me off the street and said, 'You're starting,'" he said. "I knew eventually this day was going to come since I started playing football." The gaudy Manning threw three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, and wound up at 48.2 and 0-4 in Foxboro as Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel seemed to have figured out something. (They spent the game rushing three and dropping eight.) Bledsoe, ever decent, said, "I'm ecstatic for Tom," and, "Tom can handle everything out there. He's pretty poised." Brady, auspiciously: "It felt like the practice field."

Chuck Culpepper's greatest
rivalries in sports history
Chuck ranks some of the greatest rivalries in sports based on eight separate elements.
Total score
Magic / Bird
Navratilova / Evert
Russell / Chamberlain
Nicklaus / Palmer
Ali / Frazier
Serena / Venus
Petty / Pearson
Federer / Nadal
Nicklaus / Watson
Nadal / Djokovic
Borg / McEnroe
Federer / Djokovic
Brady / Manning
Sampras / Agassi
DiMaggio / Williams

If that seems 4,488 days ago, that's because it was. If an athlete rivalry can thrive on any of eight elements, this Brady-Manning habit enters its 15th chapter majoring in duration. It reaches back into an era almost Mesozoic, when people wondered whether Belichick was a good hire, and did so out loud, toward other people, even in public, presumably sometimes even on the radio. That's serious, Evert-Navratilovan duration.

In other categories, it's mixed. In the area of contrast between two rivals, where the creepiness of a McEnroe could jibe musically with the ice of a Borg, Brady-Manning comes up weak, presenting similar personalities (polished) with similar backgrounds (fortunate). In the signature-moments division, it's good, if shy of very good, with Manning un-Manning in the two Foxborough playoff games (one touchdown pass, five interceptions), and with the mind clinging otherwise to the 24-20 rumble while New England was clobbering everyone at 8-0 in 2007, Belichick's infamous fourth-and-2 fear of Manning in 2009 and, foremost, the 38-34 wonder of the 2006-07 AFC Championship Game when Manning broke through.

In sustained excellence of both rivals across years, it excels, neither player taking the kind of long Agassi career dip that docked Sampras-Agassi for some dormancy, and both players remaining healthy for almost the whole 12-year plus four-month series, a single missed season from each aside. In pertinence (number of playoff meetings), it's solid, about to hold its fifth bout in a third city. In symbiotic bond between the two, of the Magic-Bird or Evert-Navratilova kind, it doesn't really ring the bell. In transcendence beyond sports into social realms and whatnot, it resonates little.

In the area of close contention, it's one-sided -- Brady's teams winning 10 of 14, Brady having a better quarterback rating in 11 of 14, Manning with more touchdown passes (29-26) but more interceptions (20-12), Brady 2-1 in playoffs -- but not quite enough to quell the promise of a week such as this.

In duration, though, it's among the all-time marvels. It remains as big as it could be this week, and it reaches all the way back to a day when reasonable people who knew their football, including even that unsavvy Belichick, pegged Tom Brady a non-Pro Bowl type, long before time proved them unwittingly accurate, seeing as how you can't play the Pro Bowl much if you're playing the Super Bowl often.

* * *

Part 1: Categories

Duration: How long did it stay viable?

Contrast: How much did the two differ in strategy and personality?

Symbiosis: How much did a mutual respect elevate both?

Signature Moments: How many specific times wound up in future conversation?

Evenness: Did it stay close throughout?

Sustained Excellence: Did both stay good throughout?

Pertinence: Did they meet when it mattered, in playoffs or championships?

Transcendence: Did the significance exceed the sport?

Part 2: Problems

The Health Problem: Evaluating rivalries from different sports and eras, trying to calibrate the points you give to the Ali-Frazier transcendence versus the Agassi-Sampras symbiosis, is not good for your brain.

The Bitterness Problem: On Lap 46 of the penultimate race in Formula One in 1989 in Japan, the two championship rivals crashed into each other not-accidentally, but then, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost didn't need that to establish a riveting contempt. Should hatred have its own rivalry category? We Americans do crave it in our team rivalries such as Auburn-Alabama, but in our big individual rivalries, it's scarce.

The Tennis Problem: Start listing the duos, and tennis starts hoarding the spots. Either it carries around an unusual discrepancy between stars and sub-stars, or its stars through time have done a yeoman's job of finding each other in tournament draws. Discerning between Federer-Djokovic (a male-record 11 Grand Slam meetings), Nadal-Djokovic (also 11 Grand Slam meetings) and Federer-Nadal (10 Grand Slam meetings) becomes yet another of life's invitations to go binge drinking. Worse still, Nadal-Djokovic has pulled up scarily close to Federer-Nadal for signature moments. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, even for Agassi's tumble to No. 141 in the world in 1997 and Sampras' limits at French Opens, met nine times in Grand Slams; Venus and Serena Williams have met 12; and Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert met 22. They say Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux had a rivalry, but they met in playoff series precisely zippo times. Top rival golfers can't meet so often on the back nine on Sunday because golf is too mysterious.

The Golf Problem: Nicklaus-Palmer had more span and significance than Nicklaus-Watson, but did Nicklaus-Watson really have better dramatic moments than Nicklaus-Palmer, given Tom Watson's chip-in at Pebble Beach and the duel at Turnberry? Or did those loud moments benefit from better recentness and better coverage of sports? Why have I heard less about the Nicklaus-Palmer 18-hole playoff at the 1962 U.S. Open, and almost zip about Nicklaus' 1-iron to the pin on No. 17 at Pebble Beach in 1972? Have I been hanging out with the wrong crowd again?

The Baseball Problem: Is it just not an individual-rivalry kind of game? Is that because its individual rivalries happen all the time, day upon summer day, in a fine hum that normalizes this? Should some academic attempt some sort of book about this? No?

The Perception Problem: We perceive what's around us. Duh. So when we make our lists and comparisons, we ought limit them to "American sports" or "American sports plus sports with major events in America." Because if we start trying to factor in, for example, the Sachin Tendulkar-Shane Warne rivalry known to b-b-billions who know cricket, we might drink still more. And who knows which rivalries might lurk in stuff we seldom see, such as curling or roller derby?

The Horse Problem: Affirmed and Alydar had a searing rivalry in 1978, even if Affirmed did go 7-3 and 3-0 in the Triple Crown. It lasted 430 days. As always with great horses, you'd better not blink.

Part 3: Bubbling Under the Big Five

Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning: On a 1-to-5 scale in each category, it scores well for sustained excellence (5) and pertinence (5) but weakly for contrast (1) and transcendence (0). Of course, being the No. 1 NFL rivalry makes it big even if among all sports it's mid-pack (25 points).

Joe DiMaggio vs. Ted Williams: Rich in duration and contrast, it lacks for pertinence and evenness, but it did have that big-stat summer of 1941 (24 points).

A whole heaving bunch of men's tennis: I love watching tennis, but I'd rather watch football, but you'd never think that by the first list I scribbled, after tennis got through hogging spots. McEnroe-Borg (26 points) had peerless contrast and one of the great moments in any sport (the 1980 Wimbledon final), but did you realize they played only four times in Grand Slams? Sampras-Agassi (24 points) raged in pertinence and duration (1989-2002) but flopped in symbiosis and transcendence. The golden-era tangle of Federer-Nadal (31), Nadal-Djokovic (28) and Federer-Djokovic (26) includes one of the greatest matches ever (Federer-Nadal, 2008 Wimbledon), the longest Grand Slam final ever (Nadal-Djokovic, 2012 Australian) and four of the most pertinent major matches of the 2010s (Federer-Djokovic). Would tennis please cut it out?

Jack Nicklaus vs. Tom Watson: For a thing with a quick window of 5-7 years when their primes intersected, it certainly did have a hefty score (30). It won on legendary symbiosis and signature moments, lost on transcendence.

Richard Petty vs. David Pearson: This NASCAR marvel through the 1960s and 1970s didn't transcend its sport, but it did transcend plausible numbers with its head-to-head races (550), its 1-2 finishes (63!) and its combined championships (10, seven to Petty), its duration (1963-77), to rest on 31 points here, with a side of envy for all witnesses.

Venus Williams vs. Serena Williams: All loaded up with runaway transcendence, serial pertinence, inconceivable symbiosis and more evenness than you thought (7-5 Serena Williams in Grand Slams), it's a force. It has contrast in personalities but not in playing style, and some occasional dips in sustained excellence, and few signature moments that'll linger in tennis minds 20 years from now, other than that 2003 Australian final and a two-tiebreaker 2008 quarterfinal of uncommon beauty. Still, it amasses 31 points.

* * *

5. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier

Duration (1971-75): 3. Five years and three great bouts in boxing count as 15 years and nine great games in some other games.

Contrast: 5. For one thing, one talked more than the other.

Symbiosis: 1. For one thing, one talked more cruelly about the other.

Signature moments: 5. "Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city," Frazier famously told Mark Kram of Sports Illustrated after the astounding Thrilla in Manila on Oct. 1, 1975. And Frazier had lost, so he said also, "Lawdy, lawdy, he's a great champion."

Evenness: 5. Even as the trilogy ended, the closing 14-round fracas had been so fierce that Ali famously called it the "closest thing to dyin' that I know of."

Sustained excellence: 5. Three bouts. Zero duds. Zero hints of dud-ness.

Pertinence: 5. In March 1971 at Madison Square Garden, Frazier knocked Ali to both the canvas in the 15th and his first loss as a pro. In January 1974 at Madison Square Garden, Ali won a disputed 15-round decision. In October 1975 in the Philippines, they held the greatest fight ever.

Transcendence: 4. Anything with Ali in it transcended its way around Earth.


4. Jack Nicklaus vs. Arnold Palmer

Duration: 5. Their primes crossed for a decade-and-change through all the 1960s and some of the 1970s. It was what they call a major intersection.

Contrast: 4. Charismatic star with his own fanbase "Army" (Palmer) versus resented nemesis joining midway down the road (Nicklaus), whacking swing (Palmer) versus classic swing (Nicklaus), fast player (Palmer) versus meticulous player (Nicklaus). So on.

Symbiosis: 3. The 10 years' age difference made their rivalry odd in the great symbiosis derby, but by now, it's almost like they invented a form of symbiosis.

Signature moments: 4. Before their 18-hole playoff at the 1962 U.S. Open, when a 21-year-old Nicklaus won his first major to jeering spectators at Oakmont in Palmer country, Palmer said to Sports Illustrated, "That big, strong dude. I thought I was through with him yesterday." He wasn't through with him forever, including in the five majors where they finished 1-2 and a final one (1972 U.S. Open, Pebble Beach) where they went 1-3.

Evenness: 5. From 1958-1970, Palmer won seven majors with 11 runner-up finishes, and from 1960-1972, Nicklaus won 11 majors with 10 runner-up finishes. Barely could you put one name in a sentence without the other.

Sustained excellence: 5. See just above, then add that Nicklaus won seven more majors with nine more runner-up finishes.

Pertinence: 5. Sure.

Transcendence: 5. Kids, they always tell us that before these guys, Palmer first, people didn't watch much golf. Those silly people back then.


2(t). Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain

Duration (1959-69): 5. Do 142 meetings count as duration?

Contrast: 4. Two big men, sure (6-foot-9 and 7-foot-1), yet: most-coveted prep recruit (Chamberlain) versus a guy who got one letter from a college, most dominant offensive force against defense-minded shot-blocker, and, as the writer Frank Deford put it: "Wilt was a Paul Bunyan figure, mythical in what he could possibly do. Russell, on the other hand, was woven into the team more than anybody else that I've ever known, ever, in any sport whatsoever."

Symbiosis: 5. Those were the days, as Chamberlain told Bob Costas in 1997: "I mean, he'd come past my house (in Philadelphia) on Thanksgiving because we played, Philly-Boston, all the time, sleep in my bed, he took food, he'd sleep in my bed and then go out and whip my butt. Understand? And my mother would say, 'Now, Wilt, we shouldn't treat Bill so well next time.'"

Signature moments: 4. The long odyssey tends to drown them out, but when you meet in eight playoff series and 49 playoff series, and a game when Chamberlain scored 62 on Russell, and . . .

Evenness: 4. Somehow, Chamberlain's greatness makes up most of the way for Russell's gaping edge in titles (7-1 in head-to-head series, 11-2 all told). It's a wonder, but then, so was Chamberlain.  

Sustained excellence: 5. Chamberlain averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds against Russell, Russell 14.5 and 23.7 against Chamberlain. Those were averages.

Pertinence: 5. They set the NBA record for chronic pertinence.

Transcendence: 5. Imagine a barren landscape (the 1950s) suddenly manned by two giants whom everyone watched and on whom everyone has an opinion. Actually, so many of us can't imagine.


2(t). Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Evert

Duration (1973-88): 5. The stage version of Les Miserables ran only slightly longer.

Contrast: 5. With an emotionally fragile, serve-and-volleying outsider who lifted weights (yeah!) against an emotionally stalwart baseliner and public darling with lots of endorsements, it was almost confusing.

Symbiosis: 5. One arranged a date for the other. One met an eventual husband at the other's party. They'd play finals, then dress next to each other, then travel together to the next tournament. And so on.

Signature moments: 3. Navratilova's win at Wimbledon 1978 was a breakthrough, Evert's win at the 1985 French was a breakthrough back, and Wimbledon semifinals in 1987 and 1988 were splendid and appreciated, but these don't shout out from the midst.

Evenness: 5. Each ruled a decade (Evert, then Navratilova more dominantly), but they wound up at 43-37 (Navratilova) in 80 matches and at 18-18 in Grand Slam titles, neither eclipsing the other.

Sustained excellence: 5. Evert won Grand Slams in 13 straight years, Navratilova in 11 different years.

Pertinence: 5. They played so many Grand Slam matches (22) and Grand Slam finals (14) that for a while it began to seem wrong whenever they didn't.

Transcendence: 4. There's no neither had the name "Billie Jean King," just as there's no question both advanced the concept of the female athlete at a time when it needed advancing.


1. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird

Duration (1979-91): 5. The meat of it came from 1979 to 1987. In basketball terms, that's still a big hunk of meat.

Contrast: 4. Personas: different. Smiles: different. Positions: different. Blue-collar Midwest backgrounds: same. Ability to make plays that would make you gasp: same.

Symbiosis: 5. It blossomed into a mighty thing across the years, from a surprising lunch in 1985 on through the day in 1991 when Johnson called Bird to tell of Johnson's HIV diagnosis. "Sometimes that armor is weakened," Johnson told NPR in 2009. "As strong as I appeared to be, I still needed a friend just to just say, 'Hey man, I'm here, I'm supporting you.'"

Signature moments: 5. When noting Johnson's Lakers' wrenching 1984 NBA Finals playoff loss, or their beat-Boston-at-last turn in the 1985 NBA Finals, or Johnson's "junior skyhook" with two seconds left in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals, make sure not to leave out the 1979 NCAA title game, merely the highest-rated college basketball game yet.

Evenness: 4. Johnson's teams won five NBA titles to Bird's teams' three, two head-to-head Finals to one, and one NCAA title to none, yet people tend to think it's closer than that.

Sustained excellence: 5. More like sustained beauty.

Pertinence: 5. When noting the 19 games they met in postseason, make sure not to leave out the 1979 NCAA title game, which makes it 20.

Transcendence: 5. When noting how their rivalry elevated the NBA toward subsequent heights, make sure not to leave out the 1979 NCAA title game, which elevated college basketball to its highest ratings yet. So that makes two sports.