Some of the gloss has come off, and you can begin to see underneath Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. In any other job except NFL quarterback, these guys would be the office drudges. They are punctilious, tedious, procedurally dogged. Manning, at 39, is more dun colored than blond and requires a full mind-body effort to throw the ball. Brady, 38, is a drab, obsessive, attenuated figure. This is what real expertise looks like, and it's not gorgeous.
They understand each other better than we ever could, and they certainly aren't letting us in on their psychology this week. The two eventual Hall of Famers will meet in the AFC Championship with perhaps a last crack at a Super Bowl on the line, yet they're treating it outwardly like it's no different than working behind a counter. They obstruct all needless distraction and any attempt to get them to say something revealing with blandness.
"All I can say about Tom Brady is he plays the position the way it's supposed to be played," Manning says. "He just plays the position the right way and when you do that there's a reason you play the position well and play it for a long time."
Everyone else is an outsider to their little club of two, peerless equals who are 5-5 in their last 10 meetings, and 2-2 against each other in the playoffs. They can talk all they want about how this isn't about them; it's about the Denver Broncos against the New England Patriots. But the fact is theirs is the most important position on the field, and each will have no margin for error on Sunday, given how exacting the other is. The rest of us can only sift through the evidence, searching for clues to their internal drivers.
According to the Manning family, their home movies show that Peyton was rigorous even as a 3-year-old. It was an organic trait: He was barely out of toddlerhood when he could drop back and set up to pass in imitation of his father Archie, the New Orleans Saints quarterback. He was a miniature perfectionist who insisted that the smallest things be done fundamentally right, and footage shows him throwing tantrums if it wasn't.
David Cutcliffe, his former offensive coordinator at Tennessee made a startling realization when he saw the home movies. "Good God," he said to himself, "It's the same guy. The Lord made him that way."
He might have tipped over into an overwrought striver, had Archie Manning not been so firm a parent. One year the Mannings went to Colorado for a ski vacation, and bought hand-tooled leather cowboy belts as souvenirs. Archie's had his jersey number on it, No. 8. "You aren't going to wear that stupid thing are you?" his wife Olivia asked. Archie said no, he had another use for it. "I hung it in the closet prominently," he says. The Manning boys would clear the furniture from the living room and play football on their knees, and when fights broke out Archie would threaten to get out the belt. After while, it simply became known as "The No. 8."
"Don't make me get the No. 8," Archie would say.
The mere threat of it made a lot of problems go away. "It never came off the hook too many times, but it was there," Archie says. "I don't know if Doctor Spock would approve of that. I have no idea what a child psychologist would think of it."
Peyton didn't need the No. 8 much. He set out to ace every test, and usually did. His father didn't know "if he was trying to be intelligent, or just trying to win." But that intensity could flare obnoxiously. At the age of 10 when he lost a youth basketball game, a furious Peyton jabbed a finger at his coach and shot, "We lost because you don't know what you're doing." Archie watched his son's gesticulations from a distance, and demanded to know what it had been about. It was 10 o'clock at night before Peyton confessed and Archie put him the car and drove him to the coach's house to apologize despite the hour.
The Bradys tell the same kind of stories about Tom. He was always insisting on what was "fair" as he strained to keep up with three athletic older sisters, who invariably let him know "He was low man on the totem pole," his father Tom Sr. says. To give him some relief from the big-sistering, Tom Sr. took him on father-son golf outings, and by the time Tom was 8, he was making bets on the course. The stakes were free car washes of the family car. When Tom trailed, he'd just double the bet.
"By the ninth hole he would be into me for 160 car washes, and he'd throw his golf club and be sent to the car," Tom Sr. says.
They had season tickets to the San Francisco 49ers, and Tom was so detail-obsessed they would set a timer and tape the games, so he could watch the replays when they got home from the stadium. Tom would analyze all the mistakes. "Even that young, we would talk about bonehead plays or how a coach or a player misused the clock or did something stupid," Tom Sr. says. "It's very much in his DNA."
As adults Manning and Brady are all about self-command, their tantrums and insecurities channeled. You get the feeling that even perceived injustices, whether Brady's anger over Deflategate or Manning's outrage over allegations he used HGH to heal from disc surgery, are just silage to them, chewable food for sustaining their ambitions a little longer.
One of these days they will be paunchy, graying relics who want to tell their stories – but not yet. They come into Sunday's game from opposite directions, Manning failing physically in his 18th season with that stooping curvature in his surgically repaired neck, Brady healthier than ever in his 16th, with newly austere eating habits that eschew Coca-Cola as "poison." Manning missed seven starts with torn plantar fascia in his left heel and has thrown nine touchdowns to 17 interceptions, yet has never been more acute mentally or had a better cast around him. Brady is having one of his finest personal seasons, 38 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, yet his Patriots have been injury riddled. They will meet right in the middle, each nearing the cusp of 40, with more know-how when it comes to winning than anyone on the field. And a perfect understanding of what they face on the opposite sideline.
"I know how hard I've worked to play this long," Manning said this week. "So when I look across and look at the New England Patriots and see Tom Brady is their quarterback, I just know how hard he's worked as well."
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org