NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT

It is simplistic to reduce Sunday's Denver Broncos-New England Patriots game to two men. But quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have been so dominant for so long, and so interconnected that it is nearly impossible to focus on anyone else.

Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium has so much on the line: two teams battling for the top seed in the AFC at the season's halfway point, the Broncos trying again to show that this season's edition is tougher and more physical than the one that lost Super Bowl XLVIII -- and blew a 24-point halftime lead at New England last Nov. 24. It will be decided as much by the ability of each team's pass rush and coverage as the quarterbacks.

But ultimately, it is all about Manning and Brady. Brady's teams have won 10 of the 15 games -- including postseason -- in which they've matched up. But Manning's teams have won five of the past nine since the Colts stopped a six-game losing streak to the Patriots in 2005 with a Monday night thrashing that helped portend an end to the Patriots' bid for three consecutive world championships.

Wednesday, the two quarterbacks exchanged respectful statements of admiration. There are only a few people who can relate to what Manning and Brady have seen, and over time, the two discovered a kinship.

"When you play against a guy for that many years and you have a chance to spend some time with him in the offseason at a golf tournament or a football banquet or maybe a Pro Bowl, you enjoy getting a chance to know the person as well, talk some football and talk a little bit of life," said Manning. "So, yeah, I consider Tom obviously a great competitor on the field but a good friend off the field."

Their friendship is so strong that the two bonded during a round of golf at Pebble Beach in the days following Super Bowl XLVIII. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick -- who called Manning the "best quarterback I've coached against" -- joined them. Like Manning, they know the pain of losing two Super Bowls. Like Manning, they live for the sport.

"I've enjoyed the time because I have great respect for the way they play, the way they approach the game. They're both very similar that way," Manning said. "They're football junkies, if you will. I think that's a compliment. I consider myself that as well."

Their admiration is sincere, but when Brady held his press conference Wednesday, he couldn't resist a light jab at Manning being one year older.

"I mean, he is older than me and has more playing experience than me," Brady said. "Maybe when I'm his age, I'll be playing as well as that."

In September, Brady was not. He was sacked nine times, averaged just 5.1 yards per pass play, and had a mediocre passer rating of 79.1. But in four October games -- all Patriots wins -- he averaged 8.4 yards per pass play, took only four sacks, and posted a 129.1 rating.

Both quarterbacks are soaring. Both teams are peaking. But Manning has not won in Foxborough since 2006. If the 16th chapter of Manning-Brady is to be successful for the Broncos, he will have to find a way to navigate through conditions and schemes that have stymied the league's all-time touchdown-pass leader as few ever have.

SERIES HISTORY: 45th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 25-19. New England has won four of the last five, including the postseason. The most historic meeting between these two teams was on Jan. 19, 2014, when the Broncos sailed to a 26-16 win that produced their seventh AFC championship.


NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES

--The Broncos released Champ Bailey in a salary-cap clearing move last winter, and the wisdom of that choice was borne out by Bailey's inability to make the New Orleans Saints in preseason or to crack a 53-man roster since then. Tuesday, he announced that he would retire.

Bailey struggled with a foot injury last year that hindered his performance and accelerated his decline. But for the previous nine seasons, he was the linchpin of a defense that changed schemes and coordinators like socks, but could rely upon Bailey eliminating one receiver and one side of the field far more often than not.

"It was an honor and a privilege to play with him here the past two years, but it was really an honor and a privilege to play against him for so many years," said quarterback Peyton Manning, who also recalled when Bailey intercepted him while the two were in the Southeastern Conference at Tennessee and Georgia, respectively.

Bailey's influence continues to permeate the locker room, through the advice he gave current Broncos like cornerback Chris Harris Jr.