FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — No Brady vs. Manning XVII this postseason. Now it’s Brady vs. Luck IV.
Translation: After 16 matchups with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady will face Andrew Luck for the fourth time when the star quarterbacks lead the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night.
At stake in this budding rivalry is a spot in Super Bowl XLIX (that’s 49) — one year after Manning’s Broncos beat Brady’s Patriots in last season’s AFC championship game.
The Patriots (13-4) are much more familiar with Manning.
But his struggles in Denver’s 24-13 AFC divisional game loss against Indianapolis on Sunday accentuated his recent decline. The Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens 35-31, overcoming two 14-point deficits as Brady threw for three touchdowns and ran for one Saturday.
The steadily rising Luck is more of a puzzle than Manning even though the Patriots are 3-0 against the third-year veteran with every win by more than 20 points.
Still, their lack of experience against him — and his growth as a quarterback — could mean extra time for defenders in the film room and on the practice field getting ready for the strong-armed Luck and the Colts (13-5).
“In the National Football League you just prepare for your next opponent,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Monday. “I don’t think you worry about who is hard (to prepare for) or who’s not.”
The Patriots prepared for both quarterbacks in the regular season. And they beat both by 22 points in consecutive games.
They routed the Broncos 43-21 on Nov. 2 in Foxborough with Manning throwing for 438 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The loss dropped him to 5-11 against Brady.
After a bye, the Patriots went to Indianapolis and beat the Colts 42-20 on Nov. 16. Luck threw for 303 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
“Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck, both of them present very difficult, extreme problems that you have to defend,” Patricia said of the top picks in the NFL draft, both by the Colts, in 1998 and 2012.
The Brady-Manning rivalry began with the Patriots’ second-year quarterback’s first NFL start, a 44-13 win over Manning’s Colts on Sept. 30, 2001.
Luck was a rookie when he first faced Brady on Nov. 18, 2012. And he played like one in New England’s 59-24 win.
He threw three interceptions with two returned for touchdowns covering 87 and 59 yards. He also lost a fumble one play before Brady hit Rob Gronkowski with a 34-yard touchdown pass.
“They’re good enough,” Luck said after the game. “They don’t need those gifts.”
In his next game against the Patriots, he threw four interceptions in a 43-22 AFC divisional playoff loss last season, one week before Manning and Denver eliminated New England.
Before this season’s loss to the Patriots, Manning said, “You know you’d better not be going three-and-out, turning the ball over, trying to figure out what they’re doing on defense. Because you know Brady & Co. are capable of putting up a lot of points and you’re going to find yourselves behind, especially up there.”
Luck learned that quickly and repeatedly.
“I’m just disappointed in myself,” he said after the Patriots beat the Colts two weeks later. “It’s up to us to fix what we did wrong and move on.”
They did that, winning five of their remaining six regular-season games, albeit against a weak schedule, before beating Cincinnati and Denver in the playoffs.
That last game ruined chances for another Brady-Manning reunion.
“The NFL is a very competitive league,” Brady said Monday during his weekly appearance on WEEI radio. “Peyton is an incredible player. Andrew Luck’s a great player. We’ve got one of the great young quarterbacks coming into our stadium, so we’ve got to be able to figure out a way to slow those guys down.”
The Patriots did that well enough to beat Manning 11 times in Brady’s career.
Now they’ll try to go 4-0 against Luck.
“It’s the National Football League. It’s the playoffs,” Patricia said. “Every game is very difficult.”