By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The sport of football does not offer too many opportunities to stop and smell the roses, but on Sunday night, perhaps during one of the many TV timeouts, we should all set aside a moment to appreciate what we’re all fortunate enough to be witnessing.

We’ll be watching as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning once again go toe-to-toe. It will be their 14th meeting, which might make it seem like old hat at this point. Yet, with the 37-year-old Manning hobbling on a bad ankle, and with the general unpredictability of the NFL, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be seeing many more of these.

The “rivalry” must now exist only in quotes, as the two quarterbacks have both cemented their places in the game’s history at this point. Certainly, the rivalry was a lot better in its early stages, back before legacies had been written and Hall of Fame busts hadn’t already begun being molded. Those were the days when Manning was a choker, when Brady always won the big game, and when the Colts were disliked in New England more than any of the Patriots’ divisional rivals, and perhaps second only to the Yankees overall.

It’s different now. Manning, much like Derek Jeter did in baseball, has accomplished the always-difficult task of earning begrudged respect from New England fans. The two quarterbacks talk of their friendship whenever reporters ask one about the other, as they’ve gained a great deal of mutual respect for each other while standing atop their profession for more than a decade. Whether you want to rank one ahead of the other, or if you’d place them at 1 and 1A, it doesn’t matter all that much. Any way you slice it, these are two of the all-time greats.

In a way, that lack of edge in the Manning-Brady story takes some of the fun out of it. There’s less drama, and there’s undoubtedly less emotion involved in New England when Peyton comes to town. That’s not to say that folks won’t be fired up come Sunday night, but it will pale in comparison to the days of Ty Law picking off three of his passes in the AFC Championship Game, or of Rodney Harrison making a game-sealing interception in the back of the end zone that same day, or of Tedy Bruschi proudly boasting in an on-field interview about the defense holding Manning’s Colts to three points in the following year’s playoffs, or simply of the innumerable camera shots of a flustered and bewildered Manning raising his arms in anger and disappointment after Bill Belichick’s team got him yet again.

No, those days are gone, and they’re not coming back.

Peyton Manning in 2004 (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Peyton Manning in 2004 (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Brady-Manning rivalry is no longer one-sided, with Manning winning four of the last seven meetings with Brady, including that 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis that changed everything. Manning went on to win the Super Bowl, ditching the “choker” tag and celebrating the championship he worked so hard to obtain.

So what it lacks in the off-field dramatics, the duels between Manning and Brady more than make up for it once the ball is kicked. All six meetings of their most recent meetings have been decided by 10 or fewer points, and four have been decided by four or fewer points.

How this one turns out, and how the two teams’ seasons turn out, is unknown. We haven’t seen Brady face Manning in the playoffs since the 2006 season, and while they may be two of the top teams in the AFC, a lot can happen between now and January to prevent a postseason reunion. In the past six years, it has seemed like another January meeting was inevitable, but so far, it hasn’t happened.

The Patriots are set to host the Broncos again next season, which is dependent on the quarterbacks’ health — something not guaranteed for two guys in their late 30s — for it to be the next Brady-Manning meeting.

Will it be the last? That, we don’t know, but in the meantime, we know that we have Sunday night.

Old-timers had the privilege of seeing Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams play in the same game. Later, basketball fans were treated to Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain, and then Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. Golf had Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, and boxing had Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

Brady and Manning create one of those historic matchups, one of the best of all time, and it’s rare that it’s lasted for so long in a sport as violent as football.

Manning and Brady will, in all likelihood, meet again some day after this Sunday. But it’s clear that on Sunday night, we’ll be witnessing one of the final chapters of this extraordinary rivalry. There’s no time like the present to appreciate what we’re seeing. Once it’s gone, we may never see anything again quite like it.

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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