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DATES WITH GREATS

The Baltimore Sun

On one play, Philip Rivers' arms and legs seemed to splay in all directions as he set to throw. On another, his feet began to shuffle, seemingly in reaction to defenders who weren't there.

The whole display drove Ron Jaworski nuts as the ESPN analyst and former quarterback watched tape of the Ravens' 32-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers last Sunday. Rivers threw three touchdown passes and appeared to dissect the Ravens' once-vaunted defense. But Jaworski's seasoned eye saw mostly hesitation and awkwardness.

Are the Ravens likely to see such slip-ups, he was asked, when they face the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning in their next two games?

"Very few," Jaworski said. "It is amazing, when I watch Brady and Manning, how fundamentally sound they are in everything they do. If they break down, it's because pressure breaks them down. They never break themselves down."

In short, if Ravens fans think they've seen their team's defense get embarrassed in recent weeks, they're about to watch it be tested by two of the NFL's all-time great quarterbacks. On the other hand, they'll get the rare chance to watch two true masters perform in a seven-day period.

It would be like watching Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on the same homestand in 1987 or catching Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones on the same weekend in 1966.

Brady has three Super Bowl rings and is a strong favorite to win his fourth in a few months. He's also in the middle of the greatest statistical passing season in NFL history. If he were to continue at his current pace, he would set the single-season record for passer rating, become the first NFL quarterback to pass for more than 50 touchdowns in a season and the second to pass for more than 5,000 yards in a season.

Manning has taken a momentary backseat, but he won his first Super Bowl last season and if he plays at his normal level for another five years, he would be on the cusp of holding every major career passing record (assuming Brett Favre ever retires).

Manning holds the passer rating and touchdown marks that Brady is chasing and in only his 10th season, ranks 10th all-time in passing yards, one spot ahead of Johnny Unitas.

Veteran talent watchers are often reluctant to anoint active players as all-time greats, but that melts away when they talk about Brady and Manning.

"They're both Hall of Fame quarterbacks," CBS-TV analyst and former Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly said. "They're both smart, they're both poised, they both make all the throws. Anybody would take either of them."

Said Jaworski: "I still consider Joe Montana the best I've seen. But with those two guys, you have to say that either has a chance to be No. 1 on that list by the time they're done."

Still not convinced of the beautiful horror facing the Ravens? Consider these reactions:

"Oh, wow," former Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves said when told of the scheduling. "How lucky can you be?"

"I'm glad it's them and not me," ex-Raven turned Brady teammate Adalius Thomas said.

Past 1-2 punches

The Ravens wouldn't be the first club steamrolled by two all-time greats in quick succession.

The 1984 Redskins were coming off two straight Super Bowl appearances when they opened their season against the Miami Dolphins and a second-year quarterback named Dan Marino.

Marino started what would become a record-smashing campaign with 311 yards, five touchdown passes and a 35-17 win over Washington.

A week later, the Redskins lined up against the San Francisco 49ers and Montana, who passed for 381 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another in a 37-31 victory.

Such gantlets are not that common in the modern NFL, with only a handful of great quarterbacks playing at any given time and teams cycling through 31 opponents.

Before the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 and later expansions, teams were more apt to play two all-time greats in successive weeks. The Colts, for example, used to open almost every season with consecutive games against the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. That meant facing Bart Starr and Fran Tarkenton.

Such scheduling quirks are especially unlucky in football, where every game is important because there are only 16 of them. But baseball teams also have learned the pain of facing two great arms in a short stretch.

The New York Yankees had won two straight World Series when they met Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the 1963 Fall Classic. The Yankees managed only 15 hits and three runs while striking out 32 times in three games against the pair as the Dodgers swept them from baseball's throne.

The Yankees were the victims again in 2001 as the Arizona Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling beat them four times in one World Series.

If you want to take the optimist's view, legendary opposition means the potential for greater glory. Ask the 1969-70 New York Knicks, who vanquished Kareem Abdul Jabbar's Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals and Wilt Chamberlain's Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Or look at what John McEnroe did at the 1980 U.S. Open, beating Jimmy Connors in the semifinals and Bjorn Borg in the final to fortify his ascent to tennis greatness.

Embrace the challenge

Ravens coach Brian Billick seemed to take that slant on the Brady-Manning challenge.

"Obviously, you're talking about considerable strength when you're talking about Tom Brady and Peyton. But you embrace that challenge," he said. "You've heard me say that a lot - and you're probably tired of hearing me say it - but that's exactly where you are. And that's what you have to do. What better challenge than to face, arguably or non-arguably, the best quarterback in the league right now? Who else would you want to come in here and challenge yourself as a professional?"

After years of facing Montana, Marino and Favre, Reeves agreed.

"I tell you, you don't have to worry about your team being up for weeks like that," he said. "That's what you play for, to test yourself in those situations, when you know you can't win unless the entire team plays well."

Technically, he said, the common denominator for attacking any great passer is pressure.

"I don't care who you are, that's the answer," Reeves said. "You can't cover receivers for long in this league and that means you have to get to the quarterback. Otherwise, they'll pick you apart."

Of course, Brady and Manning got to be Brady and Manning because they're so good under defensive fire.

Both sense oncoming defenders without having to look, both are adept at making subtle moves to evade the blitz, both perceive coverage gaps in a blink and both are fearless about waiting for the perfect moment to unleash the ball.

"You can't fool 'em and nothing you're going to do is going to surprise them," Reeves said.

Jaworski is amazed at Brady's ability to move from blitzing defenders without getting out of position to make the throw he wants. Manning, he said, picks a target with unmatched rapidity and finds it with uncanny accuracy.

"They are," he said, "as good as you can get."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.

ONE-TWO PUNCH

In a span of seven nights and two prime-time appearances, the Ravens will face quarterbacks who have combined this season for:

771 attempts

524 completions

67.9 completion percentage

6,260 yards

58 touchdown passes

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