EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The rivalry began unexpectedly.
On Oct. 23, 2006, the Giants visited Texas Stadium for a Monday night game against the Dallas Cowboys. Both teams were 3-2. Eli Manning played the 29th of what is now a streak of 161 consecutive starts for the Giants. He entered that game having thrown 928 career passes. Tony Romo had been with the Cowboys since 2003, but in those three-plus seasons, he had thrown just two passes, both of them the previous week in relief of Drew Bledsoe, late in the fourth quarter of a 28-point victory over Houston.
In the first half against the Giants eight nights later, Bledsoe completed seven of 12 passes for 111 yards. But he was sacked four times and threw an interception and the Cowboys trailed, 12-7. So at halftime Dallas, coach Bill Parcells switched quarterbacks, inserting the inexperienced Romo for the veteran Bledsoe.
Romo's pass on the first play of the third quarter was intercepted by Antonio Pierce. But he settled down to complete 14 of 25 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns – plus two more picks, one that Kevin Dockery returned 96 yards for a touchdown. Manning hit just 12 of 26 passes, but two of them were touchdowns and the Giants won, 36-22. Romo has held the job ever since, except when he was sidelined with injuries – notably in 2010, when Giants linebacker Michael Boley sacked Romo and fractured his collarbone.
Six weeks after Romo's coming out party, the two quarterbacks squared off as starters for the first time in Giants Stadium (in a game Dallas won, 23-20). When the Cowboys visit MetLife Stadium on Sunday night, it will be the 15th regular-season meeting as starters for two of the very best quarterbacks of their generation. That is the highest number of regular-season meetings by two active rival quarterbacks. Manning is 6-8 vs. Romo in regular season, but 1-0 in the playoffs, so he can pull even overall with a victory on Sunday.
Playing against each other in the NFC East for nine seasons has enabled Manning and Romo to develop a familiarity and respect for each other.
"Obviously, there are only so many quarterbacks who have been in one franchise for this long, have had the ups and downs and different things," Manning said this week. "I obviously have a brother who I chat with a little bit about that, but Tony, any time you're in the same division with a quarterback for whatever it's been now, (nine) years together, there's definitely a little bond there."
Romo said he has enjoyed the rivalry.
"It has been great," Romo said. "Obviously, he has had a fantastic career and he has been a great competitor. He has been a great challenge. I think the evolution and just to see his ability to continue to grow as a player and obviously come up big when they needed him in the Super Bowl years. He has done an outstanding job."
The Cowboys won this season's first meeting, 31-21, in AT&T Stadium on Oct. 19. The following week, in a Monday night game vs. Washington, Romo was hit hard and suffered a back injury that forced him to miss part of the second half and the entire game the next week vs. Arizona (The Cowboys lost both). He returned two weeks ago to lead the Cowboys to a victory over Jacksonville in London. Dallas, which had a bye last week, is 7-3 and tied with Philadelphia atop the NFC East.
"He's playing hurt right now," Manning said. "He's playing tough and playing at a high level. He's great at creating plays. He knows the scheme, he wants to get the ball out in time, but he does a good job scrambling around and making some clutch throws in tough situations."
Romo has the same high regard for Manning.
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"He really gives that football team a really good chance when not everything is going perfect," Romo said. "He still allows them to compete game in and game out and have a chance. Ultimately, that it what you are asking, is that the pieces around you some years are better than others, but he has been a constant, and I think it shows over the years."
Manning and Romo are acquaintances more than friends, but they do like each other. Manning said they have developed "a little bit" of a relationship through the years.
"We've chatted and talked," Manning said. "Obviously, I talk to him after every game. We've had so many competitions each year, kind of came in around the same time together. We haven't hung out any in the offseason, we've never really come that way, but I definitely have a little relationship with him."
"We talk a little bit after the game," Romo said. "Little things here and there, but more than anything, you have a healthy respect and understand how much he has meant to that franchise."
Both quarterbacks are invaluable to their organizations. Perhaps their 16th confrontation will be one to remember.
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