Muzzle the first mope who tries to downplay the latest Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning epic. Off with the head of the killjoy who doesn’t grasp the burning significance of this AFC title game to their grand legacies, the reality that one quarterbacking legend will reach Super Bowl XLVIII and the other may never be so close again. Oh, that person was Peyton Manning, so we’ll have to spare his scalp and let him speak.
“It’s the Broncos versus the Patriots and certainly Tom and I have played against each other a lot,” he said, “but when you get to the AFC championship, it’s about two good teams that have been through a lot to get there.”
Really? We have to pretend that Brady and Manning are a sideshow to two otherwise ordinary championship-round teams? Let me define what this day means to the legacies of both men and, ultimately, their places in football and sports history. There is no hotter ongoing tavern argument than Brady vs. Manning. Brady has won three Super Bowl to Manning’s mere one. Manning is the most prolific of all regular-season QBs, soon-to-be owner of an unprecedented fifth league MVP trophy, while the metric-challenged Brady is cast in granite as the team-first, systemic creation of Bill Belichick. Yet Brady, in part because he played on better New England teams than Manning had in Indianapolis, owns a 10-4 edge in head-to-head games, including a 34-31 overtime victory in a wild Patriots’ comeback two months ago. And Manning, it can’t be denied, has played far below his standards in many postseason games.
Which brings us to Sunday in Denver. If Manning wins, he’ll move to within one victory in the Meadowlands of becoming a multiple Super Bowl winner, allowing him to flip a middle finger at the critics who say he can’t win the big ones. If Manning loses, he again is accused of the same fatal flaw and might wonder, nearing 38, how much longer he should play, especially if a mandatory March exam determines that his surgically repaired neck is less than stable. If Brady wins, he’ll have a chance to win a fourth Super Bowl ring, which would tie him with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most titles among quarterbacks and push him higher in the all-time pantheon. If Brady loses, it means 10 seasons will pass since his most recent Super Bowl win, and that his postseason record since then will be 8-8, effectively demoting him in the elite rank and prompting some to ask why he loses the big ones.
If you think we’re making way, way too much of all this, consider that quarterbacks are the driving force of the NFL economy and some of the biggest names in American culture, playing the most important and influential position in team sports. They make the most millions, win the most hype, warrant the best safety protection from the league and, in Brady’s case, marry the supermodel. Before the Manning-Brady era, Montana was widely considered the best QB ever. But if Manning wins the Super Bowl this year, coupled with monstrous career statistics that included a record 55 touchdown passes in 2013, you’ll start to hear lobbying that he’s the greatest.
At the moment, no one even whispers it. That’s because he is 10-11 as a postseason quarterback, with an astonishing eight one-and-dones in January. At least the Broncos avoided that fade by holding off a late rally by Philip Rivers and the Chargers, a defensive letdown that will fuel perceptions that Denver wouldn’t hold up against Seattle or San Francisco in the Super Bowl. Manning was happy to get out alive and not deal with ninth one-and-done.
“What weighs on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth,” he said.
Brady, nearing 37, also is nearing his twilight. He was devastated by two Super Bowl losses to the Giants and Manning’s bother, Eli, and knows that his 10-for-10 streak at the start of his postseason career came a very long time ago. Ravaged by a torrent of injuries and such troubling distractions as Aaron Hernandez’s murder rap, the Patriots have reached the title game forged by the will of Brady and Belichick. They are here as something of a surprise, a departure from their heavy-favorite role of past tournaments.
“I wish we’d win it every year, we’ve had our chances,” Brady said. “We put a lot of effort in every year, but you also realize it’s pretty hard to do. So when you have an opportunity, you’ve got to try and take advantage of it because you don’t know what’s going to come around next year.”
Can they take advantage? “People have counted us out at times this year, but I think we’ve got a locker room full of believers,” he said.
In the bigger picture, Manning and Brady are an American hybrid, two bottomless oxygen tanks that have reminded us in the early 21st century why we enjoy sports and still can admire pre-eminent athletes. Both are brilliant, instinctive, almost possessed masters of the game who fervently prepare for every detail and demand similar commitment from teammates. Both are product pitchmen of the highest order, with Manning cutting that meat, watching football on the phone and selling pizza as the downhome class clown while Brady plays the different-hair-every-week fashion model as dressed by his famous wife, Gisele Bundchen, right down to his Ugg boots. Neither is particularly fond of self-promotion, preferring to form images during three-hour televised windows and then slipping into privacy.
Both are among the top five quarterbacks of all time. Neither has an arm that would be described with ammunition jargon.
Both could run for office. Neither is dumb enough to do so.
Both could embrace the nightlife, the women, the wine. Neither wants to, choosing to be homebodies with kids.
In a sport besieged by relentless tumult — a concussion crisis, a bullying scandal, suicides, murders, no established test for Human Growth Hormone — Brady and Manning lift the NFL’s greater burden each season and provide consistent, undeniable greatness. To see them still doing it — and surviving serious injuries to regain their standard dominance — is reassuring in a football era when nothing seems certain and change is haywire.
You never know if this could be the last time they face each other. Sorry, Peyton, but this is not about “two good teams that have been through a lot.” This is much bigger, much richer, and it’s about two men interwoven in a generation that gradually is fading from view.
One steps up in time.
The other departs the big stage, maybe forever.