By Jason Keidel
» More Columns
Maybe many fans will watch the AFC title game with jaded eyes. While Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady beamed from the marquee and was ultimate NFL recruiting tool for over a decade, the decay of the former will be dissected as much as audibles and coverages and yards.
While both have owned the sport for 15 years, the iconic QBs could not look more different today. Despite dwelling in the same area of the career arc, Brady looks and plays like a young gun, ravenous for another ring despite the glittering set on his four fingers.
Manning is the ultimate icon in repose. His flat nose and hunched profile, braces bulging from his knees, and four surgeries on his neck have rendered him a shadow of his former eminence. His passes wobble like a foam football in a dust storm. You can time his deep ball and 40-yard dash with a sundial.
But Manning is here, 60 minutes from the Super Bowl, every bit as close as Brady. He may not be nearly as polished or virile as Brady, but Manning is still the envy of at least 28 starting quarterbacks who would love to be exactly where he is today.
Denver is now a more traditional team, and relies on the run and an ornery defense. Indeed, on the game-winning drive against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, Manning threw just three passes. Overall, he completed 21 passes for 222 yards and no touchdowns. All-world wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas caught a combined nine passes. Meanwhile, the Broncos handed the ball to C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman a total of 31 times. While Brady clearly carries the Patriots, the overwhelming sense is that the Denver defense carries the quarterback.
But you can’t say Peyton is here by accident. Nor can you say Denver would surely be here with Brock Osweiler starting at quarterback. Not everything Manning does can be timed with a watch, or measured by normal metrics. Just as Brady has long been defined by the final score more than the stat sheet, Manning’s nuanced dominance doesn’t always translate onto a box score.
This will be the 17th meeting between the surefire Hall of Famers. Brady has won 11 times. But despite the disparity in playoff success, Manning leads Brady, 2-1, in AFC title games.
Peyton has been the more productive, dazzling passer; Brady the quintessential winner. Brady is 22-8 in the playoffs; Manning is 12-13. Manning has lost the first game of the playoffs nine times, more than anyone in NFL history. And if not for a Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble, Peyton could easily have nudged the number up by one.
But, as the New York “Football” Giants learned in 2015, coming close is still coming in second.
This final playoff meeting has appropriate heft. The two teams, and the two men, transcend stats. We know Manning has taken an eraser to the archives, bumping Brett Favre from the more meaty records. But if he loses on Sunday, Manning will be compared even more to Favre. Both will be seen as pyrotechnic passers who often had a vital gaffe in the biggest moment. Favre has his season-ending interceptions against New York and New Orleans in the NFC Championship. Peyton’s pick-six against the Saints in the Super Bowl all but sealed his doom.
Both have a ring, which shields them from MarinoWorld, the land of “what if?” and eternal bridesmaids. But this game clearly means more to Manning professionally, if not personally.
Brady still attacks every game like his job hangs on it. For someone of his vast success to keep grinding, to reduce his diet to berries and bark, to live a monastic life for the cause, speaks to his discipline, his monolithic focus and epic appetite for more.
But you get the sense that Brady will be back. Often. Perhaps not for nine more seasons, as he suggested. But Brady is in pristine football shape, with no litany of injuries, or public clamoring for his professional head. He seems as good as ever, as impossible as that sounds.
Meanwhile, Manning is physically and metaphysically on his last legs. If he plays next season, it won’t be for the Broncos. If John Elway had no problem closing the curtain on Tebowmania, then he will be just as certain and ruthless in handing Manning his pink slip. Even if Manning somehow wins the Super Bowl, it will be seen as the perfect prelude to retirement.
Manning and Brady. Brady or Manning. They are probably the only ones who can relate to the other. While both are wealthy beyond our understanding, they’d rather be buried in a dark room, under a cone of light from a film projector, parsing the next opponent’s tendencies on third down.
So while Brady has at least a few years left, and Manning has a few games left, it’s fitting that their final intersection has so much meaning.
The game is in Denver, which means way more to Manning, because of the wide chasm in current ability, and the fact that the home team is 4-0 in their playoff meetings. Brady is long renowned for his ability to throw the ball in all elements, so frigid air and Denver decibels will serve as little more than speed bumps. Manning needs any edge he can get, including the paper-thin air of the Rockies.
Tom Brady has won in Denver only twice in his career, and neither win was over Peyton Manning. The two victories came against Danny Kannel and … Tim Tebow. Tebow is no Manning. Or is he? The greatest gameday variable and key to victory is the state of No. 18.
If this is indeed Peyton’s final playoff exit, it’s fitting that it comes at the hand of his only peer and eternal tormentor. They may not look anything alike, but they’re still gridiron soul mates.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel