By Jason Keidel
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Nearly everyone, including yours truly, saw the AFC Championship game as a formality, a de facto audition for Tom Brady’s next Super Bowl, his last argument for the front bust on Mt. Rushmore.

A funny thing happened during Brady’s march to immortality.

Sure, Brady is still a surefire, first-ballot, Hall of Famer. His four rings still rank among the top, tied with Terry Bradshaw and his hero, Joe Montana. But we’ll have to press the pause button on his next parade.

No one doubts Brady’s bona fides. When you get to his stratosphere of NFL luminaries, you’re just parsing, engaging in debates that can’t always be won. We love the zero-sum calculus of wins and rings. Brady is clearly better than Peyton Manning because he won more than Manning. Right?

But if Manning is to get slammed for his 12-13 playoff record entering Sunday’s contest, then perhaps “Tom Terrific” should get a cynical eye for his 1-3 record against Manning in the AFC title game.

Indeed, it was Manning who flipped the script, who looked like the spry geriatric who entered the game as the profound favorite. It was an amazing role-reversal, with the bark-and-berry-eating Brady looking like the senior citizen with four neck surgeries, happy feet, and brittle throwing arm. And it was Manning who looked like the monolith just two wins from closing the book on his biblical career and putting the lid on the argument over the most accomplished QB in history.

Indeed, any time a quarterback throws the ball 56 times the results tend to be bad. Indeed, just one touchdown, two interceptions and a deceiving 310 yards, are a major metric. Add in a microscopic 22.0 QBR and it sounds as incongruous as it gets.

Did Brady choke? Did he go Carson Palmer on us? Not likely. Brady is as clutch as anyone north of Montana. Brady was pummeled by a rabid pass rush from whistle to gun, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware still haunting him a day later. Brady was hit 20 times, 35 percent more than any QB in an NFL playoff game in the last decade. If not for Rob Gronkowski, Brady’s stat sheet would have looked eerily similar to that of Palmer, who was a disaster on Sunday in the NFC title game.

And, like with all mortals and immortals it affected the way he threw the ball all game. Brady bounced balls to open receivers, short-armed other passes, overthrew open running backs on wheel routes, and just seemed shaken for four quarters.

It just shows that Brady, like all players and people, is flawed and is human. It was the first time in his career he completed less than 50 percent of his passes in a playoff game. For whatever reason, Denver is kryptonite to the iconic QB. In the paper-thin air of the Rockies, Brady has only defeated Danny Kannel and Tim Tebow, both of whom hardly had colossal careers, and are now ESPN analysts.

Brady has lost to Brian Griese, Jake Plummer (twice), Brock Osweiler, and Manning (twice). The last time they squared off was two years ago, when Manning was much better, and his Broncos dominated the Pats, 26-16 in the AFC title game. Manning was exponentially better then, coming off arguably the best season in NFL history.

It’s always assumed Manning plays second fiddle to Brady and Bill Belichick, his epic failures, his solemn, brooding refrain on eternal loop.

But it turns out “The Sheriff” had another gunfight left, like a weathered Gary Cooper or a bowlegged John Wayne on his last legs.

We love to slap an eternal label on a team, town, or time. Brady is the best because he won four Super Bowls, because he had beaten Manning 11 times in 16 matchups.

But if that’s the main metric, then Eli Manning is better than Brady. Manning is 2-0 in the Super Bowl, both wins against Brady. Eli Manning also won the MVP of both games.

Football is the quintessential team game with singular stars. So just as Brady got inordinate credit for the Patriots’ four Super Bowl wins, he should shoulder some of the blame for the club’s losses.

What’s lost on the masses is the ornery defense the Giants had, that they were able to pester Brady sans a blitz. Even then it required a biblical catch by David Tyree. The second game was won on the heels of a miraculous pass from Eli Manning to Mario Manningham down the sideline, a ball so perfectly placed 40 yards downfield, between two perfectly placed defenders, it seemed to be thrown by Thor.

Brady has the perfect wife and life, flawless children and a pristine professional career. Add to that his epic record and the cinder block on his shoulder, which he’s carried ever since Deflategate.

In our sad, collective state of myopia, the last impression is always the lasting impression. We forget the 15 years of mind-numbing production Peyton Manning gave us and instead rely solely on the last 15 quarters he gave us.

We will spend the next fortnight bloviating over big-time quarterbacks, assuring each other that Peyton Manning is no Cam Newton. We were also told he’s no Tom Brady. A five-time NFL MVP reduced to eulogies well before his demise. Shame on us.

And shame on us for shoveling the dirt on an immortal. Turns out the Sheriff had another bullet or two on his belt.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel