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Brady Vs. Manning: Playing Like Their Legacies Depend On It

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If it wasn’t Tom Brady, I’d have turned it off at halftime, down 24-0. If it wasn’t Brady-Manning, I wouldn’t have built my Sunday night around it in the first place. But it was and I did, and the result was another classic between these two future Hall of  Famers, which kept anyone who stayed with it riveted till the wee hours of Monday morning.

Enjoy them. It is so rare to have two great players — superstars, a word I loathe — establish a rivalry in their primes that fosters debate, intensifies with time, and becomes personal. Larry Bird-Magic Johnson and Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain are two excellent comparisons. Jack Nicklaus was a full decade younger than Arnold Palmer, and eventually far surpassed Palmer’s achievements. So not quite the same, though close. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were the two best centers in hockey history, but faced each other too seldom in meaningful games to inflame their rivalry to the level of Brady-Manning. You have to go back to the old six-team NHL to find a hockey parallel, where you find a good one in Gordie Howe-Maurice Richard. Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier produced three great boxing matches, but Frazier was not close to Ali in talent.

Enjoy them. It is so rare to have two great players — superstars, a word I loathe — establish a rivalry in their primes that fosters debate, intensifies with time, and becomes personal.

Then there is Tom Brady-Peyton Manning. Brady is 36 years old, Manning, 37. Brady has three Super Bowl rings to Manning’s one; Manning has four league MVP awards to Brady’s two. Manning was the first pick in the draft out of college; Brady the 199th. Both are tall, relatively immobile, smart, classy, and fiercely competitive. They are impressive leaders, like Bird and Magic. And they are arguably the two best quarterbacks ever to play the game.

Unlike Bird and Magic, however, Brady and Manning never actually play against one another. They face the other team’s defense. So while one slices and dices, the other can do nothing but watch and scowl. Or sometimes turn away. It is wonderful theater, and Sunday night’s game provided a play in three acts.

Act One: Patriots self-destruct, fumble three times, fail to defend against the run (my kingdom for Vince Wilfork!), fall behind 24-zip, and get booed at home. Brady scowls; Manning enthuses.

Act Two: Brady performs his magic, goes, 12 of 14 for 163 yds. passing against the wind in an epic third quarter, Pats score on their first five second-half possessions, Broncos start coughing up the ball, and momentum does a 180-degree turn as Pats put up 31 straight points. Brady headbumps Gronk and Manning winces.

Act Three: Manning orchestrates a gutsy game-tying TD drive against the wind to send the game to overtime, both offenses sputter, and game is decided by a fumbled punt and a 31-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, completing the largest comeback in New England Patriot history. Neither QB is either hero or goat.

Much has been and will be written about how Brady owns Manning, in the same way as Russell owned Chamberlain. Brady is now 10-4 in these head-to-head matchups, and, considering the frigid, windy weather, his statistics on Sunday were stunning: 34-50, 344 yds., 3 TDs, no picks. Manning, meanwhile, had his worst night as a Bronco, with just 150 yards passing, one interception and one TD. Long suspected of being comparatively ineffective in cold weather, he did little to dispel that notion, save for that 4th quarter tying touchdown drive.

It is the greatness in their craft. It is the naked passion on display. They care as if their legacies depend on it. And it is the entirely, deliciously unpredictable outcomes.

But the fact is football is a game of teamwork and mayhem, and these contests are often decided by bit players, strange bounces, and bad calls. On Sunday Wes Welker, so missed by the Pats this season, was negatively involved in two crucial plays in OT for the Broncos, dropping a short pass on 3rd and 8 that reminded everyone of his drop late in the Pats 2012 Super Bowl loss; then failing to field that final punt, which led to the deciding turnover when the ball bounced off one of his blockers. Welker will not be as missed by Patriots Nation going forward.

And Brady-Manning? Theirs is a rivalry that seems destined to be renewed in the playoffs this year: Act XV. I hope so. The NFL certainly hopes so. And I imagine you hope so, too. For we will greatly miss them when they are gone. It is the greatness in their craft. It is the naked passion on display. They care as if their legacies depend on it. And it is the entirely, deliciously unpredictable outcomes.

It’s why we build our Sunday nights around them.


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This program aired on November 25, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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