By Dennis Glade
Times Herald Columnist
---- — Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the two of the best quarterbacks of all-time and the best of this generation and for maybe the final time in the postseason they will battle for the AFC title Sunday afternoon.
Sunday’s epic matchup Sunday between these great quarterbacks is really about choice. Brady and Manning are both no doubt Hall of Famers with stats that would make any fan drool, but if you look deeper than the regular season and postseason statistics you can see there is a big difference between Tom and Peyton. Barring a Manning retirement following this season, which I highly doubt we’ll see, Peyton will finish his career with just about every meaningful quarterback record except for the most important two — playoff and Super Bowl victories.
Manning and Brady have had far different paths to greatness. To properly understand the magnitude of 15th meeting between the two quarterbacks and the fourth in the playoffs, we first have to look to the past.
Manning was the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft after a great career at Tennessee where he beat everyone except for Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators. Manning famously told Colts executive Bill Polian at the ‘98 NFL Combine that Indianapolis should pick No. 18 or he would make them regret that decision. Polian used his brain and chose Manning over Ryan Leaf and the rest is history. On paper, Manning was everything Polian and Colts owner Jim Irsay hoped he’d be. A pillar of the community off the field and a franchise quarterback on the field.
Brady was pick No. 199 in the 2000 draft after an uneven college career at the University of Michigan, where he had trouble getting playing time ahead of Drew Henson. Yes, Drew Henson the former Cowboys quarterback and New York Yankees bust once made life difficult for Tom Brady to get on the field in college. Brady was chosen just as security for Patriot franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe, but then 2001 happened and the NFL changed forever.
Bledsoe was injured in Week 2 of the 2001 season in a game against the Jets and Brady stepped to the forefront. Brady led the Patriots to a collossal upset of the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl and Brady’s legend was born. Two more championships in 2003 and 2004 as Brady’s defense made quick work of Manning’s Colts both years. Brady won his first 10 playoff games on his way to three titles in four years as a starting quarterback. Brady was untouchable, unflappable and 100 other adjectives you want to use to describe “The Golden Boy” of the NFL.
In 2006 after the Patriots upset the top-seeded Chargers and the Colts defeated No. 2 seed Baltimore, the Colts and Patriots met once again, this time in Indianapolis at the RCA Dome. Despite a 21-6 lead, aided by an Assante Samuel pick-6 of Manning, the Patriots vaunted defense didn’t get the best of Manning this time. Joseph Addai’s rushing touchdown through the center of the New England defense gave the Colts a four-point lead with 60 seconds to play. Brady’s was intercepted by Marlin Jackson to seal the win and Manning finally had his revenge.
In Miami, No. 18 finally won his first Super Bowl and it looked like it might finally be Manning’s time to start a dynasty in Indianapolis.
The Patriots had other ideas. The offseason acquisitions of All-Pro wide receiver Randy Moss and unheralded Miami receiver Wes Welker gave Brady his first tandem of top flight receivers. The Patriots ran through the NFL to a 16-0 regular season while playing through allegations related to the SpyGate scandal. What happened next nobody could have seen coming. The New England arrogance was cracked with a upset loss to Eli Manning, David Tyree and the New York Giants.
In the first game of 2008, Brady tore his ACL on a cheap shot from Kansas City safety Brandon Pollard ending any chance for New England redemption. For the first time in recent memory, Manning and Brady weren’t at the top of the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger led Pittsburgh to its second title in four years. Manning and Brady each have reached the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2011, but neither was able to add to their ring count, while Eli equaled Roethlisberger with a second championship over Brady’s Patriots in 2011.
As the years have passed, these two have separated themselves from the pack, but the postseason has been a different story. Manning lost three straight playoff games before last Sunday’s win over San Diego and Brady has suffered tough home losses to the Jets and Ravens (twice). Neither quarterback is where they once were, which brings us to Sunday. Manning threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns — breaking Brady’s 2007 mark of 50 touchdowns — to lead Denver to a 13-3 season and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Just like the old days, Peyton has a prolific offense and a sub par defense, while Brady is dragging along a group of cast-offs and misfits along for the ride.
The Patriots No. 1 running back (LaGarrette Blount) and cornerback (Aqib Talib) were discarded by Tampa Bay dictator Greg Schiano only to excel under ‘The Patriot Way’ and New England’s receivers are made up of guys you have probably never heard of. The New England defense will be without All-Pro’s Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork and the offense will be without All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Brady is the underdog this time around despite leading his teams to eight more playoff and two more Super Bowl victories than Manning. Both players face a mountain of pressure as they have more big games like this in their rearview mirror than ahead of them. No matter who you are rooting for Sunday afternoon, the season is going to end for one of these great quarterbacks, and maybe the final chance to win one last Super Bowl.
This is the kind of opportunity that created Brady’s legacy in the first place. On paper, Denver should be able to handle New England fairly easily, but if we’ve learned one thing, it’s not wise to count out Tom Brady.