Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 19, 2014

In Manning Versus Brady, Round 15 Goes To Peyton

Their rivalry has defined the recent history of the National Football League. One is second generation football royalty, son of a quarterback who is still celebrated in New Orleans more than three decades after he played his final game for the Saints, and older brother of a signal caller who has led the New York Giants to a pair of Super Bowl victories. The other came into the league as a little-noticed 6th round draft pick who, once given the chance to play, became the cornerstone of a New England team that has been the AFC representative in five of the last twelve Super Bowls. On Sunday afternoon in Denver it was Manning versus Brady for the fifteenth time. The two future Hall of Famers came into the contest with a combined 343 wins, an NFL record for two starting quarterbacks.

As epic as many of the contests between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have been, the results have been relatively one-sided. Brady and the Patriots had won ten of the previous fourteen meetings against a Manning-led team, including two of the three times the two great quarterbacks had met in the playoffs. Two months ago in Foxborough Manning’s Broncos raced out to a 24-0 halftime lead before Brady and the Patriots stormed back in the second half, eventually winning 34-31 in overtime. But New England fans who might have assumed that the history of the rivalry foretold another Patriots victory should have noted that the three previous playoff meetings all went to the home team and Sunday’s AFC Conference Championship was played before more than 76,000 orange-clad Broncos faithful in the thin air of Denver.

Nine times this year the Broncos scored a touchdown on their first offensive possession, and so it could be scored as something of a victory for the Patriots when Denver’s opening drive stalled at midfield. But this is a Denver team that dominated the league’s offensive statistics from Week One, when Manning tied a 44-year old record by throwing seven touchdown passes against Baltimore. By the time a Brady pass to running back Shane Vareen gave the Patriots their initial first down, the Broncos had a 3-0 lead. More telling was the fact that nearly twelve minutes of the first quarter had elapsed, and Denver had run twice as many plays as New England, 18-9.

That trend continued when the Broncos held the ball for just over seven minutes, grinding out fifteen plays on a 93-yard drive that ended with a one yard scoring pass from Manning to tight end Jacob Tamme for a 10-0 lead. New England got on the board with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal on their next position, but Denver answered just before halftime with another kick by Matt Prater. Then the Broncos opened the second half by asserting their will in the trenches, again taking more than seven minutes off the clock while driving 80 yards for another touchdown. After punting for the first time in the playoffs on their opening drive, the Broncos scored on every subsequent possession until the final one when they ran out the clock.

Yet despite Denver’s dominance, the long history of the Manning versus Brady rivalry, and the recent saga of New England’s improbable season in which a new and injury-riddled roster came from behind time and time again meant that fans couldn’t quite turn away from this contest. Trailing 23-3 with just over twelve minutes remaining, Brady called nine consecutive pass plays. He completed six of them and took the Patriots from their own 20 down the field to a Julian Edelman touchdown catch in just two and one-half minutes. After another Prater field goal widened the gap to sixteen points, Brady again marched his team 80 yards, finishing the drive by running up the middle himself for a touchdown that made it 26-16.

The game clock showed 3:07 remaining when Brady lumbered into the end zone, and the Patriots had all three of their time outs. For as much as Manning and the Broncos had dominated the line of scrimmage and time of possession, every nervous fan in the stands and the millions watching on television could see the possibility. A two-point conversion would cut the lead to eight points. If the Patriots could get their hands on the ball again, a scoring strike by Brady and another two-point conversion could yet undo all of Manning’s magnificence.

The history of the rivalry said it was possible. The tale of these two quarterbacks said it was so. Manning has the better career numbers, and more awards. But Brady is the ultimate winner, with those five trips to the Super Bowl and three rings. Surely in Denver, as New England lined up for the conversion attempt, anxious memories of the November contest danced through more than a few minds.

But on this day there would be no miracle finish by Tom Terrific. Brady handed the football to Shane Vareen, but the running back never came close to the goal line as the Denver defensive line swarmed. As Vareen went to the turf New England’s possibilities fell with him, and what might have been was replaced by the reality of a ten point Denver lead with just three minutes left to play. When Manning found Tamme down the right side for a big gain and a Denver first down moments later, the AFC’s representative to the Super Bowl was certain.

Down the decades of NFL history great quarterbacks have battled one another. Otto Graham’s Browns and Bobby Lane’s Lions met in the championship game three straight times from 1952 through 1954. They were followed by Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas, who gave way to Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, opponents in two Super Bowls. In the 1990s Steve Young’s 49ers faced Troy Aikman’s Cowboys in three successive NFC Conference Championships. So dominant were the two that Sports Illustrated dubbed the last of those meetings that season’s “real” Super Bowl.

But Manning and Brady top virtually every list of great NFL quarterback rivalries. Manning is 37 now, and two years removed from potentially career-ending neck surgery; while Brady is 36. Whether their intertwined story has more pages is unknown. Sunday evening the NFC Conference Championship pitted the 49ers against the Seahawks. Perhaps Colin Kaepernick versus Russell Wilson will be the NFL’s next chapter. As Manning versus Brady nears its inevitable end, Sunday’s matchup did not disappoint; and while Tom Brady may be judged the winner of the rivalry, the day belonged to Peyton Manning.

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