Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 24, 2016

One Last Time For One Great Rivalry

It should be noted for the record that in the seventeenth matchup between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the difference was neither Brady nor Manning, but the speedy and tenacious defense of the Denver Broncos. The star of the game was arguably none of the players wearing pads and helmets, but rather Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who designed a game plan that kept the New England offense contained for almost the entire game. The Broncos defense featured smothering coverage on the Patriots key receivers and a fierce pass rush that sacked Brady four times and repeatedly forced him into hurried throws. Speedy linebacker Von Miller was named the player of the game after recording 5 tackles, 2 ½ sacks and an interception.

While Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski eventually finished with 8 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown, Brady’s two other principal targets, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola together managed less than 100 receiving yards. And one stat says all that need be said about the inability of New England to move the ball on the ground. The Patriots leading rusher with 13 yards was the slow-footed Brady, who earns his yearly millions with his arm, not his feet.

Defensive heroics aside, given that it is widely assumed that Sunday’s AFC Championship contest at Sports Authority Field in Denver was the final time that the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks whose rivalry has transcended their sport for fifteen years will battle one another, the narrative of the game will inevitably revolve around the player wearing number 12 for New England and the one in the orange Denver jersey with the number 18.

Statistically neither quarterback had a stellar afternoon, a tribute to the fact that while New England’s defense was the second best on the field, it was by no means bad. New England’s offense is more pass-oriented than Denver’s, and Brady put the ball in the air 56 times compared to 32 for Manning. The former finished 27 of those 56 throws for 310 yards and the one touchdown to Gronkowski, while Manning found his target 17 times for 176 yards and a pair of first half touchdowns. Brady was also intercepted twice in the first half, once when he tried to force a throw into traffic and once when he was hit from behind as he released the ball. All of those numbers translate into indifferent passer ratings of 71.1 for Brady and 90.1 for Manning.

But numbers alone do not tell the story of a game that seemed to be Denver’s from the two teams opening drives until suddenly it wasn’t. On an afternoon during which New England never led, their first possession with decent field possession quickly turned sour. After a 28 yard punt return by Amendola set the Patriots up near midfield for their third turn on offense, an unnecessary roughness call on first down pushed them back fifteen yards. But after that drive stalled and the Patriots punted, they finally got the ball deep in Denver territory when a Manning toss in the backfield, first ruled an incomplete pass, was determined upon review to have been a lateral and thus a fumble. Brady needed just two plays to move his team into the end zone from the Denver 21-yard line.

Then Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski did what he had not done in more than 500 consecutive attempts, namely miss an extra point. Surprising as it was at the time, the miss and two questionable fourth quarter decisions by New England head coach Bill Belichick would ultimately prove the difference in the game.

Denver led 20-12 with just over ten minutes to play, a margin that seemed insurmountable given New England’s day-long offensive woes. But then Brady, as Patriots fans have seen him do in so many fourth quarters, marched his team down the field. From his own twenty the quarterback needed ten plays to move the ball to the Denver sixteen where New England faced a fourth and one. The clock still showed more than six minutes remaining, but Belichick eschewed a field goal that would have cut the margin to five. Brady’s fourth down pass was complete to Edelman, but the receiver was tackled for a loss, turning the ball over to the Broncos.

After stopping Denver cold, New England mounted another drive, this time from their own 29-yard line. Once again Brady took his team into the Denver red zone, this time to a fourth and six on the Broncos sixteen. With two and one-half minutes remaining Belichick again chose to go for it, and once again the Denver defense came up stout.

Yet Brady was not quite done. The Patriots got the ball back at midfield with just under two minutes to play, and for the third time in the final quarter he drove his team down the field. This drive ended with the touchdown to Gronkowski, but with the earlier missed extra point and the decision to twice pass up virtually certain field goals, New England was forced to attempt a two point conversion. When Brady’s pass was tipped by Denver’s Aqib Talib, the AFC Championship was decided.

For his part Manning did his best to roll back the clock, especially in the first half. He is two months shy of this 40th birthday and four years removed from serious neck surgery. This year he was benched in a game against Kansas City in Week 10 after going 5 for 20 and throwing four interceptions. In the wake of that contest it was revealed Manning was suffering from plantar fasciitis. He did not play again until he replaced an ineffective Brock Osweiler in Denver’s final regular season contest.

But on Denver’s opening drive Manning’s passes were sharp, and he marched the Broncos down the field, going 83 yards in 12 plays. The drive was capped by a 21-yard strike to Owen Daniels that gave Denver an early 7-0 lead. It was just the second touchdown pass Manning had thrown at home this season. He upped his total in the second quarter when he found Daniels again for a 12-yard TD after Miller’s interception of Brady.

While it must be said that from that point on Manning was managing as much as leading the Denver offense, it should also be noted that a diminished superstar was filling his new role capably enough. Denver managed just twelve first downs in the entire game, but Manning kept his offense on the field long enough to give his defenders time to catch their breath. In the end time of possession was virtually identical.

He is no longer the feared gunslinger of old, but Peyton Manning is going to the Super Bowl for the third time in his career, and will be the oldest quarterback to lead a team to the NFL’s season-ending extravaganza. A year and a half younger than his rival, Tom Brady led his team to the AFC Championship Game for the fifth year in a row, but a seventh Super Bowl appearance will have to wait. Each of these two intense competitors has always expressed great admiration and respect for the other, and their rivalry is unlike any other in the history of the NFL. But both surely know that their greatest opponent now is not some defensive lineman charging in for a sack. The enemy about to overtake Manning, and soon enough nipping at Brady’s heels, is the one every athlete most dreads. It is the voracious hellhound of time that brings an end to Brady versus Manning, the one implacable foe no star can ever escape.

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