In a matchup between 1 and 2 seeds the Patriots will be traveling to Denver this weekend to take on the Broncos in what could very well be the finishing touches on one, if not two, legacies. Brady vs Manning (17th edition) is a bit diminished this time around though despite the stakes above and beyond simply the AFC Championship title.
This is a game about reputations. About legacies. Really all of the Brady v. Manning matchups in the past have culminated in this final contest. Will this be a continuation of the overall trend we have seen since Brady’s ascendancy in 2001? Of the unheralded 6th round pick reaping the rewards of what seemed like Manning’s 1st overall pick birthright? Or will this be a final grand stand of an aging great? A man who can thwart the advancement of age to win in a big game where he has so often failed? A crowning achievement to cap off a tremendous career? None know now but by 7 PM on the east coast all will.
For Manning, this game means everything. He can emerge as a victor, battling against his body and time besides the Patriots, who is granted one last shot at Super Bowl glory before what is looking more and more certain as his impending retirement. For Brady this game could be another step towards immortality as the NFL’s greatest QB and a reckoning for the slights and insults hurled his way after the Deflategate scandal which, amazingly, is still ongoing.
Manning, no matter what his actual health and abilities currently are has aged from a dynamic, game changing, cannon armed field general to a game manager you feel is made of glass. I don’t even like Manning and even I’m finding myself holding my breath when he gets hit. Brady, on the other hand, is still playing at the top of his game and whereas Peyton’s role is being minimized, Brady’s has never been more prominent. The Patriots have, for all intents and purposes, abandoned the run game unless it plays into the realm of clock management. Even then they may op for a quick hit out to Amendola or Edelman (or LaFell if he’s riding a unicorn) instead of the token draw play to James White or 32 Power to Steven Jackson. The Patriots offense is squarely placed on Tom’s remarkably broad shoulders while you can’t help but feel the Broncos are trying to win in spite of Manning being the QB.
That may seem like a harsh characterization for Peyton but it only speaks of the dazzling heights he reached with his play over the course of his career. Manning was one of the all-time greats and this postseason is all about whether or not he still is. The numbers and eye test seem to say no but there is still at least one more game to be played. One more chance at affirmation. Who knows? Maybe Manning is able to cobbled together a game like he did against the Lions in September or the Packers in the first week of November. Get that last bit of magic out of his arm. I just don’t see that happening in January against the Patriots and Bill Belichick.
The craziest part about this matchup as far as #18 is concerned though? No one is talking about his proclivity for losing big games. That’s pretty rough as far as silver linings go but at least we aren’t hearing the more poignant questions about Peyton not being able to perform in big games or in the clutch. At least this time around no one will be rolling their eyes as the excuse train gets a fresh load of coal dumped into the engine. I mean we are already kind of seeing that with last weeks performance and everyone trying not to bury Manning alive bringing up the drops. Yes, 9 drops is a hefty number but almost all of the drops were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. These weren’t strikes that were falling through hands. These were waffling, waving, flittering balls in the short/intermediate passing game.
The ironic truth to this game for Peyton and the Broncos is that, after nearly 15 years of being an offensive savant capable of scoring 30 points on almost a whim, this final chapter in Peyton’s legacy is largely out of his hands. He’s going to need a tremendous performance from his defense, an effective running attack from Hillman and Anderson, and probably a special teams play or two to keep his dream of going out on top alive. In a game that could stamp him as the greatest under-achiever in the modern era of football or grant him one last shot at redemption, Peyton is a shell of his former self. A former self that for more than a decade was thwarted time and again by the man standing across the field from him. A man who is anything but diminished.
For Brady, this game doesn’t stand out so much in his legacy beyond the scope of a PR hit. The Deflategate story cannot be overlooked, especially when the NFL refuses to let it die, and the poetic justice in once again derailing the NFL’s golden boy has to be a big motivation. I mean, just looking at the recent HGH scandal has to be infuriating to Brady. I hope so anyway because it pisses me off. Wagons circled, news organizations smeared, commentators refusing to discuss the issue and all done in the name of protecting one of the greats. None of which occurred when Brady had to deal with an Ocean’s 11 type scheme that captured the imagination of the nation, the impressive list of those who dislike the Patriots, and was fueled by the same news organization that is doing everything in its power to protect Peyton (ESPN sucks and I can’t wait for Disney to revamp that whole shitty organization. Maybe with muppets).
No doubt a Patriots loss would be a tough pill to swallow for New England fans. So close to being back at the Super Bowl with a chance to spit in the eye of the Roger Goddell, the NFL, and the nation in general only to fall short would sting. Doubly so that it would be against a Peyton Manning who looks old and tired. For Brady though? Brady’s legacy was cemented by Malcolm Butler last year and any further glory is akin to Midas finding a gold bar. Sure a loss would add to the narrative of the Patriots playing poorly in Denver and call into question their final month of the regular season. Just think about that though. The biggest knock that could come out of this game for Brady is that he doesn’t win all the time in Denver. That’s crazy and its not a stat tied directly to him. The Patriots have always struggled in the mile high city. So really, this go around he can only enhance his reputation instead of damaging it and, unlike Peyton, everyone can see Brady making it back to a Super Bowl beyond 50.
In the end, I think football fans are grateful to get one last chapter in the best QB rivalry the NFL has ever seen. Unfortunately, it has the potential to be more of an epilogue than a chapter but who knows? Perhaps Brady and Manning will turn the clock back a bit and their prolific rivalry ends as it should, in a game for the ages.