It’s late January and the NFL playoffs are in high gear. While the NFC Championship Game matches upstarts from Carolina and Arizona, the AFC Championship Game has the usual combatants in New England and Denver facing off. While the NFC Championship Game features a first-ever matchup of teams, the AFC Championship Game is the second matchup of these AFC heavyweights in the last three years with the Patriots and Broncos battling at Sports Authority Field in the Mile High city of Denver. The winner punches its’ ticket to Super Bowl L.
That can only mean one thing. Another chapter to be written in the storied saga of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady dueling with playoff lore and supremacy on the line, not to mention a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. While it will more importantly be the Broncos and the Patriots competing against each other that will impact the outcome, the competitiveness of these two future hall-of-fame quarterbacks cannot be underestimated. It is also highly likely that how Brady and Manning perform will go a long ways in determining who wins. That is the way it goes when you play quarterback. Perhaps no one other position in all of sports has more responsibility and glamour tied to it.
Entering Sunday’s game, Manning and Brady have met 16 total times during their NFL careers with Brady holding an 11-5 edge. This season’s AFC Championship Game will be the fifth time they have met in the playoffs where they are 2-2. Sunday’s game also is the fourth time the two have met in the AFC Championship Game with Manning holding a 2-1 edge. Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to the 2006 AFC Championship over Brady and New England en route to his only Super Bowl victory and also beat Brady and the Patriots in the 2013 AFC Championship game in Denver. Brady’s lone win against Manning and his team in the AFC Championship Game came in the 2003 game with a 24-14 victory over the Colts en route to a win over Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Furthermore, the winner of their head-to-head playoff matchups has gone on to win that season’s Super Bowl three out of four times. The only time it did not happen was in 2013 when Manning and the Broncos won 26-16 to advance to Super Bowl XLVIII where they got routed by Seattle 43-8.
So what is it that has made Brady and Manning not only stand out but remain so good for so long? In a league where it is possible for a team to go from worst to first in a year within a division and turn the fortunes of their franchise around in just two or three years, it seems as though father time would of caught up with them and the core of their respective teams by now or maybe earlier in their careers. While both have showed signs of slowing down, it appears that they each still have something left in the tank.
While Manning, drafted number one overall in 1998, missed all or parts of six games due to injury in 2015, he still has immense wisdom from 18 years of experience which includes three trips to the Super Bowl. Brady, selected in the sixth round with the 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft, is 4-2 in six Super Bowl appearances. Outside of the 2008 season, which he missed due to a knee injury he suffered in the season opener, Brady has been a constant presence for New England. Brady has started 223 out of 225 games he has played in during his regular season career. Furthermore, Brady has defied any kind of skill erosion with age by logging 13 seasons in which he has started all 16 regular season games, including the last seven straight. Brady continues to play at a high level and has been able to avoid injury while playing through the typical strains and sprains encountered in playing professional football.
What is more impressive about Brady is that he has played with different players at the offensive skill positions and still performed at a high caliber level for so long while attaining both individual and team success. Between 2001 and 2004, when the Patriots won three Super Bowls in a four-year span, Brady was throwing to players like wide receivers David Patten and Troy Brown while handing off to running back Antowain Smith. Brady also had a great multi-purpose player in Kevin Faulk that was a threat as a runner or a receiver and he had Jermaine Wiggins at tight end. As the decade moved on, Brady had players like Corey Dillon at running back along with Deion Branch at wide receiver. Branch was the most valuable player of Super Bowl XXXIX, won by New England. Brady also looked to tight ends Ben Watson, Christian Fauria, and Daniel Graham.
Later in the decade, Brady would have the likes of Laurence Maroney and Benjarvus Green-Ellis at running back, Heath Evans at fullback, and the talented Randy Moss at wide receiver along with Wes Welker at the slot receiver position. Since 2009, Brady has been complemented by players like Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, and Danny Amendola out of the backfield. The front office of the Patriots has kept the team competing for Super Bowls in recent years by bringing in wide receivers such as Brandon LaFell and Donte Stallworth. Even if it has been just for a year or two, these players have made a difference for New England, perhaps explaining why the Patriots have been so good for so long. Over the last few years Brady has been complemented by some of the best receivers in the game with the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler at tight end and Julian Edelman, another great slot receiver who runs great routes and is sure-handed. They have also obtained – by the draft or other means – solid if not spectacular running backs such as Steven Jackson, LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden, and James White. This brings New England to present day 2016 and has them on the doorstep of another trip to the Super Bowl.
The offensive line for the Patriots was steady and productive with guys like Joe Andruzzi, Damien Woody, Dan Koppen, and Matt Light in Brady’s early years. In later years Brady has relied on lineman such as Logan Mankins and Nate Solder, among others, for protection.
Defensively, players like defensive end Richard Seymour, strong safety Lawyer Milloy, linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, and cornerback Asante Samuel were core players on many of New England’s teams that won three Super Bowls in a four-year span. While many of those players were lost to other teams or have since retired, the Patriots have done a terrific job of drafting and singing free agents to take their places. Today, New England has some of the league’s best players in those sports on defense in linebacker Don’t’a Hightower, defensive lineman Chandler Jones, linebacker Jamie Collins, defensive end Rob Ninkovich, safety Devin McCourty, and cornerback Malcolm Butler. Butler was the hero of Super Bowl XLIX a year ago with his game-clinching interception to beat Seattle in the closing minute.
Manning, much like Brady, has been a model of consistency throughout his career. After missing the entire 2011 season due to a second neck surgery, Manning signed a five year $96 million contract with Denver on March 20, 2012. In his four seasons with the Broncos, Manning has led Denver to four straight AFC West Championships during which the Broncos have gone 50-14 in regular season play and been the top seed in the AFC playoffs three times. While Manning is under contract with the Broncos through the 2016 season, he is nearing the end of his illustrious career. While he is a sure bet for the hall-of-fame, Manning’s career, and with it his legacy, would shine even brighter with a second Super Bowl Championship. It would also mark his time in Denver as a second era of sustained excellence in his career and make him 2-2 in the Super Bowl. That sounds a lot better than 1-3.
The revolving door of players that Brady operated with as a Patriot has also resembled the career of Manning. Manning has also seen players come and go with free agency being a big reason why. When Manning first came into the league in 1998, he was blessed to have the likes of Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison at running back and wide receiver respectively. Together, they were the second coming of “The Triplets”, first made famous by the Dallas Cowboys trio of stars in the 1990’s – Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith – all who are in the hall-of-fame. Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark were great tight ends that Manning played with much of his time as a Colt.
As his career in Indianapolis moved on, other players appeared at the skill positions such as Reggie Wayne at wide receiver and Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai at running back. Ben Utecht was a tight end on the Colts in Manning’s later years in Indianapolis. Ricky Proehl and Brandon Stokley were also solid receivers who Manning hooked up with regularly. As Manning’s career wore on in Indianapolis, he looked to younger players like Mike Hart and Donald Brown at running back, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie at wide receiver, and Jacob Tamme at tight end.
As Manning’s career transitioned to the Broncos, he has benefitted from the same kind of balance between the run and the pass. Running backs like Knowshon Moreno, Monte Ball, Ronnie Hillman, and CJ Anderson have provided Manning with a stable group out of the backfield. The big play threat of Harrison in Indianapolis has been provided by Demaryius Thomas in Denver. Other receivers like Eric Decker and Julius Thomas were Broncos during Manning’s first year or two. As those players have been lost to free agency or trades, Denver’s front office has brought in capable players like Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders who are with the team today.
Up front, Manning was protected by pro bowl players in left tackle Tarik Glenn and center Jeff Saturday for much of his career with the Colts. As any quarterback ages, he becomes less mobile. Thus, his years as a Bronco have been marked with solid protection as well. Manning has been able to stay upright most of the time behind a Denver line that features 300-pounders in center Matt Paradis, guard Louis Vasquez, tackle Michael Schofield, and guard Tyler Polumbus.
Defensively, Manning has had a steady defense that has played well over the years during his time as a Colt or a Bronco. Manning had one of the premier pass rushers at the time in the league in Dwight Freeney for most of his career in Indianapolis. During the 2006 season – Manning’s only Super Bowl Championship – Manning benefitted from the play of linebackers Gary Brackett and Cato June along with defensive backs Antoine Bethea, Marlin Jackson, Nick Harper, and Kelvin Hayden. Robert Mathis was also a key defensive lineman.
In Denver, Manning has had a defense that has gotten better every year. A big reason why is what the Bronco’s front office has done. They signed free agent linebacker DeMarcus Ware who in nine seasons in Dallas became the Cowboys’ all-time leader in sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl seven times. They also signed cornerback Aqib Talib in 2014 who was a playmaker for New England, and have bolstered their defense by drafting linebackers like Von Miller in 2011 and Shane Ray in 2015.
So when you look at how Manning and Brady and their teams have stood the test of time and remained at or near the top of the league, it probably has a lot to do with moves that their franchises have made to support them for so long. Granted, they are both talented and professional quarterbacks who have performed above some of their peers on some of the biggest stages of their profession. Yet to say they could of done it without the support of their franchises would be unfair to the game. Each will be a first ballot hall-of-famer after their playing careers end. They each have the individual statistics, awards, and championships of all kinds to back up their place in history.
Yet each time these two iconic players meet, there always seems to be so much at stake. Therefore, like so many of their past matchups, we will watch again with intrigue. The kind of intrigue that adds to legacies. If it is for the simple reason of just that – intrigue – and nothing more, it is a reason that is so special and captivates our attention. So as these two giants of the game and their teams duel yet again, we should expect nothing short of another storied chapter to be added to this already impressive book.