t is as compelling a rivalry as any we’ve ever seen in sports, a duel that carries every bit the majesty and drama of Bird-Magic, Ali-Frazier, Palmer-Nicklaus and Navratilova-Evert.
Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning is as good as all of them and maybe even better, given the intrigue that has unfolded during the 15-year lifespan of the matchup.
But as we approach the 17th installment of this remarkable competition, there is a decidedly different feel to this latest matchup. This very well could be the final time they face one another. In fact, it should be the last time.
Manning, 39, clearly is not the player he once was, and his body should be telling him that he no longer can withstand the punishing NFL grind, no matter how much his spirit is willing.
Beset by injuries the last two seasons, he managed to play through a deep thigh bruise last year but missed six games this season because of a foot problem. If Manning doesn’t retire after the season, he’ll have to find a team willing to sign him — the Broncos almost surely are ready to move on — and it will be the modern-day equivalent of Joe Namath playing one last season with the Rams or Johnny Unitas stumbling his way through a final year with the Chargers.
Manning actually raised the possibility in recent weeks that he’s thinking about the end. After replacing Brock Osweiler and leading the Broncos to a win over the Chargers in Week 17, thereby assuring the Broncos the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, Manning was asked if he thought these might be the final weeks of his career.
“Look, I’d be lying to say I’ve never thought about it,” Manning said.
It was another hint — a strong one — that he clearly understands this could be it.
Which leads us to the other big reason why Sunday’s matchup against Brady has a different feel. For the first time since they started playing against each another in 2001, an underdog dynamic now surrounds Manning. He is much more of a sympathetic figure.
Brady remains at the top of his game at 38, and in some ways, he has played better than at almost any other point in his career. His command of the Patriots’ offense is simply breathtaking, and he still is physically strong enough to be playing at a level unmatched by almost anyone else in today’s game.
Manning, on the other hand, is not close to the player he once was. He admits the only reason he’s in this game is because the Denver defense has managed to overcome his shortcomings.
He once directed his offense the way a conductor leads an orchestra, making brilliant decisions at the line of scrimmage and throwing darts to his receivers with awe-inspiring precision. Manning at his best is football at its best, and the memories he has given us are priceless. There might never be another to play the position with as much panache.
These days, Manning is more of a game manager-type quarterback. But he’s still viable enough to give the Broncos a chance, and because we’re likely witnessing his final days in the NFL, there surely is more compassion for his situation than there has been at any time in the previous 16 matchups.
In those games, it was strength vs. strength, with Brady holding a decisive edge with an 11-5 career record. But they are 2-2 in playoff matchups, with Manning beating Brady in the postseason during two of his three Super Bowl runs, including his only championship.
This time Manning is much more of a sympathetic figure, the kind that America embraces. Not that Brady won’t have his share of supporters. He has been to the conference championship game an astounding 10 times and is playing in his fifth straight. But if you have no rooting interest in this game, Manning is more likely to draw your attention because of where he’s at in his career. If he can squeeze out two more wins and walk off into his NFL sunset with one last Super Bowl title, how can that not appeal to you, unless you bleed Patriots red and blue?
Both men certainly appreciate what this rivalry has meant to them, and both expressed themselves perfectly when asked about it this week.
“It has been a great honor and privilege to compete against [Brady] that many times in the past 16, 17 years he and I have been in the league together,” Manning said. “I’ve felt very fortunate to have played 18 years like I have, and I know how hard I’ve worked to play this long, so when I look across at the New England Patriots and see that Tom Brady is their quarterback, I just know how hard he’s worked as well, and to play as well as he has over the course of his career, and the success that he’s had and the team success, I just have a lot of respect for him — and he’s earned that respect.”
Brady marvels at his opponent.
“I think just his consistency, the durability, his ability to always seem to come through,” Brady said. “He’s just been an incredible player and incredible leader for his team. There have been so many games as a team he’s been a part of that they’ve won. So you can see that he leads a great team.”
Brady-Manning one more time. One last time, in all likelihood. It has been a matchup for the ages, and one of the signature rivalries in all of sports. But with Manning about to exit stage left, sentiment is on his side this time.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have faced each other 16 times, equal to an NFL regular-season schedule. Their numbers:
29.9 Points per game24.5
4,013 Passing yards4,809
66.4Comp. pct. 62.4