Manning-Brady XVII: The next chapter of an epic rivalry

The New England Patriots have seen off the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Denver Broncos have overcome the Pittsburgh Steelers, setting up the second AFC Championship match between the Patriots and the Broncos in three seasons. With a trip to Super Bowl 50 on the line it is hard to imagine any subplots overshadowing the ultimate prize, but the Manning-Brady rivalry is not just any rivalry. When the final chapters of their hall-of-fame careers have been played out, they will be remembered as two of the greatest ever to have played their positions.

It is hard to find a category in the passing game in which Peyton Manning is not the regular season leader. His five MVP awards, 539 career TD passes, 55 TD passes in a single season, and 186 wins as a starting QB are all best in the league. Similarly, there is a hardly a post-season record that Brady has not broken or tied. Four Super Bowl victories as a QB, six Super Bowl appearances, 10 AFC championship games, 53 passing TDs, and 22 playoff victories are all best of all time. Here is an indication of how dominant this incredible duo has been for the better part of the last two decades: since Brady became a starter in 2001, only four times have there been AFC Championship games that did not feature Brady or Manning, including the years when either missed the entire season due to an injury.

Brady leads Manning 11-5 in head-to-head meetings, whereas Manning holds the edge 2-1 in AFC Championship games. Over the years, these two stellar quarterbacks have provided us with some jaw-dropping moments — some defying human physiology, others redefining perfection. As we inch closer to what might well be the last duel in an epic rivalry, we take a look back at some of the classics from the Manning-Brady archive and look ahead to who might have the last laugh come Sunday.

Humble beginnings

Incidentally, the first Manning-Brady encounter was Tom Brady’s first start in the NFL. Brady was forced to take on the reins after Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe got injured in the second game of the 2001 season. With an 0-2 start, the Patriots faced the Manning-led Colts at Foxborough. There were hardly any signs then that these two young quarterbacks would become two of the greatest of all time. Manning threw for three interceptions, two of which were returned for TDs while Brady completed 13/23 passes with a TD/INT of 0/0. The Patriots’ defense dominated for a 44-13 victory.

2003 AFC Championship game

Perhaps the only disappointment for followers of the Brady-Manning rivalry is that they have never battled for a Super Bowl, as they have always played for AFC teams. The biggest prize they could have competed for was for a chance to play in the Super Bowl, and the first of those opportunities presented itself in the 2003 AFC Championship game. Manning came into the game having had one of the most dominating post-season performances by a QB ever. He had thrown for five TDs as the Colts scored on every possession, thumping the Denver Broncos 41-14. The AFC championship game was a different story. Manning got mauled by a fierce Patriots defense under typically cold New England conditions. Three of Manning’s four interceptions were made by Ty Law as Brady headed to his second SB in three seasons.

2006 AFC Championship game: Manning makes his mark

Despite his having already won two MVP awards, the Patriots seemed a perennial obstacle in Manning’s path to greatness, and that trend seemed all but set to continue after the Patriots raced to a 21-3 lead at the Lucas Oil stadium in Indianapolis. This was when Peyton Manning had one of the finest halves of his career. He ran in a TD, threw to a defensive lineman (who had lined up as a full back) for a TD, and finally drove his team downfield for a go-ahead TD that gave the Colts the lead with less than 4 minutes to play. The Colts had overcome a record-setting 18-point deficit to win a Conference Championship game. Quite appropriately, two weeks from that incredible victory, Peyton Manning would win his first SB.

2013 regular season: Patriots overcome 24-point deficit

When Manning underwent multiple surgeries in 2011, there was widespread speculation about whether he would be able to perform at the high standards he had set for himself. He responded as had been his custom all his career: like a champion. In 2013, as a member of the Denver Broncos, Manning was having the most prolific season of his career. Having thrown a record-breaking seven TDs in the opening game of the season, Manning would go on to best Brady’s single-season record of 50 TDs by five. Nothing seemed to stop Manning that season, not even a trip to his haunted house, Foxborough. On a wildly windy day, Manning led the Broncos to a 24-0 halftime lead. Brady and the Patriots responded with 28 unanswered points before the game headed to overtime, tied at 31. Failing to convert on a third down in his own half, Bill Belichick decided to punt. You may recall that in a 2009 regular season game against the Manning-led Colts, Belichick had famously gone for a 4th-and-2 attempt from inside his own 30-yard line to keep the ball away from Manning. This time, however, a former Patriot, Wes Welker, decided to abort an attempt to catch the punt right at the very end, which led to a Patriots recovery. Stephen Gostkowski took care of business from there on, giving Brady and Belichick their largest come-from-behind victory.

Looking ahead to Manning-Brady XVII

Two years ago, when the Broncos met the Patriots at the Mile High City with a trip to SB XLVIII on the line, Brady had lost his favorite target, Rob Gronkowski, to injury for the season, and within the first half of the game, then-Patriot-now-Broncos CB Aqib Talib had been taken out by a vicious off-the-ball hit by former Patriot Wes Welker. Manning torched a decimated Patriots secondary, throwing for 400 yards at a nearly 75 percent completion rate and two TDs.

Injuries: Things look a lot different now. Manning missed the better part of two months with plantar fasciitis this season, and while he has looked efficient against the Steelers, how he will respond to a Belichick-masterminded defense remains a big question mark. The Patriots have had their own injuries to deal with. They have had to resort to 14 different O-line combinations, something that is sure to excite a potent Broncos pass rush led by Von Miller and Demarcus Ware.

Broncos’ run game: The Broncos’ ability to run the ball was key to their week 12 victory against the Patriots earlier this season. With Patriots ILB Jerod Mayo out for the season and pro-bowler Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower nursing injures, how well the Patriots manage to stuff the run might have a big impact on the game.

Sanders/Thomas v. Logan Ryan: SB XLIX hero Malcolm Butler has established himself as one of the top CBs in the league. His compatriot Logan Ryan, however, has often been targeted by opponents. Assuming he will have help from safety Devin McCourty, how he matches up to the likes of Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas could have a big impact on the outcome of the game.

Pats receiving corps v. Broncos pro-bowl defensive backs: Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and T.J. Ward are bound to be a handful for any receiving corps in the league. They are a big reason why Aaron Rodger was held to less-than-100-yard passing when Green Bay traveled to the Mile High City earlier this year. The Patriots’ receiving corps has been banged up for most of the second half of the season, but the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman in combination with James White and Danny Amendola could be a nightmare when they are all on the field at the same time. This has all the makings of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.

History: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick might well have already established themselves as the best QB-coach duo of all time. But for whatever reason, they seem to struggle in Denver. Brady is 2-6 all time in Denver. Brady also trails Manning 0-2 in AFC Championship games when the Patriots are the visiting team. Brady is 0-2 in playoff games in Denver. While the numbers are stacked against Brady, it is worth reminding ourselves that Brady’s legacy is replete with instances of overcoming the odds. Brady was not named a full-time starter at Michigan. He was drafted in the sixth round with the 199th overall pick. Even as recently as last post-season, ‘January’ Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens were favored at Foxborough in the divisional round game. Prior to his nearly flawless display in the fourth quarter of SB XLIX when he led the Patriots to victory against the most dominant defense in football, there were doubters who claimed his performances were aided by under-inflated footballs. For Brady, every ring, championship, title, and roster spot has been hard-earned, and he would not have it any other way.

Before we get set to cheer for the teams we have been rooting for since childhood or players we idolize — or just spend another lazy, snowy afternoon watching football — it is worth taking a moment to recognize how fortunate we have been to witness two of the greatest sportsmen battle each other. Despite the frequency of their matchups and the high stakes, they have managed to maintain utmost respect for each other’s dedication and achievements while spurring themselves to be the very best. If indeed this is the last edition of Manning-Brady, let it be fiercely competitive and of unfathomably high quality, but in the end, quietly classy — just like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.