When a personal rivalry stands at 10-4, its winner is usually uncontested. When that winner has also prevailed in nearly all the big moments that count, it's less a fight and more an execution.
Still, when it comes to the who's-the-greatest quandary between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, neither man is lying on the canvas and no-one is calling a winner. But maybe they will after this weekend when the pre-eminent quarterbacks of this (or perhaps any) generation meet again in the AFC Championship Game. Seconds out, it's Round 15.
Manning is perhaps the key man to be analysed. Why do so many people (myself included) still rank him ahead of Brady when he trails him in head-to-head matches (4-10), play-off encounters (1-2), Super Bowl appearances (2-5) and Super Bowl rings (1-3). In a myriad of nuanced answers, there is a simple one: assessing individual merit in a team game.
Like reciting π to 100 places or unraveling the mystery of consciousness, it's a hard problem. Nevertheless, everyone seems to converge in thinking that Manning has never had the assistance from his teammates which Brady has enjoyed perennially. Time and time again, the four-time MVP would show up with his Indianapolis Colts in New England's back yard and dare to doubt Thomas. Time and time again he would perform with credit but leave licking his wounds.
Both play-callers are positive variables for any given outfit. Yet the Patriots' Rolls-Royce roster always added up to more than the sum of Indy's makeshift parts. So if Peyton pulled a knife, Tom had a loaded gun in his holster. If Manning had some stud receivers, Brady possessed a bunch of all-stars. If Manning recorded a 14-2 record in 2009, Brady had already led his Invincibles through the regular season of 2007. Anything Peyton could do... you get the picture.
Then that picture changed. In 2011, Manning left the Colts to complete four-phase neck surgery, maybe never to return to the NFL. He was reminiscent of a Roman general, banished to the ends of the empire for challenging Caesar's authority. Even if he did dare to return, Manning would never recapture former glories. The kingdom was Brady's. Yet return Manning did. And at the head of a Denver Broncos army which trumps his old adversaries man-for-man. Make no mistake, Peyton's got all the guns now.
Of particular assistance is a receiving crew which are contenders for the best of all time. Towering, athletic receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are unplayable at their best and can blow opposing secondaries apart with deep downfield strikes. Manning also has the game's best slot receiver in Wes Welker (terrier-like shortfield gains), while physical tight end Julius Thomas has rapidly emerged as his go-to guy for both third-down and red-zone reliability. Heck, the Broncos can even move the chains on the floor with bankable rushers like Knowshon Moreno and rookie Montee Ball.
The Pats, on the other hand, have been losing able-bodied teammates in a hurry. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are all unavailable after various missteps or misdeeds. Indeed, Brady's once fabled receiving corps is now so fresh-faced, he's more likely to recognise an end-zone pylon as an active catcher. Small wonder, therefore, that coach Bill Belichick has fallen back on a long-lost running game to steady the ship in the postseason.
Regardless, if Brady is to maintain stride with Manning's Broncos, he will have to take to the air at some point. Don't be fooled by their latest meeting in Foxborough during late November, where the postscripts will tell you Manning again choked to Brady, turning a 24-point half-time into another agonising 34-31 defeat). The reality is that the game was decided by multiple Denver turnovers and a muffed punt in overtime in the face of a raucous crowd. True, Manning played it safe and his numbers were low, but he was picked off just the once.
Another year, another venue and this time Manning welcomes Brady back to the rarefied air of his own stadium at Mile High. At this altitude, the Broncos' standard-bearer has not simply resurrected his career, he has taken it to new heights. A staggering 68.3% completion rate this term proves this point, not to mention the small matter of 55 TDs (resetting Brady's own league-leading mark).
However, Manning has never had any trouble rewriting the statistical record books. He tops Brady for touchdowns, completions and total yards. Yet remains somewhat bashful when asked to open up his silverware cabinet. So Manning must first overcome his nemesis this weekend. And then add steely resolve by collecting a second Vince Lombardi Trophy in early February.
So in a late change to your programme notes, ladies and gentlemen, something of a role-reversal for our two leads, Robert Redford and Robert De Niro, is about to take place. De Niro (Manning, more talented) will now play Dr Jekyll while Robert Redford (Brady, better looking) will be cast as Mr Hyde.
At the ripe old age of 37, Peyton Manning may not be the man of tomorrow. Nevertheless, he remains the man of today and the current campaign. As for Tom Brady, he's yesterday's man. This coming Sabbath should prove as much. But the Hall of Fame will ensure both these all-time greats live on forever.