NFL: Can Peyton prove he's no pass master against his nemesis Tom in their final showdown?

Manning the offense: crouching tiger hidden dragon, or will Peyton be brought to his knees by Brady?
Manning the offense: crouching tiger hidden dragon, or will Peyton be brought to his knees by Brady?

Romilly Evans looks at the fabled Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry to be the greatest of all-time and wonders if the Denver QB will enjoy the last laugh in perhaps their last dance this weekend...


"Manning, the veteran sheriff, knows this is his last chance to ride off into a glorious Super Bowl sunset"

Statisticians of sport love to throw out two anomalies when it comes to some of the greatest personal rivalries of the modern era. Rafa Nadal versus Roger Federer stands at 23-11; while Tom Brady lords the bragging rights over Peyton Manning at 11-5. Some rivals, they conclude. So is it all just media hype?

After all, if a head-to-head record is so lopsided, its victor is typically a unanimous decision. And when that victor has also prevailed in practically all the major matches that count, it's less a fight and more an execution. Such is the case for both Rafa and Tom who can't seem to help wrecking their opponents' big nights out.

Still, when it comes to the who's-the-greatest quandary between Brady and Manning, neither man is lying on the canvas, and few are prepared to call a clear winner. But maybe they will after this weekend when the pre-eminent quarterbacks of this (or perhaps any) generation meet for the final time in the AFC Championship Game. Seconds out, it's Round 17.

Manning is perhaps the key man to be analysed. Why do so many commentators keep him in the conversation when he trails Brady in head-to-head matches (5-11), Super Bowl appearances (2-6) and only ties him in play-off encounters (2-2)? At least Federer holds a powerful pushback against Nadal in terms of total grand slam titles (17-14), the ultimate measure of greatness. Manning, on the other hand, has but one Super Bowl ring to compare to Brady's four.

In a mire of messy answers, though, there is a simple reason why the debate can still rage: assessing individual merit in a team game. Just like reciting π to 100 places or unraveling the mystery of consciousness, it's a hard problem. Manning has seldom had the assistance from his teammates which Brady has perennially enjoyed. 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 signal-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 one stud receiver, 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 idea.

That picture did see a notable reversal of fortune in the AFC Championship game of 2006, when Manning finally got Brady on home territory and led his Colts on a majestic 38-34 rally. Then, having joined the Denver Broncos 2012, after hazardous four-phase neck surgery, Manning overturned yet more regular-season blows at his new home and at another Conference Championship, passing for over 400 yards (and two TDs) to deny Brady 26-16 in 2014. Tom reasserted his gleaming credentials during a 43-21 blowout in 2014, but the pair have not met since.

True, the Patriots fell to the Broncos in overtime during a snowy November this term (a win which grants Denver homefield advantage here), but Manning was absent and replaced by his young and able deputy Brock Osweiler. Indeed, Osweiler's able deputizing (4-2 over six games) during Manning spell on the sidelines (with foot, neck and ribcage injuries) led many to believe that the curtain had fallen early on a glittering career. However, as Osweiler struggled to connect with his receivers in Week 17, head coach Gary Kubiak asked Manning if he could do something. "Yeah," replied the 39-year-old, "I can do something."

Something was about all he did. Manning simply minimised the mistakes, and offloaded offensive duties to the dynamic duo of Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson, who have belatedly rediscovered some rushing momentum for the play-offs. The running men carried the can against Pittsburgh last week too. So while the fulcrum of power in Denver no longer resides at QB - indeed, it rests with their dominant defense - there can be no doubting that the return of the old warhorse has proven the inspirational catalyst in the Mile High City. "You heard the crowd when Peyton took the field," noted Von Miller. "That guy is still a game-changer."

If Manning is hardly in the pristine condition of 2005 (it's telling when a QB is 12.011/1 to win Super Bowl MVP and his team is 5.59/2 as was the case before the Divisional Round), then the Brady machine remains revved up and a genuine contender for league MVP in the current campaign. One's rusting up on blocks, the other is still mobile (TB even led his side for rushing yards against the NY Jets, don't ya know?) and motivated to rehab his reputation from last year's Deflate Gate Saga.

Brady has been losing his top target men like dinosaurs in an asteroid strike, but he's managed to keep the Pats in the postseason picture with the sideline throws and the downfield connections. Now, though, he has Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola back on the field which leaves him with no more excuses in the Rockies' rarefied air against a rival D that will starve him of oxygen.

However, while Manning can't match Brady's arm strength any more, he doesn't need to. He's still got it where it counts under the hood - changing offensive looks at the line of scrimmage, and opening up new running lanes. He can also pick you apart with slot receivers and the odd big third-down conversion, as we saw against Pittsburgh when the chips were down.

So while Brady endures as the man of tomorrow, it's yesterday's man who could yet prove his present-day stumbling block. Tom has always been Peyton's nemesis, but perhaps this is the time for some tardy karma to play out. At bottom, Manning, the veteran sheriff, knows this is his last chance to ride off into a glorious Super Bowl sunset.

Long story short, although much has changed since 30th September 2001, one core tenet of this match-up has stayed the same: Brady's white-hot physicality versus the cool calculations of Manning's algorithmic brain. Even the statisticians can't reduce that rivalry. Which explains why, in the NFL's world of sometimes empty numbers, these two all-time greats continue to bring the meaning.


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