Thursday, January 18, 2007

Patriots vs. Colts?! No, this one is all about Brady vs. Manning

They are inarguably the two greatest quarterbacks of their generation. With respect to enshrinement in Canton, it seems not a question of if, but when.

Tom Brady, quarterback of the New England Patriots, has led his team to 3 Super Bowl victories, winning the MVP trophy in 2 of them. He is the heir apparent as football’s greatest clutch performer to his childhood hero, Joe Montana.

Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, has won 2 league MVP awards and holds the NFL record for touchdowns in a single season. He is on pace to re-write the record book. Still, one can’t help but look at his post-season results, and think that he might end up supplanting Dan Marino as the “best quarterback never to win a Super Bowl”. Despite his prolific numbers, Manning usually takes a back seat to Brady come playoff time; and playoff time is when great players become legends.

Strangely enough, these two very different quarterbacks have taken very similar paths to get to this point in the 2006-07 season. Both put up very good but great, by their standards, regular season numbers. Both led teams that were, at various points in the season, written off as pretenders and not contenders. Their teams have won one home playoff game and one road playoff game each. In these games, neither superstar quarterback really played like one.

This postseason, Manning, the prolific passer has put up downright pedestrian numbers. In victories over the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens, he threw more touchdowns than interceptions, and in neither game did he top the 300-yard mark.

Meanwhile, the normally unflappable and ever-consistent Brady followed a strong performance against the New York Jets with a game against the San Diego Chargers that he’d probably just as soon forget. If not for a heads-up play by Troy Brown, Captain Comeback’s third interception of the game would likely have heralded the end of the Patriots’ season.

We all know how important this game is for Peyton Manning. He is playing in another AFC Championship Game, at home, against the team that has knocked him out of the playoffs on several occasions, and the quarterback whose 3 Super Bowl rings simply add fuel to the “Manning can’t win the big one” fire.

Still, the stakes are surprisingly high for Tom Brady, as well. His reputation as an all-time great quarterback hinges on his being a winner. It’s never been about numbers with Brady. Rather, it’s been about his ability to rise to the occasion. This is why so many fans and pundits alike rank him ahead of Peyton Manning, despite Manning’s statistical superiority. Since capturing that third Super Bowl, Joe Cool Version 2.0 has not always done so. A Colts’ win, particularly if they follow it up with a victory in Super Bowl XLI, would be seen by some as an indication that Peyton Manning had moved to the Head of the Class.

So, for these two great, young quarterbacks, this game is about far more than which team will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLI. This game is about legacies. Can Peyton Manning put to rest the contention that he can’t win the big game on the big stage? Can Tom Brady silence any whispers that his anointing as his generation's Joe Montana was premature? This is a game you don’t want to miss.

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