By Ira Miller, The Sports Xchange
It has been the pre-eminent rivalry in the NFL for more than a decade now, and Sunday’s renewal in the AFC Championship game could be the final act.
But as we celebrate and anticipate this 17th meeting between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, we should reflect on how lucky we have been to witness this matchup for so long — and how really rare it has been.
In the last part of the 20th century, no Hall of Fame quarterbacks from different divisions have opposed each other nearly as often as Brady and Manning. Not even close. We are using the Hall of Fame as a gauge here because unquestionably they both will be inducted five years after they retire.
John Elway (1983-98) and Dan Marino (1983-99), whose careers ran almost contemporaneously in the same conference, opposed each other exactly three times in all those years.
While he was the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, winning four Super Bowls in the ’80s, Joe Montana faced Marino just twice, including a Super Bowl, and faced Elway only three times, including a Super Bowl. The two premier quarterbacks of the ’70s, Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach, opposed each other just four times, including two Super Bowls.
The most-played rivalry among Hall of Fame quarterbacks in recent years was Marino against Buffalo’s Jim Kelly, since they were both in the same division (AFC East) and competed twice a year.
Non-division and post-season matchups, like Brady-Manning, however, are special exactly because they are so infrequent. At least, they’re supposed to be.
After Brady-Manning, the most-played rivalry among Hall of Fame quarterbacks from different divisions in recent years was Steve Young vs. Troy Aikman; they opposed each other seven times between 1992 and 1997, including three consecutive NFC championship games.
Back in the ‘70s, another rivalry of note was between the Steelers and Raiders, which meant Bradshaw and Ken Stabler, who is a finalist for Hall of Fame election next month. The teams met in the playoffs five consecutive years, including three straight AFC championship games, although Stabler appeared in the Immaculate Reception game in 1972 only in relief after Daryle Lamonica was injured.
Bradshaw and Stabler opposed each other as starters seven times in all before Stabler was traded to Houston; they met three times when Stabler played for the Oilers, but those games did not have the wattage of the Oakland-Pittsburgh rivalry.
Brady and Manning, by contrast, are virtually an annual fixture.
This has come about in large measure through the NFL scheduling formula that matches teams which finish in the same position within their division; the Patriots are almost always the AFC East first-place team and Manning’s teams with Indianapolis and now Denver have usually been in first place, too.
On the surface, Brady appears to have a big edge based on Manning’s work this season, but this game is more likely to come down to Brady vs. Manning’s Denver defense rather than Brady vs. Manning.
Overall, Brady has an 11-5 historical edge on Manning, but that includes a 6-0 head start. The two have split their last 10 meetings. Manning has a 2-1 edge on Brady in conference championship games. And Brady has a 2-6 record in games played at Denver, including the pre-Manning era for the Broncos.
Will this be the last time these two greats face each other?
Quite likely, since Manning’s career appears to be closing fast. At any rate, it’s not the same as it has been for most of the recent past because, despite his winning drive against Pittsburgh, Manning’s role has changed from gunslinger to game manager.
At 39, Manning no longer appears capable of carrying a team and seems likely to go only as far as the Broncos’ top-ranked defense can take him. But while his physical skills have diminished, Manning’s mind is as sharp as ever, a point Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made after the AFC title game, referring to Manning as “the ultimate play caller,” for his ability to counter Pittsburgh’s defensive strategy.
Manning was the NFL’s 35th-rated passer this year, which in a 32-team league is not a good thing. During the regular season, he threw nearly twice as many interceptions (17) as touchdown passes (9).
Brady, 38, still appears fully capable of carrying the Patriots. He was the league’s fourth-rated passer this season, and his TD-to-interception ratio of 36-to-7 was the NFL’s best.
Thus, it is a sea change for one of the league’s greatest rivalries, with Manning clearly forced to ride the coattails of the NFL’s top-rated defense.
Still, we should enjoy it while we can because we may not see a rivalry like it for some time to come.
–Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.
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