It’s Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady One More Time

(Neil Miller/Sportsday Wire)

The New York Daily News crushed both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady with a Monday cover headlined, “Manning vs. Brady in AFC title shame; Clash of the Taint-ans; Deflategate stooge & HGH-clinic client meet.’’ Certainly, the two legendary quarterbacks’ have been entangled in their respective controversies, but we should just be glad to be getting this once-great Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain duel one last time, even if it may be a comprised version of it.

“You have two great quarterbacks that are at the pinnacle parts of their careers, and they’ve been so consistent from the adversity that they’ve been through, throughout their whole career,” Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said Wednesday. “Now, the clash of the titans is here again. You have an opportunity — when you’re a young kid, you watch those games or you play them on the video games, but now you’re on the field with those guys. You’re getting that roar from the crowd or you’re getting that feeling from the next teammate beside you. That next teammate, for me, is Peyton. I think that’s a big, monumental thing for me. I’m really excited to be playing this week and be part of this experience.”

The two greatest quarterbacks of the 21st century first met during Brady’s first game as a starting quarterback – back in September of 2001, just 19 days after 9/11. This afternoons AFC Championship Game will mark the 17th and most likely final time we’ll have a Brady versus Manning, unless Eli in is involved. Brady’s Patriots have emerged victorious in 11 of the previous 16 clashes with Manning’s Colts and Broncos. Sunday will mark the fifth time they have met in the playoffs, more than any two quarterbacks in NFL history.

They’re 2-2 against each other in the playoffs, however Manning has emerged victorious in the last two and is 2-1 against Brady in championship games. Neither quarterback has beaten the other on the road since 2007, which is interesting because Brady has never won a playoff game in Denver (0-2), and is 2-6 lifetime in the Mile High City, with his only wins coming against Danny Kanell and Tim Tebow. However, nobody seems to be giving Manning a chance and some people are even calling for Denver coach Gary Kubiak to go with youngster Brock Osweiler.

While Brady remains a legitimate MVP candidate playing at a higher level than he was five years ago, Manning has been unable to throw the ball down the field and he missed six games this season with a partially torn plantar fascia in his left heel. The 39-year old Manning has managed just one touchdown versus eight interceptions in five home games this season. After throwing a touchdown pass in 56 consecutive games stretching from November of 2010 through November of 2014, he has been kept out of the end zone in eight of his last 16 games.

Manning is called a “game manager,’’ and the combination of injures and Father Time have eroded his Hall of Fame skill set. The low point came in November, when Manning was benched after being intercepted four times while completing only five passes against the Chiefs. He threw just nine touchdown passes against 17 interceptions during the season. Even Brady got in on the act when his e-mails were revealed during Deflategate. Teased about the “final chapter” vs. Manning, Brady wrote, “I’ve got another 7 or 8 years. He has 2. That’s the final chapter.

This year just feels a little different. Brady may be 38 years old, but he led the league in touchdown passes and kept finding ways to win even though everyone around him seemed to be getting hurt. He hasn’t seemed to age at all. He still releases the ball as quickly as ever and perfect tight spirals continue spinning out of his hand. Meanwhile, Manning turns 40 in March, his arm is cooked and everybody knows his aging, surgically repaired body can only go so much further.

Manning hasn’t revealed his future plans, but it seems likely that this season will be his last. At least we hope so. Stranger things have happened. Remember Martin Brodeur in a Blues uniform? Nevertheless, Brady and Manning are surefire locks for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, whose distinctive resumes have shaped a debate that will continue long after Sunday.

“It’s a credit to both of them, because you don’t have the rivalry that they’ve had if you don’t last as long as both of them have lasted,” Kubiak said Wednesday. “They’ve both been so successful. They’re two Hall of Fame football players, two Hall of Fame people. They’re leaders on their football team wherever they’ve been — Peyton has been a couple of places. It’s pretty special.”

Manning is possibly the best regular season quarterback of all time, but Brady will most likely go down as the greatest of them all when it’s all said and done. Brady’s 22 playoff victories are six more than runner-up Joe Montana and he has started in six Super Bowls, a record for an NFL quarterback. He has won four, a record he shares with Terry Bradshaw and Montana. He and Montana are the only players to win three Super Bowl MVP awards. This game will also mark Brady’s tenth AFC title game.

Manning has appeared in three Super Bowls and won one, but he is better known for his regular-season brilliance. He has an NFL-record five MVP awards; Brady “only” has two. He is tied with Brett Favre for the most regular-season wins by a starting quarterback in NFL history. Manning also owns the record for the most passing touchdowns (539) in pro football history and is the NFL’s career leader in passing yards with 71,940. That’s not to say Brady is a slouch with 428 touchdowns and 58,028 passing yards plus another five or more years of playing left in the tank.

“The Brady-Manning Rivalry” has its own Wikipedia page and ranks among the greatest sports rivalries of all time. The two men have broken countless records and sparked a million arguments. The two quarterback titans are footballs version of Magic-Bird, of Ali-Frazier and of Wilt-Russell. It’s only fitting — especially if it’s the last time — to see Brady vs. Manning on this stage when the two take the field Sunday.

“Obviously, I grew up a big Larry Bird-Magic Johnson fan,” Manning said during his weekly news conference in Denver. “I had some of those old posters of Larry and Magic in their very short shorts. I have felt very fortunate to play 18 years like I have, and I know how hard I’ve worked to play this long.

“When I look across at the New England Patriots and see Tom Brady is their quarterback, I just know how hard he’s worked as well. To play as well as he has over the course of his career, with the success that he has had and the team’s success, I have a lot of respect for him. He’s earned that respect. He and [coach] Bill Belichick have earned all the respect and all of the accolades that they get.”

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