Tim O'Sullivan: Scales tilt heavily in favor of Manning
Winning the last round of a boxing match or the last debate of the campaign usually carries extra weight with the judges or voters. And if yesterday’s AFC championship game was the last head-to-head big-game matchup between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, there’s no doubt the scales have just swayed heavily toward Manning.
To be fair, Denver’s 26-16 victory wasn’t just about Manning being better than Brady. The Broncos receivers were clearly more talented than their New England counterparts, and Denver’s offensive line executed where the Patriots didn’t. The Broncos defense played perhaps its best game of the year and came up with big plays at big moments, while the injury to Aqib Talib might have been the one that finally broke the already banged-up New England defense, which simply couldn’t get off the field.
But the matchup everyone was talking about before the game, and the one that people will be talking about for years to come, belonged to Manning. And the importance of this rivalry wasn’t just hype, it truly mattered in the outcome. It was probably the most important factor in the biggest game of the year – well, it was the biggest for the Patriots; the Broncos now have a Super Bowl to play.
Manning finished 32-for-43 for 400 yards and two touchdowns. After Denver punted on its first
possession, Manning led the Broncos on six straight scoring drives and a seventh drive that ended with him taking a victory knee on the last play of the game.
After the Patriots scored their first points of the game late in the second quarter, cutting Denver’s lead to 10-3, Manning the surgeon responded by completing 11 straight passes and 17 of his next 18, pushing the Broncos to a 23-3 lead. During that precise stretch, he directed a march that took up 7:08, Denver’s longest drive of the year. He simply wore out the New England defenders from start to finish, keeping them on the mile-high field for a total of 35:44.
The final numbers for Brady don’t look bad – 24-for-38 for 277 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. What you don’t see there is one huge missed opportunity in the first quarter when he overthrew a wide open Julian Edelman on a play that should have been a touchdown. If the Patriots score there, who knows? Maybe it loosens Denver’s defense and New England could have gotten its run game going. Maybe it creates pressure Manning can’t handle, or gives the Patriots defense more room for risk.
While Manning couldn’t stop scoring, Brady led his team to just three points in the first three quarters. He missed Edelman, and he missed another opportunity down the field at the end of the first half. And after Denver went up 20-3 and the Patriots really needed some points, Brady directed a promising drive only to get a pass tipped on third-and-2 and then take a sack (not entirely his fault) on fourth-and-2.
Yes, Brady did lead his team to a pair of touchdowns after that, but the Broncos were in prevent defense by that point. They didn’t mind if the Patriots were moving the ball, as long as they were doing it slowly.
Again, Brady wasn’t terrible, but he couldn’t prod his team to a win when it mattered the most, which is what Hall of Fame players are expected to do. And unfortunately for New England fans, this has become a recurring theme for the Patriots in the postseason. Brady is now 4-5 in the playoffs over the last five years. He’s thrown 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in those nine games and has gone over 300 yards just once.
You know the last time Brady had numbers like those Manning put up yesterday? That would be back on Feb. 1, 2004, when the Patriots beat Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII and Brady set career highs for playoff completions and yards when he went 32-for-48 for 354 yards.
Of course, Manning has had more than his share of playoff problems in his career. He’s reached the postseason 13 times, but he’s won only one Super Bowl; his teams have lost their opening playoff game eight times; and in total they’re 11-11. That doesn’t seem quite good enough for a guy in the greatest-quarterback-ever discussion.
And even after yesterday’s result, Brady still owns a 10-5 advantage in head-to-head matchups with Manning. But don’t forget that Brady won the first six meetings between the two, so Manning actually has the slight edge (5-4) over the last eight years.
Most importantly, at least in terms of the Manning vs. Brady debate, Manning has now evened their head-to-head playoff matchup at 2-2. The argument for Brady over Manning always centered around his ability to win the big game, exemplified by the fact that he had three Super Bowl wins to Manning’s one. But if Manning, who has the better overall career numbers, can find a way to win another Super Bowl, that argument will be left a tad flimsy.
The Patriots and Broncos will face each other next year in the regular season, so chances are good there will be another chapter in the Brady-Manning saga. But there may never be another playoff chapter, so, for now, it’s Manning who owns the final word on the big stage.
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)