Orfao: Brady has faced his rivals, and the only one left is time

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws under pressure from Denver Broncos outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (48) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey) Jack Dempsey

  • Tom Brady and Peyton Manning speak after the Broncos defeated the Patriots in the 2015 AFC Championship. AP file

Monitor staff
Monday, November 13, 2017

The debate has been settled between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

Each pass the New England quarterback zips into a tight window for a Patriots’ first down creates a little more distance in the conversation regarding the greatest quarterback of this generation, but the signal callers will be forever paired in football history. Their paths to the Hall of Fame have crossed far too many times to discuss one quarterback without the other. It would border the lunacy of rehashing Larry Bird’s career without a mention of Magic Johnson.

Unlike those iconic NBA rivals, we’ve been granted the opportunity to see what the league looks like with only one still dazzling.

Magic played his final full season in 1990-91 before he retired prematurely due to HIV. Bird lasted only one more season before calling it quits, and a few years ago, logic suggested the Brady-Manning saga could follow a similar timeline.

At 39 years old, Manning rode his defense into the sunset for a second Super Bowl ring. A 39-year-old Brady answered the following season with a storybook comeback that was stranger than fiction as the Patriots erased a 28-3 deficit in the second half to capture a fifth Lombardi Trophy.

Professional athletes are supposed to fade in their late 30s and the allegedly aging Brady should have slowed down by now, but even undefeated Father Time has yet to find a way to beat the New England legend.

The trade of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco means Brady, the former sixth-round pick, has once again defied the odds: He’s the first 40-year-old QB of the future.

The 49ers moved on from Joe Montana to Steve Young. The Packers said goodbye to Brett Favre and hello to Aaron Rodgers. The Colts let go of Manning for Andrew Luck.

Brady? He’s staying in Foxborough for as long as he wants to stay.

But as Sunday night’s game unfolds, it’s understandable if Patriots fans develop an uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomach.

Once upon a time, a victory in Denver was the tallest task available for the otherwise unflappable combination of Brady and Bill Belichick. These days, Brock Osweiler is behind center.

Remember, the 49ers sacrificed a second-round pick to obtain a potential franchise quarterback in Jimmy G. Only months earlier, the Texans surrendered the same draft asset simply to exile Osweiler and his ludicrous contract to the Browns. Osweiler then failed to beat out underwhelming rookie DeShone Kizer, who has thrown three touchdowns and 11 interceptions this year.

That’s right, he wasn’t good enough to quarterback the winless Cleveland Browns.

Yet, somehow, someway, Osweiler is the Broncos’ best option behind center 24 games removed from the Manning era. That’s where the twinge of fear comes from, even as Brady guides the Patriots to another AFC East crown.

Bury any anxiety for now, though. Peeking around the AFC quarterback landscape, the 40-year-old still leads the pack – and the gap is similar to the one between the Concord boys’ cross country team and the rest of New Hampshire.

Like most human beings, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have regressed with age. Alex Smith is adorably above average. Derek Carr has shown flashes but remains inconsistent, and potential stars like Luck and Deshaun Watson are injured.

Even while burdened by a suspect defense, Brady will have an excellent chance to lead the Patriots to an eighth Super Bowl appearance in 17 years.

But with Garoppolo no longer in tow, this franchise is operating without an insurance policy.

It’s Brady or bust – but that’s a scary good place to be.

(Jason Orfao can be reached at 369-3338, jorfao@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JasonOrfao.)