As doggedly as he minimizes the rivalry between himself and Peyton Manning, Tom Brady’s true feelings were revealed in phone- texting that became part of the evidence in Deflategate a year ago.
That was before Brady smashed up his troublesome little cellphone.
Recall this text about Manning: “I’ve got another 7-8 years. He has 2. That’s the final chapter. Game on.”
Here’s another Patriot missile from cyberspace: “Manning needs things to be perfect to succeed, weather, his system, etc.”
Nothing shocking here, just Brady acknowledging, if inadvertently, what everybody knew. As supreme a competitor as he is, as much history as he’s added to the National Football League, Tom Brady would have to be interested in his legacy, where he ranks among the players of his era and earlier ones.
So coming up we have that all too rare Duel of the Titans, the two most accomplished quarterbacks of the 21st century meeting in the AFC Championship Game, Sunday (2 p.m. CST) in Denver. Brady’s New England Patriots are the defending world champions and opened the week as 3-point favorites over Manning’s Denver Broncos.
The essential difference, worth more than the home field, is the quarterbacking. Brady touched on it in his leaky and viral e-mails: He’s 38, while Manning is 39, with the number on his jersey, 18, matching the number of seasons he has played as a pro.
Brady, like Brett Favre at his age, and Kurt Warner and George Blanda, is still in his prime, as effective as he’s ever been. This season he threw 36 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. He’s likely to be MVP runner-up to Carolina’s Cam Newton, who’s arguably the greatest dual quarterback ever.
In sharp contrast to Brady, Manning is in a decline that began with the first of four neck surgeries in 2011. After four years of rehab and three of playing mostly excellent football (playoffs every year, Super Bowl once), he still has not recovered the feeling in the fingertips of his right hand. He will never be all that he was, and he’s admitted that.
With a foot injury – torn plantar fascia in November – further limiting him, Manning is having a career-worst season: 9 TDs, 17 picks.
But he’s healthier today than he’s been since the opening week. And he hasn’t forgotten how to win. He showed vintage big-game moxie in overcoming the gritty-as-ever Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16 in the divisional playoff.
Manning’s performance on his home field was mixed. He didn’t throw a touchdown. Or an interception, though he was lucky to avoid one or two. He completed 21 of 37 passes, 6.0 yards per throw, against a team that ranked below average this season in most measures of pass defense.
But Manning’s receivers dropped eight of his passes even though, needless to say, they weren’t thrown very hard. Who knows how much the drops destroyed the rhythm he was trying to establish?
His pitches often sailed or hung, buffeted off course by 25 mph winds swirling at Mile High. Again, Brady’s texting seems prescient. What’s that he said about weather must be perfect?
Still, Manning did keep his composure, even when heavily pressured. “One thing I’ve learned,” he said afterward, “is that if you have some missed throws and some dropped passes, you just keep firing.”
He converted a key 2 points after a seven-minute fourth-quarter drive to a touchdown. He smoothly worked the play-action offense his coach Gary Kubiak loves so much more than the gunslinging that used to be Peyton. This was game management at its best.
And it was enough to give Broncos fans hope that Manning can summon a last hurrah against his venerable rival. Perhaps with his incomparable focus he will go on to hoist his second Lombardi Trophy. Doing that would encroach seriously on Brady’s legacy, that of being the ultimate postseason quarterback, or at least the best since Joe Montana.
Brady has won four Super Bowls. But Manning leads him in MVP trophies, 5-2, and is way ahead in most regular-season stats. So that keeps the debate going about who’s No. 1 overall. Brady-Manning may rank with some of the great rivalries in American sports: DiMaggio-Williams, Chamberlain-Russell, Ali-Frazier.
If he wins Super Bowl 50, in Levi Stadium near San Francisco, Manning could swing sentiment his way and set up a triumphant retirement in what Brady so bluntly called “the final chapter.”
Then it would be up to Brady to follow through with his promise to play into his 40s and win at least one more Super Bowl or MVP.
Manning has enough weapons and probably enough arm to make Sunday afternoon’s game interesting. Bill Belichick’s defense hammers the run and takes away the deep ball but leaves the flats open, where Manning has his most control.
All he needs is for his speedy but slippery-fingered receivers – Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson – to find a handle. Even if the wind is blowing.
But if you watched Brady’s surgical destruction of the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisionals, you’d have to expect him to prevail over Manning, whom he’s beaten 11 of 16 times they’ve faced. In dispatching the Chiefs 27-20 (the game was not that close), Brady with reasonable protection and healthy receivers moved the ball at will against a very sound defense.
Denver’s defense may be a step up from Kansas City’s. Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson and others will bring more pressure than the hobbled Chiefs could deliver.
But Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, even with torn ligaments in his right shoulder and All-Pro end Antonio Brown out with concussion, found holes in the Wade Phillips defense, with its pass rush that’s steady but predictable.
In his second look (New England lost in OT in Denver in November, with Manning out) and with improved protection, expect Brady to expose the ongoing weakness of Denver safeties in deep coverage.
The Patriots’ All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski turned out to be much less injured than expected as he romped through the Chiefs. He should be every bit as dynamic against the Broncs.
The Patriots have the stronger arm, the better hands and even the better blockers. Their best offensive lineman, Sebastian Vollmer, is another who turns out to be less impaired than the tricky Belichick led us to believe. Denver’s defense is fine but not vastly stronger than New England’s. So in this duel of the legends the likely winner is Brady, who has aged better and not quite as long.