BOSTON (CBS) – Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will meet for the 17th time on Sunday, and there is every chance the 17th will be the last. Seventeen leads to Santa Clara. Seventeen leads to 50. Seventeen leads to history, one way or another, for Brady or for Manning, in victory or in defeat.
Oh, what the heck.
Let’s have one more for the road.
Write this down somewhere, making sure to remember it years from now, because it will seem so utterly preposterous that you will not believe it without documentation: beginning in 2001, the year Brady replaced the fallen Drew Bledsoe in the New England Patriots huddle, either Brady or Manning will have represented the AFC in an astonishing 10 of 15 Super Bowls; if you temporarily want to add Ben Roethlisberger to the discussion, the number is 13. What we have here are the Nicklaus, Player and Watson of their era, a football skins game of enormous stakes.
In the coming days, you will relive much of the Brady-Manning history, all of it indisputably worth it. The short story is this: Brady has won 11 of the 16 previous meetings, Manning only 5. In the AFC title game, Manning leads, 2-1. The latter is worth noting because the home quarterback has always proven the victor, the most recent outcome a victory by Manning and the Broncos in Denver two years ago, when former Patriots receiver Wes Welker knocked out defensive back Aqib Talib and when Brady was forced to play with a pass-catching corps that included Austin Collie, Matthew Slater and Matthew Mulligan.
This game, like the last is in Denver.
Again, in the coming days, that will mean everything and it will mean nothing, because we all know how this series works: It can be entirely unpredictable. That seems especially true now, with both teams battling injuries and a breaking-down (broken-down?) Manning in the final stages of his career, each pass potentially his last.
No matter what happens on Sunday, Brady will be the winner on paper in this duel, his lead too big to overcome. But for now, at least, that is not the point. Brady-Manning has been sporting theater at its absolute finest, no matter who has come out on top. And while Brady and coach Bill Belichick have come out on top far more often, even the most steadfast Patriots must acknowledge that the sight of Manning trotting onto the field for a final drive has never been entirely comfortable.
Maybe you think he’s a choker. Maybe you think he’s a cheater. You would be justified to think both. But deep down, however reluctantly, you know how smart Manning is, how good he once was, how dangerous he still might be.
Even if only for a day.
Interestingly, if we were to change the quarterbacks for Sunday’s game, Denver might have the edge. The difference between the players is now that great. Before the postseason began, Manning was ranked dead last among qualifying NFL quarterbacks in passer rating. Brady was fourth. Manning has been holding on for his professional life while Brady has continued his assault on history, an incredible fifth Super Bowl title now within his grasp.
And now, to achieve it, Brady has to dispose of Manning again, perhaps one final time to reach a Super Bowl that will be played in Brady’s hometown, in the backyard of Joe Montana.
In the immediate aftermath of Denver’s win Sunday over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Manning was asked about leading his team back to the AFC Championship, about another meeting with Brady. Humbly and smartly, he downplayed both. Manning said that the Denver defense has led this team to the conference championship. He said that Sunday’s title game will pit the Broncos again the Patriots. He refrained from any of the hype surrounding the 17th head-to-head meeting between the two greatest quarterbacks of this era, between the men who have set standards for the position going forward and who have stood like tollbooths on the journey to the Super Bowl.
The road to Santa Clara does not go through Denver and it does not go through New England. It goes through Brady and Manning, almost always, and it now goes through them again.