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A duel of QBs? Hold your horses

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / November 18, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — It’s barely even an argument at this point as to whether Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are in the midst of the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history.

Combined, they have four Super Bowl titles, five Most Valuable Player awards, three Super Bowl MVPs, and six All-Pro nods.

Brady has won 76.5 percent of his starts (104-32) — the best mark all-time. Manning has won 68.2 percent (137-64), even after starting as a rookie with a 3-13 team.

There have certainly been other great quarterback duels.

Bobby Layne (Lions) and Otto Graham (Browns) met in three straight NFL championship games from 1952-54. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

Steve Young and Troy Aikman were the last two Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks to meet in the regular season. Their 49ers and Cowboys met in the NFC Championship game from 1992-94, with the winner taking the Super Bowl.

Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr combined to win eight championships in 13 seasons with the Colts and Packers. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

And if there’s any rivalry that comes close to Brady-Manning, it would be the Cowboys’ Roger Staubach vs. the Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw. They entered the league a year apart at the dawn of the 1970s and would leave with a combined six Lombardi trophies and three Super Bowl MVPs. They met in two classic Super Bowls, which Brady and Manning may never have the opportunity to do.

But when you consider how much emphasis is put on the passing game today, the frequency of the matchups, their statistical superiority, and their team accomplishments, Brady-Manning is about as good as it gets.

The easy thing to do would be to lump Brady-Manning in with some of the great rivalries across all sports. Larry Bird-Magic Johnson. Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier. Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer. Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer.

Don’t do that.

Not only is it meaningless, it’s wrong.

As great as Brady and Manning have been, it is not about them when the Colts and Patriots meet on the field. That’s because football is the consummate team sport. Television and its thirst for ratings might not see it — what’s better than a rivalry, even a contrived one, to attract viewers? — but the players do.

“I can’t speak for Tom, but I think he would certainly see it the same way I do,’’ Manning said. “I still see it as team vs. team. Basketball, maybe there is a little more — even though it’s a team sport — maybe there’s a little more one-on-one to it because there are just five guys out there. Football still is the ultimate team sport.’’

That’s why when others talk this week about the matchup between Brady and Manning, do yourself a favor and think about the recent Colts-Patriots matchups.

See how many times you can come up with a comparison to Bird’s domination in ’84, or Magic’s baby hook in ’87.

You can’t because football doesn’t work like that, and because, more often than not, Colts-Patriots games come down to plays and decisions made by others.

Let’s take a little trip down memory lane:

2009 — Colts 35, Patriots 34: Fourth and 2. Really, that’s all that needs to be said. You could also throw in the young New England defense blowing two 17-point leads. And Randy Moss’s 179 yards and two touchdowns.

2008 — Colts 18, Patriots 15: Even with the spotlight to himself (Brady was out for the season with a knee injury), Manning didn’t win the game. More like the Patriots beat themselves. An unnecessary roughness penalty on David Thomas wiped out a touchdown, Bill Belichick called his final timeout as the Patriots executed a Matt Cassel sneak with 11:38 to play (after going for a 2-point conversion in the third quarter), and Jabar Gaffney dropped a would-be TD pass.

2007 — Patriots 24, Colts 20: Both offenses struggled for much of the game (Brady had 97 yards through three quarters) as innovative game plans with extra defensive backs threw off both quarterbacks. The game was sealed when Jarvis Green popped the ball loose from Manning and into the arms of linebacker Rosevelt Colvin.

2006 AFC Championship game — Colts 38, Patriots 34: New England couldn’t hold an 18-point first-half lead. The most remembered play is Patriots linebacker Eric Alexander losing track of Colts receiver Bryan Fletcher on a 32-yard gain with the clock winding down. The game ended with Brady being intercepted by Marlin Jackson with 16 seconds left.

2006 — Colts 27, Patriots 20: Take your pick on this one. Brady threw four interceptions (one on the final drive that was tipped), Corey Dillon lost a fumble. There were killer penalties and there was bad kickoff coverage.

2005 — Colts 40, Patriots 21: The Patriots defense gave up 453 yards. The Colts punted once, with about a minute left in the game. Not even Brady could make up for that, not with Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole, James Sanders, Chad Scott, Guss Scott, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk, and Patrick Pass out with injuries.

2004 divisional playoff game — Patriots 20, Colts 3: Manning, the recently crowned MVP, completed 27 of 42 passes for 238 yards. Dillon ran for exactly as many yards as Brady threw for (144). Don’t forget about Tedy Bruschi’s strip of Colts running back Dominic Rhodes in the second quarter.

2004 — Patriots 27, Colts 24: Brady was terrific (26 of 38, 335 yards, 3 touchdowns) but New England’s defense ultimately won the game with two huge plays. Safety Eugene Wilson forced Edgerrin James’s second fumble at the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. And Willie McGinest’s 12-yard sack of Manning on third down forced a 48-yard field goal attempt from Mike Vanderjagt with 24 seconds left that missed wide right.

2003 AFC Championship game Patriots 24, Colts 14: The one that changed the way the game’s played. The Patriots were so physical and dominating with their press coverage that the NFL made the rules more passer-friendly in the offseason and set the stage for today’s high-powered offenses. The Patriots intercepted Manning four times — three by Ty Law — and forced five turnovers. Green had three sacks.

2003 — Patriots 38, Colts 34: New England passed three straight times with 3 1/2 minutes left (Indianapolis had no timeouts) to give Manning one final chance. The Patriots responded with an all-time goal line stand after the Colts had first and goal at the 2. McGinest and Ted Washington ended the game by stuffing James on fourth and goal from the 1 with 14 seconds to go.

Brady and Manning have had their moments in the series, to be sure. Absolutely there were some classic drives along the way.

That’s what they do. They’re great quarterbacks. Two of the best ever.

But they are also teammates in the ultimate team sport. Others may try to single out Brady and Manning this week, but don’t be fooled. Odds are someone else will be in the starring role.

The real rivalry is not Brady-Manning, it’s Patriots-Colts.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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