Are we legally obligated to refer to this as Brady-Manning XVII?
Based on what we witnessed from Peyton Manning during the Denver Broncos’ 23-16 win the AFC divisional round on Sunday, billing Sunday’s AFC Championship game as another heavyweight bout between him and longtime rival Tom Brady seems about as appropriate as selling Floyd Mayweather vs. Woody Allen as something compelling.
In Denver, meanwhile, they keep hanging onto delusions about the quarterback’s tenacity, much in the way a stalwart “Star Wars’’ fan will blindly defend “Attack of the Clones’’ as cinematic triumph. This is still “Peyton Manning and the Broncos’’ in their minds, even as Manning clearly has proven he’s only along for the ride.
Tim Thomas’ hideout may have been the only thing more difficult to find in Colorado than the Denver offense on Sunday. Brandon McManus kicked five field goals to keep a sputtering Broncos offense afloat until Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled at the Broncos’ 34-yard-line in the fourth quarter, leading to Denver’s only touchdown drive of the day. In all, Manning threw for 222 yards and no touchdowns, but no interceptions either. Many of his passes over 10 yards had a difficult time finding their targets. He looked old. He looked slow.
He looked ripe for the New England Patriots.
“If you want to win it all, you have to play the best,’’ Denver running back C.J. Anderson said after rushing for 72 yards and the Broncos’ touchdown. “And that’s what they are. Five years in a row in AFC Championship. And 10 times for (Coach Bill) Belichick in the AFC Championship, yeah, why not? I wouldn’t want it any other way.’’
Patriot fans would, but they’ll take it. It was right around “60 Minutes will be seen in its entirety…’’ that the aspiration of hosting the AFC title game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday began to dwindle, but it was a fortnight ago, when the Patriots inexplicably barfed their season finale away against the Miami Dolphins that the team instilled a level of doubt that they’ll be headed back to the Super Bowl for a second-consecutive season. A win would have given them the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage, which instead went to Denver.
In Foxborough, against that Broncos team that squeaked by on Sunday? You’d probably already have your flight booked and reservations for the guided tour of Alcatraz.
But strange things can happen in Denver, a destination that was entirely unavoidable.
On the other hand, on Sunday, the Broncos looked the part for a road bump in New England’s quest to visit Santa Clara, Calif., home of Super Bowl 50.
It doesn’t take a historian to remind you that the last time these two teams faced off, Denver’s 30-24 win in late November, it snapped New England’s 10-game winning streak to start the 2015 season. It was also Brady’s second-consecutive game without wide receiver Julian Edelman, who had gone down with a broken foot against the New York Giants two weeks earlier. It was also a game the Patriots had well in-hand until Chris Harper costly muffed a punt that sparked a Broncos touchdown. It was also a game in which Rob Gronkowski went down late (though initial fears were more drastic than warranted), and the referee crew was like something plucked last-minute from the boardroom of the Pat Bowlen Foundation.
Manning was sidelined for that game, with whatever foot injury the team made up for the quarterback with the league’s worst passer rating. Backup Brock Osweiler threw for 270 yards and a touchdown in the win, one of a handful he delivered that kept the Broncos afloat. But head coach Gary Kubiak turned back to Manning in his team’s season finale, and said last week, based on what he saw in practice, that the future Hall of Famer was his guy in Denver’s divisional round.
Manning’s struggles and Kubiak’s stubborn reluctance to give the Broncos a fighting chance with Osweiler aside, the Broncos can’t be discounted on Sunday. After losing linebacker Dont’a Hightower with an injury in the game in November, Broncos running backs ran rampant (113 yards from Anderson, 58 from Ronnie Hillman). Hightower is back, but there’s concern about fellow linebacker Jamie Collins, who left Saturday’s divisional win over the Chiefs with an oblique strain. Denver’s defense is arguably the best in the league, but Brady is also coming into the game this time with his comfort blanket in Edelman.
The Patriots are already three-point favorites on the road.
Just two weeks after the debacle in Miami, it isn’t like the Patriots should waltz in and out of Denver. But Saturday’s win over the Chiefs did lend itself to some ease following a week of oddities in Foxborough. Edelman returned after a two-month absence, the long list of injuries threatening to keep Gronkowski out for the game were put on hold, and Brady’s ankle that he injured under the weight of Ndamukong Suh…well, that seemed just fine, didn’t it?
“There are only four teams playing next week, and we’re one of them,’’ Brady said. “And that game means a lot, so we’ve got to try to get as healthy as we can and see if we can put together our best game of the year.’’
Manning is 5-11 vs. Brady in his career. He’ll be at the 17th meeting this weekend, but nobody should really expect much more than that. Patriots vs. Broncos is a compelling matchup. But this is about Brady vs. Manning about as much as it is Browns vs. Packers.
This one is for old time’s sake.
Scenes from the Patriots’ playoff victory over the Chiefs