Patriots

The ups and downs of a Brady-Manning rivalry that never really was

INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 15: Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts greets Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots after the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 15, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts won the game 35-34. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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COMMENTARY

It is an historic rivalry that never was.

If you put weight into the amount of words and energy spent writing about and discussing the 16, going on 17, showdowns between New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Denver Broncos signal-caller Peyton Manning, you’d be able to tip the scale of a winter-wrecked region. For 15 years now, Brady-Manning has been the NFL’s answer to Magic-Bird, Gretzky-Lemieux, Nadal-Federer, and Williams-DiMaggio, the two best quarterbacks of this generation going head-to-head in periodical contests that rarely went without fascination.

But the so-called “rivalry’’ between the two has always been a farce.

Forget the fact that the very dynamics of football prevent such a clash in that opposing quarterbacks are never on the field at the same time. That’s only one, small factor in boiling down the fantastical nature of Brady-Manning. For this has always been a one-sided affair from its inception.

The facts: Through 16 games between the Patriots and Broncos and/or Colts with either Brady or Manning at the helm for his respective team, New England holds an 11-5 mark, a .688 winning percentage. It took Manning seven tries before he finally emerged victorious against Brady, and though he went on to win three of the next four games against the Patriots, Bill Belichick and Brady have won four of the last five to date. They’re 2-2 against each other in playoff games. Manning is 2-1 against Brady in the AFC Championship Game.

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Brady has four rings; Manning, one.

Those are numbers you aren’t already familiar with, whether it be by submerging yourself into the storyline, or allowing yourself to get beat over the head with it. But as the Patriots and Broncos prepare to meet in the AFC title game this Sunday for the second time in three years, this game is already overhyped as “BRADY-MANNING XVII.’’ Except for the fact that Manning is a shell of himself, and, at this stage, merely a game-manager, reliant on the Broncos’ running game and stalwart defense, while Brady shows no end in sight to his Hall of Fame career, with a fifth Lombardi Trophy at stake, it’s totally worth the breathless exaggerations.

The strange thing about the Brady-Manning annals is that it never really ever was a rivalry, even in its infancy. The Patriots won the first six matches by an average score of 32-18 and had three Super Bowl titles under their belt by the time Manning won his first game against the Brady-Belichick tandem in 2005. Then with the Colts, Manning would go on to win the next three matchups, culminating in the pulse-pounding, 38-34 victory in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, the game that forever changed the way we perceived whatever rivalry we desperately wanted there to be.

Manning went on to win the first — and only — Super Bowl title of his career. The following season, the Patriots loaded up, partly in an attempt to turn Brady into Manning, a stats-machine that, as it turned out, also went without the ultimate prize that has eluded Manning for so many seasons despite being at the pinnacle of his game.

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Brady is 5-2 since the first AFC title game loss to Manning, a record that includes “Fourth and Two’’ and the AFC Championship loss to the Broncos two years ago, a game in which the depleted Patriots featured a heavy dose of Austin Collie and Aaron Dobson. The Patriots throttled the Broncos in their regular-season game last season, 43-21, and Manning was on the sideline, injured, in 2015, paving the way for Brock Osweiler’s first career win against the Patriots.

Never has there been animosity between the two particulars, never has there been an intensity on the level of what Brady has displayed on occasion to defensive antagonists like Bart Scott. Manning has won only five of the 16 meetings. By next month, Brady could have just as many championship rings as Manning has victories against him. Where’s the “rivalry’’ again?

Perhaps it was born out of necessity as an explanation for how NFL history suddenly got derailed. After all, Manning, the former No. 1 pick, was destined to become a quarterback worthy of carrying the torch left for him by Montana, Marino, and Elway. And he is.

The trouble in determining Manning’s legacy, however, lies in the fact that he’s merely somewhere in between the ringless Marino and two-time winner Elway, who stitched a pair of Super Bowl titles together at the end of his career after a handful of postseason disappointments. Brady, meanwhile, Mr. Pick No. 199, is Montana. Maybe better.

I know, I know, you could say the same about the Red Sox and Yankees for any number of years when only a handful of New Yorkers would scoff at the notion of a rivalry with Boston despite their consistent winning record. Maybe if Manning and Brady met 18 times a year it would be a bit less genteel than the gentleman lobs the two toss at each other in anticipation of another meeting. Familiarity can breed contempt.

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Many will point to Manning’s win in the ’06 title game as the line of demarkation in the rivalry, the moment the quarterback finally released the monkey from his back. In truth, that was the juncture at which we could even realistically consider this a “true’’ rivalry. It has been one in pockets. There’s too much slanted toward Brady, and the 39-year-old Manning just doesn’t have enough time to catch up.

Compelling to the very end, but a rivalry? Nope.

Contact Eric Wilbur at: [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @GlobeEricWilbur and Facebook www.facebook.com/GlobeEricWilbur

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