DENVER – So far, that is.
Sunday’s AFC Championship matchup – yes, game-day has finally arrived — between Peyton Manning’s Broncos and the Tom Brady-helmed Patriots has all the makings of one we’ll be marking down as an instant classic as soon as the final second ticks off the clock.
The top-seeded Broncos have the vast majority of the advantages – home field, weather that shouldn’t affect the velocity-challenged Manning’s throws, a collection of receivers that would make Don Coryell envious. They don’t have to deal with Rob Gronkowski this time around, and it’s uncertain whether the Patriots have the downfield threats to challenge the Broncos’ ailing and aging defensive backfield.
But the Patriots have at least one significant advantage of their own – their coach. Bill Belichick is arguably the greatest coach in league history, and the mind-games between him and Manning make chess look like Candyland.
And of course, there is also the Brady factor – he’s 10-4 head-to-head against Manning, and a victory Sunday punctuated by another in New York in two weeks would officially turn the “best quarterback of this generation” debate into a technical knockout in his favor.
But winning today is no easy task. The Broncos are loaded. The Patriots are tough and resilient. It’s the recipe for an instant classic, perhaps even the best matchup of the 15 between the two legendary quarterbacks whose legacies aren’t yet fully written.
As we wait for Brady-Manning XV – and yes, the game is so much more than that – to kick off, here’s our list the five best games between the two quarterbacks so far.
5. Week 10, 2009: Colts 35, Patriots 34 Hey, I said it was the best games, not the best outcomes for the Patriots.
This Indy victory spurred possibly the most insufferable week of sports radio in Boston history, which is saying something.
Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth and 2 from the Indy 28 with a little more than two minutes remaining turned into a referendum on the coach’s hubris after the play, which resulted in Kevin Faulk catching a short pass but being tackled inches shy of the first down.
The call was made out of respect for Manning more than anything else – he had picked apart an aging Patriots defense in the second half, and Belichick was trying to keep the ball out of his hands.
Instead, Manning led the Colts on the winning mini-drive, finding Reggie Wayne for a one-yard touchdown reception with 13 seconds remaining.
4. Week 1, 2004: Patriots 27, Colts 24
In the season-opener on Thursday Night Football, Brady was brilliant, completing 26 of 38 passes for 335 yards and three touchdown passes (to Deion Branch, Daniel Graham, and David Patten) as the defending Super Bowl champs earned their 16th consecutive win en route to 21 in a row.
Manning and running back Edgerrin James carved up a Patriots defense that allowed 446 yards, more than it had allowed in any game the previous year.
But it came up with a big play when it needed one most — Willie McGinest sacked Manning for a 13-yard loss in the final minute, forcing Mike Vanderjagt to attempt a tying field goal from 48 yards. He was wide right, his first miss in 43 opportunities.
It’s a safe bet that Manning muttered “idiot kicker” in the immediate aftermath.
3. Week 9, 2007: Patriots 24, Colts 20
It was one of the most anticipated regular-season games in NFL history — the 7-0 Colts hosting the 8-0 Patriots — and it mostly lived up to the hype.
Two unbeaten teams had never met so late in the season to that point. The Patriots prevailed — and won their next nine games to follow — thanks to brilliant fourth quarter performances by Brady and receiver Randy Moss.
The Patriots actually trailed, 20-10, with 9 minutes 42 seconds remaining after Manning scored on a one-yard run. Brady promptly targeted Moss, who would set a league record with 23 touchdown catches that season, on his next six passing attempts. The fourth attempt was a 55-yard completion that put the Patriots on the Indy 3, setting up a Wes Welker touchdown catch.
After a Colts punt, Brady put the Patriots ahead for good with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Faulk with just under four minutes remaining. It was his 32d touchdown pass of the season, which set a franchise record. He’d finish the season with a then-NFL record of 50.
2. 2006 AFC Championship: Colts 38, Patriots 34.
Great game, devastating result for the Patriots.
This loss, in which they took a 21-3 lead into halftime, only to watch Manning catch fire in the second half, is probably the most frustrating of the Brady/Belichick Era, at least among those in which a Lombardi Trophy wasn’t at stake.
This was the aggravating year of Reche Caldwell and his stone-handed friends at receiver. The Colts had far more weapons, and yet Jeff Saturday and Dan Klecko scored two of their touchdowns in this game.
Manning formally exorcised his can’t-beat-the-Patriots ghosts with a brilliant 7-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with a Joseph Addai 3-yard scoring run with a minute left.
Brady led the Patriots to the Colts 45 in a last-gasp drive, but Marlin Jackson picked off his pass with 17 seconds left to seal the victory. Manning would go on to win his only Super Bowl to this point against the Bears.
1. Week 13, 2003: Patriots 38, Colts 34
It’s tough to leave the 2003 AFC Championship (Ty Law’s three-pick game) and the 2004 Divisional Round matchup (the “Cut that meat!” 20-3 Patriots win) off this list. And the previous game this year is also worthy of honorable mention status.
But I doubt many fans would take issue with this selection at No. 1, especially since the matchup of 9-2 teams was decided on a brilliant play at the 1.
Willie McGinest’s stopped Edgerrin James on fourth and goal from the 1 with 14 seconds remaining, preserving a thrill-ride of a victory for the Patriots. New England took a 31-10 lead on a pair of Mike Cloud touchdown runs and a Bethel Johnson 92-yard kickoff return TD just before the half.
But Manning rallied the Colts in rapid-fire succession in the second half, leading Indy to 21 points points in roughly six minutes. A Brady-to-Deion Branch touchdown late in the fourth quarter gave the Patriots a four-point lead, setting up the brilliant goal-line stand.
How do they ever top that? Who knows — maybe Brady and Manning will find a way Sunday.