This Sunday’s AFC title game features Brady and Manning for a record fourth time in the NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl era. Will this be their last meaningful matchup?
By Bryan Pol
This weekend’s AFC Divisional matchups in the NFL Playoffs yielded the expected results, which ultimately amounts to the seventeenth time Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will meet as opposing quarterbacks, a thrilling contest to take place this upcoming Sunday at Mile High Stadium.
The Kansas City Chiefs, despite entering Saturday’s tilt with the New England Patriots riding an eleven game winning streak, the longest in the AFC all season, were without Jeremy Maclin, out with a high ankle sprain, and his absence showed.
Down two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith struggled to score in the red zone within the two-minute warning, and Kansas City would give the Patriots the ball back with a shade over a minute remaining and with all three of their timeouts.
On third and long in the first series, Tom Brady zipped a ball to his ever-reliable wideout Julian Edelman, out for eight weeks with a broken leg, effectively sealing a 27-20 New England victory.
With 302 yards passing and two touchdowns (to zero interceptions) on 28-for-42 passing from under center, Brady willed New England to its unprecedented tenth AFC Championship game with their star quarterback at the helm, a remarkable feat considering 27 other teams in the NFL have never made so many title games in their franchise’s histories.
Nearly a year to the day removed from a 45-7 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts in the 2014 AFC Championship Game and the “story of the year” derived from Deflategate’s inception, Brady has the Pats aiming for history: a fifth Super Bowl win in the game’s 50th edition next month will be the most for any quarterback or head coach in the league’s history.
Similarly, with Ben Roethlisberger entering Sunday’s matchup in Denver with a sore shoulder and without Antonio Brown (concussion) or DeAngelo Williams (foot) as his primary weapons, the Steelers, thanks to a late Fitzgerald Touissaint fumble, would bow out humbly to the Broncos, 23-16, the weekend’s second most-expected outcome.
Unlike Brady’s massive role in Saturday night’s Patriots’ win, Peyton Manning hardly factored in Denver’s triumph over Pittsburgh.
While not as bad as he was against the Chiefs on November 15, a game in which he threw four interceptions, Peyton struggled to amass 222 passing yards on Sunday, throwing at a 56.8% clip, mustering zero touchdowns.
Manning, who managed a pedestrian nine touchdowns and seventeen interceptions while mired in an injury-rankled season in 2015, likely his last in Denver, has not thrown for a touchdown since November 8, although he missed six games in that time frame due to a bout with plantar fasciitis.
Despite fifteen years in the league and each quarterback turning 38 and 39 respectively this season, Brady and Manning are players heading in diverging directions.
Brady is still playing at an elite level (his 36 touchdowns and 1.1% interception rate both lead the AFC this year, and had it not been for Cam Newton’s transcendent season, Brady would receive top-billing as the league’s MVP), while Peyton, whose interceptions outweighed his touchdowns for the first time since his rookie season, is evidently on his way out, even with one year remaining on his deal with Denver.
Rumblings suggest Manning could be traded to the likes of the Houston Texans, a team in desperate need of a quarterback after the clunker Brian Hoyer managed at home against the Chiefs in a 30-0 blowout loss in the Wild Card round of the postseason.
Even so, could Peyton, given his minimal arm strength, have fared any better than Hoyer, a Cleveland Browns’ castoff?
Quite honestly, the Steelers, even despite their loss of weapons and Roethlisberger entering Sunday “questionable” to start, had to like their chances despite the odds of playing in Denver to the AFC’s one-seed.
That is what an injured Big Ben means over a fading Peyton Manning at this point in their careers.
For much of Peyton’s relative slide, fans are witnessing more of a Gary Kubiak style offense as opposed to a no-huddle, audible-centric, Peyton Manning-led offense, where Manning was often seen throwing from shotgun formations. Manning, no longer capable of hoisting a long ball, now lines up behind center, forcing Peyton into quick releases, dink-and-dunk, moderate range passes, or hand-offs to the running back the way Kubiak had Quarterback A, B, or C function by working in tandem with the likes of Arian Foster in Houston. With the departures of weapons like Wes Welker (Peyton’s security blanket in 2013, no longer effective given his run of concussions), Julius Thomas (to Jacksonville), and Eric Decker (to the Jets), Manning can still rely on two 1,000 yard receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, although both are better deep options than, say, what Peyton and Brady had with Welker or what Brady currently has with Edelman. Gone is that reliable short range option Peyton had with Julius Thomas and Dallas Clark previously. While serviceable, Owen Daniels is hardly what those two were.
In short, the Broncos rely less on Peyton’s vision and more on a conservative offense that can feature solid rushing from the likes of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson.
Case in point: Hillman went off for 117 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown in Week 17 against the Chargers, while Anderson went for 240 yards on 39 carries (good for an astounding 6.2 YPC average) and three scores in the past three weeks the Broncos played, including last week’s win against the Steelers.
That is not to say, though, that Peyton, now more of a game manager in the style of Alex Smith, does not have at least two modest games left in him to lead the Broncos, who face stout completion in Arizona and Carolina beyond Sunday’s matchup with the Patriots, if Denver can make it there.
In the final quarter of the regular season, Denver management was able to witness what Brock Osweiler, a true gunslinger, was able to accomplish throwing the deep ball in Manning’s absence, of which Peyton, he of multiple neck surgeries and loss of complete feeling in his throwing hand, is no longer capable.
In fact, depending on their divisional matchup this past Sunday, pundits and analysts were meekly considering Osweiler to start over Peyton despite the latter’s winning pedigree.
— trey wingo (@wingoz) January 18, 2016
Quite frankly, that could not be said of Manning during his last Super Bowl run.
But for as long as Rob Gronkowski and Edelman are his options and Bill Belichick remains his coach, Tom Brady could return to the AFC Championship game on a perennial basis for as long as he is healthy.
While the Patriots open as 3.5 point favorites and hold a 15-to-8 odds-on rate to win the AFC Championship game on Sunday, the Broncos, who lead the NFL in team defense in pretty much every statistical category according to Football Outsiders, have home field advantage and maintain the number one seed for a reason.
Tom Brady’s Patriots have not won a road-playoff game since 2006 (although they have only played in two of them since then) when they beat the then 14-2 San Diego Chargers, eventually losing to Peyton’s Colts in a classic AFC title game that eventually yielded Manning his only Super Bowl win. The Patriots would lose their next road playoff game to—you guessed it—Peyton’s Broncos in the 2013 AFC title game, Manning’s best chance at his second title until he ran into the buzzsaw that was the Seattle Seahawks’ defense.
All-time, Brady is 5-6 against the Broncos, but 2-6 in Denver (0-2 in the playoffs), beating the likes of Danny Kanell (2003) and Tim Tebow (2011), neither of whom stayed in the league longer than half a decade. In short, Mile High Stadium is Brady’s personal house of horrors.
If Peyton desires to leave Denver, and potentially the sport, on high, he must do so on the strength of his stalwart defense and another good performance from the likes of C.J. Anderson, who managed a touchdown on Sunday against the Steelers on 72 yards over 14 carries. Alas, his “laser-rocket” arm can no longer revert to its old, MVP-winning ways.
In that regard, the seventeenth edition of Brady vs. Manning is not likely to equal the 2006 AFC Championship Game, let alone the 2013 title game, especially given Brady’s unfathomable ascension and Peyton’s saddening demise.
Win or lose, Sunday’s AFC title game will pay respects to two masterful careers—there are five titles, seven regular season MVPs, and four Super Bowl MVPs between them—and could possibly serve as the precursor to either Peyton’s final trek off into the sunset or Brady’s assault on Super Bowl history.
Who would be foolish not to tune in?