Since its merger in 1970, NFL fans have been indulged with competitions that have inspired passion and hatred between teams. Ravens – Steelers, Jets – Patriots, 49ers – Cowboys, are (or have been) great contests that create the same kind of intensity that any Premier League derby match delivers.
Sunday’s game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots features two teams who have only faced each other 12 times since 2001, and only 2 of those were playoff contests. The game is for a place in the Super Bowl but it’s not a rivalry renowned across the league, or between its fans. What makes this game special is the rivalry between two of the NFL’s greats.
Tom Brady, 36, twice league MVP and a three time Super Bowl winner, has been leading the New England Patriots for nearly 13 years, only ever missing one season because of an ACL injury in 2008. His presence and poise in the pocket as well as his uncanny ability to beat any team in the dying minutes of a game is something that inspires fear across the 31 teams that have to play the Patriots. Drafted in the 6th round out of Michigan University in the 2000 Draft; he was the 199th pick overall and far from a sure thing to make an impact in the NFL. “He wasn’t the greatest athlete” said former College teammate Ian Gold, “but he was the smartest guy on the field. He prided himself in knowing everything that was happening”. His lack of athletic prowess at the start of his career was clear to see. Although now quite dated, his Scouting Combine video showed just why Brady was picked so low in the Draft. Former NFL coach Steve ‘Mooch’ Mariucci who saw Brady at a 49ers combine said in an interview in 2012, “He didn't stick out. You wouldn't look at him and go, 'There's a Hall of Famer.' That just didn't happen… What I remember most about [Brady at that time] is that our scouts came back and we asked: Are his coaches standing on the table saying, 'You have to draft this guy, if you don't, you'll all be idiots'? That didn't happen.” It was an injury to Drew Bledsoe that would eventually give Brady his chance to succeed with the Patriots. Since his maiden start in 2001 (also his first game against Peyton Manning), Brady has won 3 Super Bowls in 5 appearances, been voted to the Pro Bowl 9 times, has thrown the seventh most passing yards in NFL history and holds a number of Patriots accolades (all-time leader in passing yards, Touchdowns and career wins). He’s also won twice at Wembley Stadium, the only Quarterback to do so, and commands a salary of $31.3m (£19.03m).
Peyton Manning, 37, from the moment he left Tennessee University, was expected to be the player he is today. Drafted number 1 overall in the 1998 draft by the Indianapolis Colts, he has been the face of consistency in the NFL, a player who has continued to strive and get better on nearly every occasion he plays. MVP winner on 4 occasions (soon to be a fifth), Manning has been the franchise quarterback that only comes along once in a generation, breaking league passing records (all-time leader for passing yards and touchdowns in a season) and winning games (167). He spent 13 years with the Colts, winning the club their first Super Bowl since 1970. Former Indianapolis Head coach, Tony Dungy said of Manning that “He’s probably the hardest-working guy I’ve been around who has great ability. Overachievers work hard because they have to. Peyton has rare talent, but chooses to push himself like he doesn’t.” After moving to the Denver Broncos following a neck injury that saw him miss the entire 2011 season, he has been just as productive, if not more since his younger years. Manning is now on the cusp of a fifth MVP award following a stellar season that saw him throw for more than 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, the most ever in a single year.
What makes this rivalry so compelling is that the two players are extraordinarily similar. Work ethic has been a key to the success of both Brady and Manning. Brady’s father, Tom Sr. described how his son “takes nothing for granted. It's in his preparation, his nutrition, his mental acuity, his physical condition; in every area, he's doing everything to be the very best he can be.“ Their style of play is in many ways becoming a dying art in the NFL, where they rely heavily on their throwing prowess and ability to read opposing defences. More often than not, coaches are looking for players with all round athleticism, players who can run and pass with equal success. The NFC Championship game this weekend features the new generation of Quarterbacks, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. These two players combined, rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2013; Tom Brady and Peyton Manning ran for a combined total of -13 yards this season. That doesn’t make them out of date or behind the times, if anything they are the two Quarterbacks that do exactly what a Quarterback is supposed to do. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, is famous for his coaching quote, “Do your job”, which if done properly and by everyone, results in wins, 215 to be precise. Brady has consistently done that, doing what is required of him in game after game. Manning has played with the same philosophy, always putting his team in a position to win, doing what the coaches expect of him and the rest follows. On top of this, they win the hearts of the fans, displaying the perfect “high school quarterback” image that is so often affiliated with American Football here in the UK. They have been voted team captains year after year, rarely do they slip up in interviews (Tom Brady’s "I hate the Jets" sound bite being a rare exception) and they have even turned down larger salaries to ensure more financial breathing room for their respective teams.
The two quarterbacks have already achieved statistics worthy of a Hall of Fame career. So much so that Sunday’s AFC Championship match will feature passers with a combined total of 921 touchdowns, the most ever in a single game. Manning has the edge on Brady in a number of individual categories, be it career touchdowns and passing yards. That for many would sum up the ‘better’ quarterback. However, Manning still has one underlying issue that hinders him from being one of the greatest to the greatest ever. His wins in the playoffs have been mixed, losing 11 times in 21 appearances, not something expected from a player who control his position. The timings of the losses are key. Losing any playoff game is tough as it ruins your chances of a Super Bowl, but it’s painful for any fan to watch their team dominate their opposition throughout the season, only to fall at the first stage of the knockout round. 2012’s ‘one and done’ loss to the Baltimore Ravens exemplified the issue Manning has gone through on numerous occasions. Brady is someone renowned in the NFL as a player built for the playoffs. In 11 playoff seasons, Brady has 18 wins, 3 Super Bowl rings and is about to play in his third consecutive AFC Championship game. The Broncos QB only has 1 Super Bowl to his name; even his younger brother Eli has 2. Of course Manning has the superior individual statistics to Brady, but the rivalry closely relates to the Lebron James – Michael Jordan debate between individual success and the number of championships won. In a league where team wins, not individual records are the focus (as it is in any team sport); questions arise as to who a team would want under centre; a player has the ability to win, or a player who wins when it matters.
Sunday marks the 15th time that these two players face each other, and it very well could be the last. With Manning at 37, and Brady at 36, it wouldn’t be a surprise if either player retired in the near future. Manning even admitted last week that “the light is at the end of the tunnel”, with his father confirming he was now into the “year to year” stage of his career. Opinion regarding which quarterback reigns supreme is most certainly polarised. All the great sporting rivalries, be it Ronaldo – Messi, Palmer – Nicklaus or McEnroe – Borg, never have a definitive answer as to who’s ‘better’ as there are simply too many variables, one’s that can’t be translated into statistics. Nor should it matter who’s ‘better’, every time these two meet, there is the potential for sporting history, which is why it’s lasted so long. Simply meeting on a regular basis is not enough, the games have to be special, different to others and contain something extra. This rivalry achieves that time after time. Although this particular game on Sunday may not be the be all and end all of the NFL this season, Manning vs Brady has been one of the defining features of the sport for the last decade. If it is to be the final time we see these two heavyweights face one another, then it should be celebrated for what it is and what it has been; one of the great sporting rivalries.