The handshake at the middle of the Gillette Stadium field between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning was brief. Lasted just two seconds. No hugs. Not much conversation. They were probably in just as much shock as everyone else. But the picture, the snapshot of that moment, will still go down in time because of the two men involved.
That moment, this game, won 34-31 in overtime by New England Sunday night, was a look at two of the greatest competitors the NFL has ever seen. And while it would be easy to rip Peyton Manning as a choker—and he can be, and he has been, and maybe he was again on this night—this is really more about Brady.
This is about a nasty, cutthroat player who hates losing, and especially hates losing to Peyton Manning. In many ways, Brady is a d--k, and that word is used with all of the best connotations. On the field, he is mean, brutal and unforgiving. He is the Terminator against a handgun. He's John Unitas in the championship game. He's the martians at the beginning of War of the Worlds.
You knew Brady would have a comeback. You knew it was coming. You knew because Brady would rather get punched in the face repeatedly than lose. In many ways, I think there is a small part of Brady that would rather die than lose a game like this.
If you get Brady down 24-0, as the Broncos did, and that stake isn't through the heart, you're dead, because he's not.
The reason Brady came back in this game from an impossible deficit is because he has something in his gut that many other quarterbacks don't. It's impossible to categorize or measure. It can't be sold or bartered. It's an energizing force, a meanness combined with ability. And that is what allowed Brady to return from such an impossible deficit.
The opposite is Manning. He is brilliant and eternal, but in these games that require a player to be a d--k and unforgiving and hardcore and have a chin, Manning can wilt. Late into the fourth quarter, he had under 80 yards passing and for the game just 150, two touchdowns and an interception. He looked like the Tin Man. You could hear his bones creak through the boom mikes.
Manning made some good throws in that wind late, but overall there was a timidness factor with the Broncos star. Many times. In many big games. When things are going well, count Manning in. When it's balmy and the field conditions are perfect, the scoreboard will transform into a pinball machine. Remember when it seemed Manning couldn't be beat? That was September when the leaves were still on the trees.
Now it's cold, and the trees are frozen. And the colder it gets, the more Manning's sphincter tightens, the more throws become errant.
Brady looks at the temperature and smirks. Minus-20? That's all you got for me, Old Man Winter? Going into the wind, Brady was 17 of 23 for 201 yards, according to ESPN. He was actually better fighting the conditions because he is, well, a fighter.
This was the coldest November game in Patriots team history at 22 degrees at kickoff. Brady is now 25-5 as a starting quarterback when the game-time temperature is 32 degrees or lower, tossing 51 touchdowns and 21 picks. He had three scores and no interceptions against Denver.
Manning sees the temperature gauge and his mind starts playing tricks on him. He starts thinking of golf or a commercial shoot.
There is no greater disrespect of Manning—and respect for Brady—than what Bill Belichick pulled in overtime. He won the coin toss and still elected to give the ball to Manning, taking the wind. That seemed like a dumb move (I criticized it), but Belichick knew. He knew somehow Manning would find a way to lose and Brady would find a way to win.
Belichick was basically taunting Manning. Do you think the Broncos would have given Brady the ball had they won the toss? Hell no. Jack Del Rio would have been terrified to do that.
Then, Belichick showed what he really thought of Manning again, when in overtime he declined a penalty on third down. It gave Manning another shot at 3rd-and-14, instead of risking 4th-and-1. After the game, Belichick was diplomatic, saying his decision was strictly weather-based.
"The wind, it was a strong wind," he said. "We just had to keep them out of the end zone, obviously. I just felt like the wind would be an advantage if we could keep them out of the end zone on that first drive. We were able to do that. The wind was significant in the game, it was definitely significant."
But Belichick's actions speak louder than anything he could ever say.
This game wasn't always beautifully played, but it was gorgeous all the same because of the high level of quarterback play from Brady and Manning (but more Brady). The weather, the blood, the stakes made this night one of the best nights in recent league history. This was, easily, one of the best regular-season games of all time because there was so much to win…and lose.
In the last nine games between them, Brady has won five and Manning four. It's eerily close. Yet so far. Because what the Patriots did was show they can beat Denver in the elements, and there will likely be elements for the Broncos. There's no question that the Patriots can go into Denver and beat them there.
On a cold, nasty night we saw more than that piece of theory. We saw the tangible fact that Brady's legacy swelled, and Manning's legacy was slightly dented. It was injured because, in the cold, as the pressure increases, Peyton Manning becomes mortal, and Tom Brady becomes unbeatable.