DENVER — The question annoys Peyton Manning. You can see it in his face. You saw it in his face when asked after beating the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. His face wrinkled. The smile disappeared. He entered into robot mode. Nothing said is inflammatory or explosive or shows his true feelings. Stay on message, politician style.
Playing Tom Brady? It's not me against Brady, he will say, it's the Denver Broncos against the New England Patriots. The player has mastered coach-speak. Privately, he just wants the game to get here, to get it over with. Publicly, it's robot mode.
"The game next week is the Broncos versus the Patriots," he said.
See? There it is. That is his mantra. That will be his mantra all week. It won't change. There will be no cracks in that armor. Do not expect him to speak sonnets about his battles with Tom. There will be no legacy talk. Broncos versus the Patriots, Broncos versus the Patriots, Broncos versus the Patriots. Rinse, wash, repeat.
There was one spark of humor where Manning let his shield down. He was asked about his future health, and if any possible surgery on his neck after the season weighed on him. It was then that Manning smiled.
"The only thing weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a can of Bud Light in my mouth," he said.
Boom. Manning's got jokes. Laughter. Then, back to robot.
Here we go again. Brady against Manning Part Kabillion. It can't be overstated how much is at stake. If Manning loses, he will be seen as a choke artist. If Manning wins, and then wins the Super Bowl, there is a good chance history will see him as the greatest quarterback ever. Other than that, not much to see here.
But before there could be Brady, the Broncos had to first get by Philip Rivers. This wouldn't be easy as Rivers morphed from a whiny crybaby in need of a binky early in the divisional playoff game to a grown-ass man threatening to ruin the narrative the NFL would run over its grandma to get.
Brady-Manning, Brady-Manning…that's what everyone expected, and that's what we will get after Denver's 24-17 win over San Diego in the divisional round. We'll get that, yes, but this was not a dominating win by the Broncos. Enter Rivers: goofy-looking faces and bolo-fied mannerisms that annoy and irritate. At times unlikeable, at times Joe Montana-like, we saw a little bit of everything with Rivers but, mostly, at the end especially, we saw brilliance.
After a first half in which Rivers at one point threw for minus-11 passing yards, he turned into a killer in the second, and potential ruiner of an epic storyline. He finished with 217 passing yards, two scores and a rating of 115.8, which was higher than Manning's 93.5.
Manning started off hot. The first drive: it was beautiful to watch. As the winds gusted, winds that are supposed to drain Manning's power, the ball left his hand with velocity. Bing, bing, bing it went. On that 86-yard, seven-minute drive, Manning went 6-of-8 to four different receivers for 64 yards.
The offense slowed after another touchdown drive, but Manning appeared to drain the life out of the Chargers. He fooled them, suckered them, annoyed them. In the end, there were five neutral-zone infractions for San Diego's defense because of Manning's hiccuped cadences.
The Denver defense followed suit. Halfway through the second quarter, the Chargers had 45 total yards, leading to Rivers getting pissy, incarnate. It looked bad. It looked like blowout city.
The Chargers hung around. And hung around and hung around some more. They made it 17-7, and the stadium got quiet. Sphincters tightened.
This is where Manning usually begins to aack…gag…cough. The choking embryo that has led to a number of opening-round playoff games is usually planted. But not this time.
Manning followed San Diego's score with another excellent drive. It was almost identical to the first, going 81 yards in nine plays. The Chargers would threaten again to make it 24-14. They recovered an onside kick and got a field goal out of it. Then Manning, with some excellent running by Knowshon Moreno, was able to move the football and end the game. But it was close, and the Chargers made them work.
With Rivers dispatched, the attention shifted immediately to Brady and the Patriots. Isn't that what we were all waiting for anyway?
Some hate this matchup. They despise the Manning-Brady overload. But for football purists, this is it. This is the game. If Manning is going to get to another Super Bowl, having him do it against Brady is perfect, because it's Brady who will give him the best fight. Not Rivers. Not Andrew Luck. No one but Brady.
There is pressure on Brady, sure. But there is more on Manning. Brady has been more successful in the postseason, while Manning is now 10-11. Manning's rep is easy to encapsulate: beautiful, all-time performer who eats record books but in the playoffs has choked when having the superior team. That is not unfair. That is not hyperbole. That is wholly accurate.
What Manning can do now is end all of that talk or, at least, begin to do so. If he can beat Brady and then beat San Francisco or Seattle in the Super Bowl, his legacy as the best ever will be fairly secure. Few quarterbacks would then have Manning's statistical prowess to go along with two Super Bowl wins.
"I don't think Peyton is thinking about any of that right now," said Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "He doesn't view it as him against another guy. It's a team thing with Peyton. It's always about team."
Who will win?
The advantage Manning has now that he's never had before is perhaps the best combination of running game and defense. Moreno is running as well an any back, and that Denver defense is also performing. The Chargers were the third straight team, and fourth in the past five, the Broncos have held under 260 total yards of offense.
Manning and Brady have battled in the rain, in the snow, in the sun and under the moon. It is one of the best rivalries we have ever seen. It's Magic and Bird. It's Ali and Frazier, Chamberlain and Russell, Nicklaus and Palmer. Yes, it's that good.
And here we go again.
Most see Brady as the winner and Manning as the computer that generates the stats. Manning can change that and yes, no question, the pressure is on Manning.
In a Broncos team meeting on Saturday night, Manning said the Broncos needed to appreciate the fact they were back in the divisional round. He didn't want them to take it for granted.
There was no talk of Brady. Then, or now. There won't be no matter how huge this game is, no matter how legacy-changing it might be.
But here we go again.