If semi-insufferable narratives are your thing, the 2014 AFC Championship Game could not have shaken out with a better matchup to satiate your desires.
On Saturday, Tom Brady got his 2001 on and managed the game as LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots' ground game carried them to a 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts. A day later, Peyton Manning's Broncos survived a torrid fourth-quarter San Diego Chargers run to go into victory formation with a 24-17 victory in Denver.
Manning. Brady. Brady. Manning. Hey, I know it's not like these two ever get much national attention, but you'll be surprised that folks are pretty excited about this matchup. Mostly your great aunt who only watches football when her favorite pizza-chain endorser and model-loving quarterback are playing but still.
These are easily the two best quarterbacks of their generation. Depending on who is speaking, they might be the two best signal-callers in the history of the game.
The narratives, based somewhat in reality but more in silly perception, write themselves. This is the 15th time Manning and Brady will suit up against one another, with each matchup seemingly getting more attention than the last. Brady, better known as Mr. Clutch to your favorite sports columnists, holds a 10-4 record. He's beaten Manning twice in the postseason in their three playoff matchups.
Bill Belichick and Brady are postseason performers to Manning's regular-season excellence. The Broncos quarterback has eight one-and-dones in the playoffs and "only" one Super Bowl ring and broke a three-game playoff losing streak on Sunday.
To hear fans and pundits tell it, those numbers are a sign of Manning's uncluchness. Manning is the numbers guy who can't handle the cold or increased pressure. Brady's veins hold only ice water.
To hear Manning or Brady tell it, this is a matchup between two football teams—little else.
"I know there will be some individual matchups that will get headlines," Manning said, via the Los Angeles Times' Sam Farmer. "But it will be a battle between two good teams, teams that have been through a lot, that have overcome a lot to get to this point, and that's where my focus will be — trying to help the Broncos get a win over the Patriots."
In between all of the Manning-Brady talk, of course, there will be 100-plus other players whose performance may help shift the pretty little (and overwrought and stupid) narrative. Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker versus, umm, Julian Edelman might be the more important matchup than Brady-Manning.
Welker himself has to feel like this is an opportunity to vindicate his offseason decision to bolt for Denver. The oft-concussed receiver was Brady's go-to BFF in the slot for six seasons. His proverbial safety blanket. The one dude for whom Brady removed his cloak of platitudes and team-first attitude to express behind-the-scenes frustration that Welker left.
“It’s the AFC Championship Game. There’s going to be plenty of juice,” Welker said, coyly deflecting all Brady-Belichick questions, per Hank Gola of the New York Daily News. “It doesn’t get any bigger than that.”
Welker will also receive attention for a mental gaffe that helped give New England a 34-31 overtime victory in the teams' Week 12 matchup. Tony Carter ran into a bouncing Ryan Allen punt after Welker failed to properly call off his blockers on a return, giving the Patriots the ball deep inside Denver territory and allowing Stephen Gostkowski to knock a 31-yard kick through the uprights to close it out.
Welker had just four catches for 31 yards on eight targets. But the postgame focus? Yeah, that all went to Manning.
With the New England weather dropping below freezing, Manning turned in easily his worst statistical performance of his record-setting season. He threw for a season-low 150 yards—more than 100 yards worse than his next-lowest total. He averaged 4.17 yards per pass attempt—his worst outing since Nov. 30, 2008.
On the other sideline, Brady was throwing for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Even in a season where Manning rewrote the NFL passing record book and Brady's statistical profile plummeted, clutch was clutch, and the prophecy was fulfilled.
Brady, elite. Manning, choker. It might not even be remotely true, but it fulfills a narrative and gets people talking. In the ever-frustrating world of sports media, sometimes that's good enough. Never mind that Manning has won a Super Bowl more recently than Brady. Never mind that Manning (88.4) and Brady (87.2) have near-identical playoff quarterback ratings—a signal that, perhaps, you know, other players happen to matter outside the man throwing the ball.
No matter. The narrative has been written no matter how much we try to change it with facts. Now all that's left for us to do is ignore the stupid and appreciate what Manning-Brady really is. Perhaps the final playoff matchup between two of the greatest players in NFL history.
Speculation about Manning's future is already clouding the Broncos' playoff run. Sources inside Manning's camp told ESPN's Chris Mortensen that a March exam will likely determine the future Hall of Famer's future. Either his surgically repaired neck is sound, and he'll continue playing, or doctors will advise him to walk away for good.
And with Manning at age 37 and Brady at age 36, Father Time alone could prevent these two from meeting in January ever again. Keep in mind that Brady's 87.3 quarterback rating was his worst over a full season in a decade. Furthermore, the Broncos can't possibly pay all their pass-catching weapons and still field a well-rounded football team.
|Super Bowl Winning QBs, Age 36 or Older|
This is their last best chance, because they're actually here now. Brady, despite all of the injuries and off-the-field strife that eliminated his best supporting talent, is on the precipice of his NFL-record sixth Super Bowl appearance. Manning, despite all the catcalls about his playoff acumen and worries about his future, is on the precipice of his third Super Bowl appearance and maybe even his second title.
If Manning beats Brady and then the victor of the NFC Championship Game, he only has one fewer Lombardi Trophy than Brady. He's already shattered Brady's single-season passing touchdowns record (55) and Drew Brees' single-season passing yards record (5,477).
Now, he's two victories away from killing the narrative that has plagued his career. That he's unclutch. That he can't beat Brady. That for all the regular-season stats and records and commercials, he's not good enough to win a Super Bowl that doesn't feature Rex Grossman.
And all Brady has the chance to be is the greatest winner in NFL history.
No pressure or anything.
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