If this was the last chapter in the greatest quarterback rivalry of this generation, then it's hard not to feel underwhelmed.
There was no thrilling back-and-forth battle. No fourth-quarter comeback. No offensive shootout. Just Peyton Manning, with help from a better all-around team, outplaying Tom Brady and propelling the Denver Broncos to a 26-16 win and a spot in the Super Bowl.
For much of Sunday afternoon, Manning was surgical and efficient, while Brady was uncomfortable and inaccurate. Bleacher Report's pair of tweets sum up the difference in each future Hall of Famer's afternoon:
The Broncos are going to the Super Bowl after a 26-16 win over the Patriots! pic.twitter.com/OjF0YB0aYC— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 19, 2014
Tom Brady struggle face pic.twitter.com/rXFpv7RzEe— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 19, 2014
Here's a look at the final stat comparison:
|Tom Brady||24||38||277||7.3||2 (1 rushing)||0||93.9|
As ESPN Stats & Info noted, Manning joined an exclusive club—which Brady was already a part of—with the victory:
Manning: 4th QB in SB era to win a Conf. Champ. after leading NFL in Pass yds & Pass TD, joining Marino (1984), Warner(2001) & Brady (2007).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 19, 2014
Whenever you're comparing two players who are never on the field at the same time, it isn't exactly fair. That has never been more noticeable than it was on Sunday.
Offensively, Manning's skill players—just like they have been all season long—were on another level than Brady's, forcing ESPN's David Pollack to make this observation:
In fairness though, Brady wld be doing work with Manning's Wr's too. Manning criticism I just don't get.— David Pollack (@davidpollack47) January 19, 2014
Defensively, the difference was also quite palpable. Denver created pressure, sacking Brady twice and hitting him three times, according to ESPN's box score. On the other side, New England was completely stifled by the Broncos' offensive line, recording zero sacks and zero QB hits and allowing Manning to step into most of his throws.
Considering the circumstances, no one in Brady's position is going to outplay Manning.
Still, Manning's superior play was evident.
With the Patriots unable to get into the backfield, Manning sat in the pocket and cut up a secondary that was without Aqib Talib for much of the game. He dumped it down when he had to and connected on most of his throws down the field, breaking a Broncos record in the process, via ESPN Stats & Info:
Peyton set Broncos' franchise record for most passing yds in a playoff game with 400. Previous record was Elway's 385 in '89 AFC Champ.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 19, 2014
He had one particular lame-duck throw in the second quarter that was lucky to be caught by Wes Welker, but for the most part, Manning was on time and accurate, hitting his receivers in stride. Here's a look at his second touchdown toss, which essentially sealed the game for the Broncos:
At one point, Manning had a stretch where he completed 16-of-17 throws, as he was able to move the ball with ease on a consistent basis. NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah called him "nearly flawless":
Peyton was nearly flawless but the Broncos pass rush deserves a lot of credit too. They generated pressure on key downs— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 19, 2014
Which brings us to Brady.
Although he put together some nice drives, started to march down the field far more efficiently late in the game and added a determined rushing score, it's hard not to believe Terrific Tom left a lot on the field.
In large part of Denver being able to make him uncomfortable and hurried in the pocket, Brady missed on several long attempts, often overthrowing open receivers.
Following Brady's disappointing performance, ESPN's Brett Edgerton noticed a recent trend for the Patriots and their QB:
Tom Brady now 4-6 in his last 10 playoff games. All 4 wins at home. Last road win 8 yrs ago. Last SB title 10 yrs ago. Just an observation.— Brett Edgerton (@EditorEdge) January 19, 2014
There's no questioning the greatness of this rivalry. Twenty-two Pro Bowls, nine first-team All-Pro nods, six MVP awards, eight Super Bowl appearances (counting this year) and four Super Bowl victories between the two has equaled back-and-forth battling for supremacy at the position for the past decade and a half.
When comparing the legendary duo, Manning is often the one who gets criticized for his postseason play, but on Sunday, he helped put an end to that narrative.
Let's just hope this wasn't the rivalry's finale.