He's also about as popular in New England as colonial British occupation, the month of February and Manhattan clam chowder, but it’s time for residents of the Atlantic Northeast to look in the mirror, take a deep breath and admit the harsh truth:
The Patriots and their fans owe Manning quite a bit.
I know that’s difficult to accept. It was downright painful to type.
The very idea of heaping additional praise on the already deified Manning makes my stomach churn. Devoting even a moment of my time to lionizing the man who just ended the Patriots’ season felt, at first, like passing a kidney stone.
But I’m over it.
I mourned like any decent New Englander would, but I’m at peace with watching Manning vie for his second title. The grieving process wasn’t easy, as my first tactic—denial—stopped working the moment I woke up with a hangover and a few choice text messages aimed at crushing my spirits.
Denial quickly shifted to anger as I responded to my tormenters with a few scathing retorts of my own.
What are your feelings on Peyton Manning?
I took to Facebook to wage digital war on the trolls. I even avoided some of my best friends, with whom I watch virtually every Bruins game, simply because some of them are Broncos fans. They’re not the sort to salt wounds and they celebrated the victory with grace, but anything wearing orange was enough to draw my ire.
I was even giving traffic cones the stinkeye.
That anger, that resentment at having lost to a player I so vociferously and vehemently despise subsided after about a week as I began trying to rationalize the loss. I told myself the Broncos were simply the better team—they are—and tried to find solace in the fact that the Patriots even reached the AFC Championship during a tumultuous, injury-ravaged season.
That, of course, is loser talk. But the Patriots did lose, so on some level I felt justified in my rationalization. Until, that is, the fourth stage of grief—depression—took hold as I tried to cope with the fact that the Patriots had once again squandered another year of Tom Brady’s championship window.
All of the time, energy and passion I’d devoted to following the team smoldered into ash as I resigned myself to the fact that the Patriots’ season is over.
It wasn’t easy, but after enduring all the stages of grief, I finally made peace with watching Manning take his shot at the title I so desperately wanted to see Brady capture. I ran the grieving gauntlet and made it safely through. I can’t say I’m looking forward to this weekend, but I will at least watch the Super Bowl—something I had intended to actively avoid doing until now.
And you know what? I hope Manning wins.
He deserves it. He’s earned it. He personifies every sportsman-like quality young athletes should strive for with none of the repugnant, Shermanesque braggadocio, which brings me back to my original point:
The Patriots and their fans owe Peyton Manning a debt of gratitude.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still probably the biggest Manning hater alive and I will continue to actively root against him any time he isn’t playing against an invective, vainglorious gasbag.
But his continued excellence deeply enriches the fan experience. Forget for a minute that he’s an all-time great and fans of any NFL team are lucky to have witnessed his illustrious career.
Forget that even the most die-hard Patriots fans will admit he’s one of the most entertaining sports personalities of his generation.
Forget that he is, by all accounts, a stand-up guy and a shining example of athletic decorum for our youth to emulate.
Those are all wonderful things and have earned Manning the adoration of fans worldwide. People love him. Even from afar I have to admit, he’s a pretty loveable public figure.
But the reason Patriots fans should be grateful for Manning is because we don’t love him. We hate him.
He is the Magic Johnson to Brady’s Larry Bird. The Lex Luther to Brady’s Superman. The Joe Frazier to Brady’s Muhammad Ali.
The NFL’s greatest individual rivalry has redefined the way Patriots fans follow the team.
The Patriots’ first Super Bowl victory was so gratifying because it was so unexpected. They were heavy underdogs, and their road to the championship was certainly the one less traveled.
Their 2001 playoff run was the stuff of legend. The "tuck rule" game was still the most exhilarating single game I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t even see it live.
I was performing in a play that night so I brought my television from home and plugged it in backstage. Needless to say it wasn’t my most focused acting performance, but it was worth it even to see just bits and pieces of the game.
A classmate of mine—who I happened to have a major crush on at the time—committed the kindest act in the history of mankind and taped the game for me because she knew I couldn’t watch the whole thing. I did watch the game in its entirety on Monday night and only then did I truly comprehend the scope of what I’d just witnessed. I won’t even put words to it. I was speechless then, and remain so to this day.
I still have that VHS and it remains one of my most treasured possessions.
To follow that up by watching Brady leave the AFC Championship after a hit to the ankle, only to have Drew Bledsoe return from the grave to lead a stirring victory and captain the Patriots to the Super Bowl was almost an out-of-body experience.
Brady’s remarkable, game-winning drive to capture the title was just the finishing touch on the most unfathomable playoff run imaginable.
After such a spellbinding ascent to the NFL’s apex, all other achievements would inevitably pale in comparison. Or so I thought.
The Patriots of course went on to win two more Super Bowls over the next three seasons. Obviously those were euphoric times for New England fans, but after the miracle run of 2001, they could easily have been the dénouement in New England’s championship narrative.
Instead, Manning joined the fray and gave Brady and the Patriots something they previously lacked: a legitimate rival. The narrative took a new turn.
Local fanaticism reached a fever pitch when Manning’s Colts were favored in Gillette Stadium during the 2003 AFC Championship. The vaunted Indianapolis offense entered the game without having punted through two playoff games.
They finally punted.
Manning imploded, throwing four interceptions in a losing effort, and the legend of the Manning Face was born.
The Colts complained to the league about the overly physical nature of New England’s defensive backs and the league agreed. The Patriots had to play nice with Manning from now on.
Suddenly Manning was perceived as not just a big-game choke artist, but a whiny prima donna who was favored and coddled by the league.
It seemed plain to Patriot fans that the NFL wanted Manning to win, whether on his own merits or not. That conspiracy theory gained traction in New England when Manning's production went ballistic in 2004, immediately following the increased emphasis on the illegal contact rule.
He posted the best statistical season ever at the time and his record-setting Colts would eventually find themselves in Foxboro yet again for a Divisional Round playoff game.
Once again they were favored, despite being on the road. Manning wasn’t just the NFL’s golden boy anymore; he was now New England’s archnemesis.
He was universally—outside of New England—believed to be the best quarterback in the game, despite Brady already having two Super Bowl notches in his belt and beating Manning to get to his second one.
Manning was the first pick in the NFL draft. He was surrounded by Hall of Fame talent on offense. He played his games in a dome. He had every conceivable advantage and, yet, still couldn’t win the big game.
He was the anti-Brady. Patriots fans had found their boogeyman.
When the two quarterbacks met, there was more on the line than just the results of a game. Every matchup represented Brady’s constant uphill battle for the respect. Each tilt offered an opportunity to take the league’s Chosen One down to a more human level.
Brady and the Patriots did just that by limiting the Colts’ record-setting offense to a mere three points.
For the second year in a row, the Patriots had beaten Manning’s Colts en route to a Super Bowl title. Every playoff game matters, but those two victories were special. Even watching live there was a sense that we were witnessing history in the making, that there was something truly magical unfolding before our very eyes.
The rest of the playoffs during those seasons felt almost inconsequential. Obviously winning a Super Bowl is a big deal, but for so many fans the real highlights of those years were the wins against Manning.
After all, this was big, bad Peyton Manning and the unstoppable Colts. He came to our house twice, with unkind intentions. He got humiliated, twice.
Victory tastes so much sweeter when the main ingredient is a worthwhile opponent.
On the flip side, defeat tastes that much more bitter when it comes at the hands of an archrival. So when Manning finally beat the Patriots during the 2006 playoffs, the unsavory flavor lingered into the offseason.
Fans could no longer dismiss Manning or trivialize his accomplishments. He beat Brady in the playoffs, and followed it up with a Super Bowl win.
For the first time, Patriots fans had to respect Manning as a real threat. Suddenly the debate over whether Manning or Brady was the better quarterback became a hot topic. With both players now NFL champions, the animosity among fans from either camp took even deeper roots.
The rivalry evoked passion. It gave fans a lightning rod to channel their frustration, jubilation, indignation and any other "-ation" that needed unleashing. Watching the Patriots tangle with Manning was cathartic.
In many ways, their rivalry would come to define the NFL.
Over the last fourteen years, the Brady and Manning rivalry has accounted for four—possibly five—Super Bowl titles, eight AFC Championships, seven MVP awards—assuming Manning wins this year—and a slew of All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections.
They’ve broken each other’s records. They’ve won titles at each other’s expense. They’ve achieved everything imaginable within their craft.
The NFL needed a rivalry like theirs.
More than that, though, the Patriots needed an adversary like Manning. Not for the sake of winning games—they would have done that regardless—but for the sake of reenergizing a fanbase that could have easily settled into the sort of apathy that often comes with “too much” success, if there is such a thing.
Manning made us better fans. He made us angrier. He elated us. He drove us mad and made us hurl all manner of household items at our televisions. He made children cuss and grown men celebrate like grade-schoolers.
He helped us explore new depths of football enthusiasm. He pushed our emotional limits and made us tap into a deeper, richer well of joy, fury, despair, relief and everything in between.
In a nutshell, his presence galvanized us as fans. After all, "fan" is short for fanatic and no opponent in the sports world has provoked more fanaticism from New Englanders than Manning.
We love to hate him, but it’s time to admit we’re lucky to have him.
As long as he never beats the Patriots again.
Follow Sean on Twitter, @Keanedawg86