DENVER—So, here we are again, another episode of Brady versus Manning.
We don't need their first names. Or teams. Or a list of accomplishments. We know them all. By now, this fight is as familiar as Ali-Frazier, Magic-Bird or Kirk-Klingons. Yes, here we go again.
But this one feels different. This one is different. This is, easily, going into the game, the most lopsided this matchup has ever been. This game looks, on paper at least, like it could be a complete and utter Patriots beatdown of the Broncos.
The Brady-Manning AFC title game is shaping up as a coronation. That isn't trolling or stated to anger Broncos fans. That's based on reality and how the two teams—and their quarterbacks—are playing now.
The Broncos get credit for finding a way to beat the Steelers in the divisional round, 23-16, but please, they overcame a Pittsburgh team that was historically undermanned. The Steelers are the first team in the modern history of the sport to play in a postseason game without its leading regular-season rusher and wide receiver. The loss of Antonio Brown, maybe the most dangerous non-quarterback offensive threat in the sport, was as critical of a loss as any team has had this season.
Ben Roethlisberger entered the game with shredded ligaments in his throwing shoulder. He looked fine—"Ben was healthy," said Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, "he didn't fool anybody."—but he was throwing to guys named Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey. His running back was Fitzgerald Toussaint, since DeAngelo Williams and Le'Veon Bell were also missing.
The Steelers were paper thin. But at the end of three quarters, with the Wheatons and the Heyward-Beys and Toussaints, the Steelers were still leading, 13-12. It seemed like Vontaze Burfict was a bigger threat to Pittsburgh than Denver.
It was, in fact, a Toussaint fumble that led to a Denver touchdown, allowing the Broncos to finally wrestle control of the game from Pittsburgh.
Roethlisberger, without his two biggest weapons, still threw for 339 yards and had a passer rating of 94.3.
The Patriots must have been watching this game and smiling ear to ear. Maybe even laughing. They manhandled a terrific Kansas City team—the same Chiefs team that crushed the Broncos two months ago. In that game, Manning was 5-of-20 for 35 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. He was benched in the third quarter.
Though he looks healthier and better overall now, Manning's passes did, at times, continue to sail and flutter like a stork in a wind tunnel on Sunday. And here's the problem: The Patriots look healthier and better, too.
Brady is playing uncannily lights out. He might drop 30 on the Broncos. I don't care how good their defense is (and it's good).
If the hobbled Steelers can hang with the Broncos, imagine what Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman will do. Don't forget, New England is still pissy about Deflategate.
Sunday's game being close wasn't all Manning's fault. Broncos receivers had six dropped passes, which ESPN Stats and Info had this perspective on:
6 dropped passes for Broncos today. That is tied for most by any team in a postseason game in the 10 seasons we've tracked— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 18, 2016
No, it was not all Manning's fault, but he was still, at times, semi-shaky. The wind was blowing steadily, and it affected Manning's passes. The Steelers maneuvered their defensive resources to stop the run game and make Manning beat them. He gets credit for not throwing interceptions, but this offense, for three quarters, looked as ineffective as it did for most of the season with Manning at the helm.
After the game, when meeting the media, Manning downplayed another battle against Brady. But make no mistake, they want to crush each other. This will be the fifth Brady-Manning playoff meeting, and they have split the previous four. Though almost anyone who knows football would now never argue that Manning is better, a Broncos win would at least give some fuel to the Manning holdouts.
This is where people like me could be wrong about the impending Brady dominance. There's this:
Tom Brady is 2-6 all-time in Denver... the 2 QBs he defeated were Danny Kanell and Tim Tebow— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 18, 2016
Not exactly Bradshaw and Staubach.
Earlier in the season, the Broncos beat the Patriots with Brock Osweiler finishing the game at quarterback. So, sure, a prediction of a Brady coronation could be in error.
The problem with all of that is that in the history of this rivalry, we've never seen Manning be so un-Manning-like, as Brady has continued to be Brady-like.
Yes, here we go again, Brady against Manning.
Maybe Manning has a few more tricks in that drained arm.
Maybe. But probably not.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.