It's already happening. Manning, Brady. Brady, Manning. Strictly guided by the headlines that have dominated and will continue to dominate the sports spectrum this week, you've got to wonder if Americans unfamiliar with football might be under the impression the AFC Championship Game is some sort of boxing match between two old white guys.
You can hear one of those poor saps now. "They've fought 16 times!" he exclaims to a flummoxed coworker who is trying to determine whether his colleague is deadpanning. "And yet, neither really looks like much of a boxer!"
No, no. Football is still a team sport. It's just that in an era dominated by passing and those who are in charge of doing so, it's often hard for us to look past the narratives constructed entirely for the game's most famous quarterbacks.
And no quarterbacks are as famous as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, who have been to a combined nine Super Bowls, won a combined seven NFL MVP awards and been elected to a combined 24 Pro Bowls. They both rank in the top six all-time in terms of passing yards, passing touchdowns and passer rating, and they've won more total games than every other quarterback who has ever played except Brett Favre.
Of course, no quarterback has ever won a game on his own. And lately, the 39-year-old Manning and the 38-year-old Brady have—admittedly to separate degrees—needed more help from the other 52 active players on their respective teams than they might have when they were younger.
That means that Manning vs. Brady XVII might not be decided by Manning or Brady. Factoring in are offensive supporting cast members Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola of Brady's New England Patriots, and Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and C.J. Anderson of Manning's Denver Broncos.
And yes, true to narrative form, I wrote 288 words before mentioning the teams that Brady and Manning play for.
But this article isn't about Brady or Manning; or Gronkowski, Edelman or Amendola; or Thomas, Sanders or Anderson—because I have a secret to share with you that could get me in major trouble with the narrative police.
The Patriots and Broncos are as strong on defense as they are on offense.
Both units in the regular season ranked in the top 10 in terms of points allowed, yards allowed and yards per play allowed. They ranked first (Denver) and second (New England) in terms of both sack and sack rate. They ranked above the league average against both the run and the pass (indicating a lack of weak spots), and both possess more defensive Pro Bowlers than offensive Pro Bowlers.
The Broncos, of course, already get a lot of attention for their defensive prowess. Their only four Pro Bowlers—Chris Harris, Von Miller, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware—play on that side of the ball, and they ranked first in football in terms of yards allowed and sacks while giving up a league-low 4.4 yards per play.
To put that last number into perspective, consider that no other team in football surrendered fewer than 4.9 yards per play.
But the Pats have actually given up just 17.6 points per game in their last five outings, which ranks sixth in football during that six-week stretch.
Over the course of the entire regular season, they surrendered 19.7 points per game as a team, which still ranked in the top 10. But New England gave up four non-offensive touchdowns, which count toward that total. The defense itself actually only surrendered points on 28.9 percent of drives, which ranked sixth in football, four spots back of second-place Denver (26.9).
Pro Football Focus grades may have their limitations, but they can give you a broad feel for how well individual players have performed. Here are PFF's top five combined defensive grades for the 2015 regular season:
|Top PFF team defensive grades, 2015|
|1. Denver Broncos||215.9|
|2. New England Patriots||166.1|
|3. Seattle Seahawks||157.6|
|4. Houston Texans||139.7|
|5. Kansas City Chiefs||137.7|
|Pro Football Focus|
Nine of New England's 13 highest-rated players at PFF come from the defensive side of the ball. So do 10 of Denver's top 12.
While Brady and Gronk will represent the New England offense in the Pro Bowl, Malcolm Butler, Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones were elected from the defense, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower was probably only snubbed because he missed a quarter of the season.
Again, we know how good Miller, Ware, Talib, Harris and T.J. Ward are for Denver, but don't underestimate just how good Derek Wolfe, Brandon Marshall, Bradley Roby, Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan have been. Hell, they even got four forced fumbles this year out of Shaquil Barrett.
It's extremely hard to find an Achilles' heel.
And yeah, we know Collins, Jones and Hightower are aces, but the Pats have also found a way to remain more than stout on D despite injuries and offseason losses. Reclamation project Patrick Chung has been one of the most reliable safeties in football, Butler has almost seamlessly replaced departed star Darrelle Revis at cornerback, and only three other players classified as 4-3 defensive ends drew better PFF grades than Jabaal Sheard, who finished second on the team with eight sacks.
That's before even mentioning veterans Rob Ninkovich, Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan and Alan Branch, all of whom are easy to rely on.
And the New England defense appears to be gaining steam. This is a unit that hasn't surrendered more than 20 points in regulation since November, a span of six games. And that's in spite of the fact McCourty, Chung, Jones and Hightower dealt with late-season injuries.
Fortunately, Sheard, Akiem Hicks and rookie run-stuffer Malcom Brown have stepped up. In fact, during the final three weeks of the regular season, only three defensive tackles in football earned higher PFF grades than Brown.
|Fewest missed tackles, 2015 regular season|
|1. Tennessee Titans||89|
|2. Denver Broncos||93|
|3. New England Patriots||95|
|4. Minnesota Vikings||98|
|5. Buffalo Bills||100|
|Pro Football Focus|
That's a testament to how deep and well-coached the Pats are on that side of the ball. Denver has a ton of defensive talent and depth, and Wade Phillips is one of the best defensive coordinators in the game, but New England's defense belongs in the same orbit.
Of course, it's not all gravy for either unit. Injuries are a factor for both.
New England entered the divisional playoffs with Hightower (knee), Jones (abdomen, toe) and Ninkovich (shin) all banged up, and Collins strained his oblique, Jerod Mayo suffered a shoulder injury, and Jones injured his leg in the 27-20 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Meanwhile, Denver's Harris has been hampered by a shoulder injury. The two-time Pro Bowl corner has been beaten badly by Pittsburgh twice in the last five weeks, and now he has suggested that Roby will start taking his snaps as the top cover guy.
James Palmer @JamesPalmerTV
Chris Harris said he wasn't himself. Said moving forward Roby is going to play the majority of the snaps. Said shoulder way worse than Ben's2016-1-18 01:11:34
But everyone's got injuries this time of year. And did I mention that both defenses are extremely deep?
When asked after Sunday's playoff victory over the Steelers how he's been able to guide the Broncos to the AFC Championship Game, Manning wasn't blowing smoke by deflecting credit.
"I think our defense is guiding us," No. 18 told the NFL on CBS. "Let's make that clear."
Don't be surprised if that's the case on Sunday for both Manning and Brady.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.