NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Updated: Monday, January 18, 2016, 7:47 AM
It’s last call for the greatest rivalry in NFL history: Brady vs. Manning XVII.
After Tom Brady breezed into his fifth straight AFC Championship Game and the 10th of his career as a result of the Patriots victory over the Chiefs on Saturday, Peyton Manning pulled out a little late magic in what is likely his final season to help the Broncos get by the Steelers 23-16, taking the Broncos on a 13-play 65-yard drive for Denver’s only touchdown with three minutes remaining.
“To quote Bill Belichick, we’re on to New England,” Manning said on CBS after the game.
It was a struggle for Manning, just as this season has been for him. When he wasn’t throwing no-velocity changeups to his receivers, they were dropping his passes. It was his first start since Nov. 15, when it was revealed he had a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, and he was ineffective and looked old for much of Sunday’s game until the Broncos recovered Fitzgerald Toussaint’s fourth-quarter fumble at the Denver 35 with the Steelers up 13-12 and driving.
Manning threw only three passes on the game-winning drive, completing two, including the Broncos biggest offensive play of the game: On third-and-12 from his own 33, he completed a 31-yard pass to Bennie Fowler.
Now it’s on to Brady. This is the first time in this compelling rivalry that it’s a mismatch. Brady is playing as well as ever and although Manning has not said anything yet about his plans for 2016, it would be surprising if he doesn’t retire after all the injuries and interceptions this season. Even so, it’s appropriate the last time they meet that a spot in the Super Bowl is at stake.
The numbers have never come up in conversation between Manning and Brady, not on the golf course, not when they are out to dinner or having a beer, not when they are socializing with their wives, not even when they are teasing each other.
Peyton Manning may be getting his last crack at Tom Brady in the AFC Championship.
Head-to-head: Brady 11, Manning 5.
Super Bowls: Brady six appearances and four championships, Manning three appearances and one championship.
Playoff record: Brady 22-8, the most postseason victories for a quarterback in NFL history. Manning is just 12-13 with nine one-and-dones, the most ever for a QB.
Their friendship will last well beyond their football years, perhaps because Brady has never once brought up their record against each other or their postseason accomplishments.
“I could never do that,” Brady told me in“Brady vs. Manning,” my recently released book.“He’s had a great a career as anyone who has ever played the position. I feel I’ve had as great a career as I could have ever imagined or dreamed of. I’ve been lucky to have been on some great teams.”
Brady is playing at such a high level it is the first time this rivalry may be considered a mismatch.
This is a rivalry to be cherished and embraced. Not only is Brady the greatest quarterback of all time and Manning the greatest regular season quarterback of all time, but their careers have run side-by-side and they have pushed each other. It will take a long time before another rivalry of this quality stands the test of time over 15 years.
This will be the fifth time they meet in the playoffs and fourth time in the AFC title game. After Brady won the first two, including the 2003 AFC Championship Game, Manning has won the last two, both in the conference championship game, when he was with the Colts in 2006 and Broncos in 2013. It’s been a long and strange last 12 months for Brady and Manning, the two faces of the league who each were involved in the first real controversy of their careers. Brady was suspended by Roger Goodell for the first four games of the season for his role in Deflategate until it was overturned by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman in lower Manhattan one week before the start of the regular season. Brady played mad-at-the-world and responded with one of his best seasons, throwing 36 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Manning was dreadful before he was sat down with the foot injury after he completed five passes and had four interceptions in a Nov. 15 loss to the Chiefs.
He didn’t play again until the third quarter of the final game of the season and played well enough for coach Gary Kubiak to name him the starter for the playoffs. He finished the regular season with ugly numbers – nine TDs and 17 INTs – and ugly rumors after an Al Jazeera report linked him to HGH use, which he vehemently denied.
In any event, after Brady was accused of cheating on the field and Manning was accused of cheating off the field, the controversies have faded away for now and the focus this week figures to be the last installment of the rivalry, which has defined this era of the NFL.
Brady has said he wants to play another 10 years, and even though that would be highly unlikely considering he will be 39 in August, as long as he stays healthy, he has another three or four years left at a high level. Manning’s body appears to be held together by Scotch tape and Band-Aids. He will be 40 in March, and considering his physical ailments the last few years (ankle, thigh, foot) and the decreasing velocity of what never was a real fastball, this is surely his last shot at getting his second Super Bowl ring. Brady is going for his fifth, which would break the tie with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana.
One more time, it’s Brady vs. Manning. Episode No. 17.