Column as I see ’em, Divisional Playoffs: So one more time, it comes to this. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, having endured a season filled with obstacles both on the field and off, will renew the NFL’s greatest quarterback rivalry in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday in Denver.
A month ago, a 17th meeting seemed highly unlikely. Manning was out with a foot injury and it was uncertain if he would win his job back from Brock Osweiler – or for that matter, whether he would retire without ever starting another game.
Meanwhile, Brady was staggering to the finish, performing like an ordinary passer as the Patriots dropped four of their last six games with slot receiver Julian Edelman, his personal security blanket, sidelined by an injury to his foot.
But Manning regained his starting job and Brady got back Edelman. The Broncos and Pats, the top two seeds, won at home in the weekend’s divisional round and will collide in an AFC title game for the fifth time with Brady and Manning under center.
That’s a record for two quarterbacks squaring off in the playoffs. Brady is 11-5 against Manning overall, 2-2 in AFC title games.
Still, this individual showdown, which is almost sure to be their last, doesn’t have its customary edge.
We no longer have the raging debate over who is better.
I’m sure there are avid Manning supporters who cling to the notion that he’s better than Brady. But to most objective eyes, Brady has obliterated the argument in recent years.
The issue is no longer whether Brady is superior to Manning, but whether he’s the best ever.
While Brady continues to play at an elite level at 38, a year after winning his fourth Super Bowl, Manning has become a sympathetic – at times pathetic – figure.
Manning will be the people’s choice this weekend. They’re talking of him staging a “storybook finish” to his career. He has always been more popular than Brady, an easy man to despise. Brady still has the Deflategate scandal hanging over his head. There’s lingering resentment among fans who feel he wriggled out of his four-game suspension for allegedly conspiring to underinflate footballs in last year’s AFC title game.
Many fans see Brady and Bill Belichick as cheaters and would love to see Manning deny them a shot at a fifth Super Bowl title.
Meanwhile, Manning’s adoring fans and media were only too happy to allow the HGH allegations fade quickly to a non-issue.
It makes for a compelling story line, and it figures to be a tightly contested game. The Pats are three-point road favorites. Having them play in Denver to reach a record ninth Super Bowl should make for a better game and add to the drama.
Assuming Edelman is still healthy, this is a classic matchup between the best offense and best defense in the AFC. Wade Phillips, looking to coach in a Super Bowl for the first time in 26 years, is coordinator for a defense that leads the NFL in total defense, passing defense, yards per play and yards per rush.
Brady might be asked to carry the offense with his arm, a recurring story in recent playoff games. He won without a running game against the Ravens and Seahawks in last year’s postseason, throwing 50 passes in each game. Last Saturday against the Chiefs, he threw for 302 yards as the Pats mustered just 38 yards on the ground.
The Broncos have a fearsome pass rush, which is the best way to contain Brady. Teams that have slowed him in past playoff games were able to push the pocket and get him moving, which can make him a more skittish and inaccurate passer.
Denver needs to make it a low-scoring affair. Manning isn’t winning any shootouts at this point in his career. He’s still an elite decision-maker and accurate on the short throws, but his arm strength is nearly gone. It’s almost painful to see him strain to make the big throws, like a poor man’s Ryan Fitzpatrick.
When a No. 1 offense plays a No. 1 defense, I ask myself which team has the third-best unit in the game. In this case, it’s clearly the Patriots’ defense, which remains one of the most underrated in the league. Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia will have them ready to take advantage of Manning’s suspect arm.
The key will be whether the Broncos can run on the Pats. Here’s a telling stat: Denver has averaged 134.9 rushing yards in seven games without Manning this season. They averaged 88.3 yards in his nine starts. Opposing defenses tend to crowd the box, knowing Manning isn’t likely to beat them deep downfield.
This doesn’t figure to be an offensive showcase. But in a big game, I go with the better quarterback. It’s never been easier to pick Brady.
• Two years in a row, Aaron Rodgers has marched the Packers to a tying score in the final seconds of a playoff game, then been denied a chance to go back on the field when the opposition scored a winning touchdown on the first possession of overtime.
I’ll repeat what I said a year ago: It’s stupid. The league changed the overtime rules six years ago after a couple of playoff games ended on field goals on the opening drive of overtime, denying fabled quarterbacks (Brett Favre and Peyton Manning) the chance to play in the OT.
But they went only halfway, ruling that teams couldn’t win with a field goal at the start of OT, but allowing games to end on a first-possession TD. If the objective was to make sure both teams got the ball in the extra session, why middle it?
At the very least, the NFL should allow each team to possess the ball once in overtime. I’d like a 15-minute overtime in the playoffs, but that would probably be too much of an imposition on their precious TV schedule.
• Did you notice that there seemed to be an unusual number of left-footed punters in the playoffs? There were five lefty punters among the 12 playoff teams. Both punters in the Pats-Chiefs game (Ryan Allen and Dustin Colquitt) were left-footed.
The other three were Minnesota’s Jeff Locke, Cincinnati’s Kevin Huber and Washington’s Tress Way. I wish NFL teams would include the kicker’s favored foot in their rosters, like they do with throwing arms in baseball, but they don’t do it for some reason.
Bill Belichick has used a lefty punter his entire career in New England. He says it’s a coincidence, but The Hoodie must feel it’s a slight advantage. The ball spins differently off a left-footed punt, which can create a bigger challenge for returners who are used to the trajectory of a right-footed booter.
• Brady is 22-8 in his postseason career. Only four teams have more than 22 playoff wins since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970: The Pats, Steelers, Cowboys and Niners. Dallas and Pittsburgh share the overall record for playoff wins with 34.
• Packers wideout Jeff Janis had a total of four catches for 95 yards in his first two NFL regular seasons. Janis, a seventh-round pick from Saginaw Valley State, had two catches for 101 yards in one minute on Green Bay’s final drive Sunday.
• The Patriots are 16-0 in their last 16 games, including playoffs, with slot receiver Julian Edelman in the lineup. Edelman did not play in New England’s loss to the Bills in the 2014 regular-season finale.