“Brady didn’t play a snap his freshman year in high school even though his team was 0-8 and didn’t score an offensive touchdown. He had to send out tapes to get colleges interested. Manning was overwhelmed by scholarship offers. They have taken different paths but wound up in the same place as two of the all-time greats.”
— Gary Myers, author of Brady vs. Manning
In sports, very few things change. Stats don’t move. They may lie or deceive, but once a season or a career is over, they’re set in stone. The same is true for championships. Once you win one, it’s yours, regardless of what you do the rest of your career.
The only thing that is truly malleable is the narrative.
Depending upon factors like hindsight, the narrative surrounding a player or team can change dramatically while the numbers remain the same. And that is the most fascinating thing to me when it comes to the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry.
They are the two best quarterbacks – and therefore the two most important players – of the past twenty years. They’ve been measured against one another and have also measured themselves that way. They are inexorably linked, like Bird and Magic or Stallone and Creed, and the fate of one automatically affects the perception of the other.
Will Leitch did an interesting year-by-year breakdown of which QB “won” that season between the two, but I’d rather take the long range view.
April 16, 2000
Manning is the heir to the throne; Brady who?
In the beginning, there was no rivalry.
Manning, the top overall pick two years earlier, is the next in the line of all-time great QBs while very few people are even thinking about Brady, who began his college career as seventh on the depth chart and wasn’t selected until the 199th selection.
January 16, 2005
Brady is clutch; Manning is an overrated choker
After Manning’s Colts, the highest scoring team in the league, are held to three points in a snowstorm, in Foxboro, Manning is seen as the greatest player in the regular season, with dizzying statistics and a great record every year, but unable to will his team to a big win. People suddenly remember that Peyton has never won a championship in college or the pros while Brady is less than a month from his third Super Bowl ring in four years. At this point, Brady is 6 – 0 against Manning, including 2 – 0 in the playoffs and pundits howl that Manning will never win a big game.
January 21, 2007
Well, it’s about time
After finally beating the Patriots in the regular season in both 2005 and 2006, New England went to Indianapolis for the AFC Championship and were leading 21 – 3 in the first half. The narrative was almost cemented as Manning just can’t beat Brady when it matters…
…until he did. The Colts scored 32 points in the second half and won, en route to Manning’s first Super Bowl win.
February 2, 2008
Holy shit, Brady is the QB of the greatest team ever
The day before Super Bowl XLII, it seemed guaranteed that Brady, after an undefeated and record-shattering season, would get his fourth ring. If Peyton has trouble beating him, what chance does Eli have? Brady never loses big games.
February 3, 2008
How great can Peyton be if Eli has the same number of rings?
February 6, 2010
Peyton is better than Brady
The day before Super Bowl XLIV. The Colts were going to play the Saints after beating the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs, who had forced Brady into three first quarter turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble).
February 7, 2010
Actually, Peyton’s still a choker
The Saints shock everyone.
February 4, 2012
Brady may be the best QB ever
With Peyton undergoing neck surgeries (and probably popping HGH), the Super Bowl once again featured the Patriots and the Giants with Brady looking to tie the record of QBs with four rings with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. No way Eli could beat Brady twice, right?
February 5, 2012
Is it possible that Eli is better than both Peyton and Brady?
January 12, 2013
Manning is still a choker
After an incredible first season in Denver, Manning loses a classic (and wacky) game to Baltimore at home and everyone swears he still can’t win a big game (even though he already has a ring). The Ravens would go on to beat Brady in Foxboro, but no one calls him a choker. Weird.
January 19, 2014
Maybe Manning isn’t a choke artist
Manning’s Broncos beat Brady’s Pats as Peyton throws for 400 yards and two touchdowns en route to his third Super Bowl.
February 2, 2014
Manning gets back to the Super Bowl and faces one of the best defenses of the modern era. It didn’t go well.
February 1, 2015
Brady is (probably) the greatest QB ever
Malcolm Butler’s interception sealed it, but Brady gave the Patriots the lead on the previous possession, giving him his coveted fourth ring while Manning looked to be washed up.
January 24, 2016
Brady’s better and this year he’ll prove he’s the best ever
Brady beating Peyton and then winning a record fifth Super Bowl would guarantee his status as the G.O.A.T.
January 25, 2016
Well, let’s just say they’re both great (but Peyton needs another ring)
And here we are.
The narrative shifts once again.
Everyone was ready to declare Brady the career winner via TKO with a win yesterday, but Peyton outplayed him, something that has happened much more often recently. Yes, Brady is 11 – 6 all-time against Manning, but he’s only 5 – 6 in their last 11 meetings. Moreover, he’s a total of 2 – 3 in the playoffs against him and 1 – 3 in AFC Championships.
Who’s the choker now?
Can you be a choker if you’re the underdog? Manning’s Broncos once again face a tough opponent in the Super Bowl and Carolina has been installed as the clear favorite.
Brady is 4 – 2 in Super Bowls. Montana was 4 – 0. John Elway was 2 – 3. Jim Kelly was 0 – 4.
Will it matter if Peyton is 1 – 3 or 2 – 2?
That’s a problem, because no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, football games are about much more than just quarterback play. Luck, timing, and circumstance all play a role. Brady’s career started with a great defense, a world-class kicker, and one of the greatest coaches ever. The Patriots have won their four Super Bowls by a combined fifteen points and lost two by a combined seven points, so Brady could conceivably be anywhere from 0 – 6 to 6 – 0. Do the Patriots really have a dynasty if they’ve only won one championship in 11 years?
Both have had their bad playoff performances, but Manning’s are more magnified. It’s easy to say that Brady has been the recipient of good luck – the Tuck Rule, the Malcolm Butler interception – while Peyton has had bad luck – the Roethlisberger tackle, the Ravens quasi-Hail Mary, the only cold weather Super Bowl – but both have experienced a fair share of both good and bad fortune.
Some may ask what if Brady had Denver’s team? But what if Manning had had Belichick his entire career? Put Peyton on the Patriots from 2001 – 2008 and what happens? Put Brady on the Broncos from 2012 – 2016 and what happens?
The narrative would be very different, that’s for sure.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.