A Last Fight Worthy Of The Stakes

If this is the last time Peyton Manning and Tom Brady square off, we got our money’s worth. The AFC Championship Game was just a great football game to watch and the sheer effort both quarterbacks put on the line was something to behold. Some thoughts on Denver’s 20-18 win over New England…

*Before the game, the familiar refrain of Brady being a “crybaby” surfaced, courtesy of Denver’s defensive end Derek Wolfe. The players are entitled to their smack talk and its all gamesmanship. But for fans who aren’t enmeshed in Brady-hate, the way he put himself on the line, taking a ferocious beating and continuing to keep coming back for more…well, that will forever rebuke this tired refrain.

*Not to be outdone, Peyton put himself on the line too, including one memorable scramble for a first down. It was memorable, because you hardly ever see it happen—certainly not at age 39, four years removed from multiple neck surgeries and still with the lingering foot injury.

*Neither Brady and Peyton had a stellar stat line for the game—in fact, by the standards of today, the numbers for both men were relatively putrid (Brady—27/56, 310 yards, 2 interceptions) (Peyton—17/32, 176 yards, 2 TDs). Those numbers were a reflection of the quality of the defenses and not of the will both proud quarterbacks put on the line and their ability to make throws in the clutch.

Peyton’s second-quarter touchdown pass to Owen Daniels on the corner of the end zone was a vintage work of art. And Brady’s fourth-down bomb to Rob Gronkowski, perfectly thrown between double coverage had me literally shouting at my TV set in disbelief in an otherwise empty room.

Lest we turn this into a game that was all about the quarterbacks, how about that defense? I’ve felt since around October that Denver would win the AFC title because of their way the defense can just pin your ears back and still maintain lockdown coverage.

They put on a beating on Brady that I haven’t seen in a game of this magnitude since the Bountygate-driven Saints knocked Brett Favre from pillar to post in 2009. And on the New England side, Jamie Collins was questionable to even play, but when he got on the field delivered some ferocious hits in helping the Patriots contain the Bronco running game.

It seemed like Denver was in control the whole game, but as we went into the fourth quarter, I flashed back to another Patriot playoff game, this one in 2006 at San Diego. Brady hadn’t played well in that game, throwing three interceptions. But he was within eight points at 21-13 on that afternoon.

Eventually he pulled a rabbit out of his hat with a long throw to Revis Caldwell and won it. When New England kept hanging around, and then Brady made the impossible 4th-and-10 throw to Gronkowski, I wondered if this history was going to repeat itself. In 2006, Brady ended the career of San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer. Was he about to do the same to Peyton?

In this case, Denver made the final play they needed to and preserved the win. The only unfortunate thing is that a missed extra point by the otherwise magnificent Stephen Gotkowski is what decided the game–of course if New England only trails 20-13 when they score the final touchdown, they kick another extra point and we go to overtime—which is where it seems like this game should have been settled.

But that was the only downside of a game that I enjoyed watching as much as any football game in a long time. There was great defense, there were two quarterbacks with nothing more to prove laying themselves out for a shot at another ring. For a few fleeting hours, it was what sports was meant to be.