So, Tom Brady is still Tom Brady.
He was once the GOAT. He may still be, but it’s funny how fast-forwarding to the end sort of ruins the movie, and Brady (of course) couldn’t. It would have been magical if he had won those three Super Bowls in his first four years, and then maybe his reputation could have been saved by some tragic, career-ending injury. All the talk would have been, ‘Imagine what we could have become.’ There would have been no debate of Brady v. Manning… it wouldn’t have mattered, because Peyton would have been fighting a ghost. Brady would have gone down like Gale Sayers or (that other semi-famous New England athlete) Bobby Orr, and the traditionalists would have stammered and slobbered while they explained to their kids or whoever’d gather ’round, ‘Oh, you have no idea how great he was.’ If he cut it short after four seasons, Brady wouldn’t have been rich. But folk heroes never are. Peyton would have been the flashy one, with the commercials and the SNL appearances and the pretty average postseason record.
But of course, since that last championship in 2004, Brady has lost two Super Bowls. Sure, Manning has lost the same amount, but he also won one – and that lack of a Super Bowl was, to be sure, the only knock Manning’s legacy had. Until 2007.
And it’s funny, you skip a few scenes and we only remember slices and frames.
Brady’s Super Bowls really happened, but they were so long ago. They were before the perfect season ended imperfectly. They were before he was upset a second time by Peyton’s younger brother Eli, and in Indy of all places. They were before Tommy seemingly fell of a cliff this year and last, struggling toward age 37 while the observers and the short-sighted asked ridiculous questions and posed insane scenarios, like that Belichick would actually sit him, or whether Brady even had it anymore. (Whatever it is. Nobody knows, by the way. We just talk about it after we saw it.)
And then there was yesterday. Brady torched Denver’s defence for 333 yards and four touchdowns, sucked back a little by one interception. The Pats romped over the Broncos, 43-21, and Brady’s boys are 7-2 on the season. Out of nowhere.
Whatever we were saying a few weeks ago still feels like it was aired yesterday, but it sounds exponentially more ridiculous for that reason.
And this is even crazier… now Manning’s feeling the heat, and Brady’s the biding, pining, quietly hunting one.
“Well, I don’t usually stink, but I stunk today,” said Manning, who was tarred and feathered in Foxboro yesterday with Boston’s Brady’s Better chants. “I don’t make any excuses.”
Except, well, Manning didn’t really stink yesterday. Not on the box score, at least.
He had two interceptions, with two touchdowns, but he also threw for 438 yards. Perhaps he did it accidentally. Those yards came on 57 passes, too. (Although Brady’s came on 53 attempts, so… same-same.)
Manning wasn’t great. The Broncos weren’t great, and they were especially un-great at the wrong times. But each of these men are elite, and they continue to be. They do it against the grain of never-ending neck surgeries and humiliating defeats. Manning was slapped silly by Seattle in last year’s Super Bowl, of course, but I’d argue his loss in that 2010 championship to New Orleans was a little more embarrassing, certainly more humbling. Because Drew Brees shot the lights out in that Super Bowl, and Manning was a pedestrian on the sidewalk, watching someone else’s parade while he was supposed to be stuffing it with detours, faulty brakes, and his own awesomeness. And Brady, of course, has dropped his last two Bowls, both to the same guy, Eli. And Eli looks like a Peanuts character. I can’t imagine anything worse for Giselle’s husband than that, especially when he was mouthing off before the first time.
So, okay, you know what? The fact is, both Brady and Manning have had their highs. And they’ve have their lows. And Brady has been victim to the other’s trajectory – he’s been a Hall of Famer since he was a sophomore, and the only thing he could do was never lose a playoff game or watch his resume recede. Manning started with thumps and bumps, like when his Colts lost to Chad Pennington’s New York Jets 41-0 in the divisional round in 2002. And of course, Manning just could never beat Brady, even after seasons where he threw ahead of Dan Marino and won unanimous MVPs. You just always knew, the road would run through New England, and that plucky Brady and his all-knowing coach would find a way to beat Manning, and beat him good.
But of course, Manning would beat Brady. And he’d win a Super Bowl. And even though one isn’t greater than three, Manning’s lone trophy seems like Peyton’s trump card. Because, for so long, it’s all he didn’t have. And when he got it, somehow it seemed like a quality over quantity thing.
Brady now needs a fourth to best Manning’s uno. It’s not math, but sports isn’t about math – or else, Manning’s 400-plus yards would stand out over Brady’s 333. Sports is about winning, and each win is amplified by whatever television’s talking heads are saying about it.
(How else can you explain the actual debate between who was greater, Steve Nash or Allen Iverson? That question shouldn’t exist. It’s Nash in a walk-off, and it’s not even close. Iverson’s greatness was on the highlight reel and anecdotal. (All of Stephen A. Smith’s evidence is anecdotal, by the way.) Nash’s greatness was real and in the face of a whack-a-mole assembly of obstacles.)
Brady’s narrative is old, and Manning’s is fresh. He’s still winning MVPs. He’s still clicking up and up, ascending on the roller coaster.
That is, until yesterday. And I can hardly wait for tomorrow.