I usually deplore Superman-vs.-The Hulk juvenile sports arguments — mostly because the rhetoric often ends up denigrating an all-time great just to prove another is a smidge more special.
But I can’t stay away from Sunday’s AFC championship matchup: Old Man Tom Brady vs. Paleolithic Peyton Manning for the deed to Dodge. Something about old gunslingers makes us tune in, no? This game is being cast as pro football’s octagon: You know, the whole “Two QBs Enter, One Leaves,” as if the result not only will decide a Super Bowl berth but also will settle a decade-and-a-half-long debate over which quarterback has the greater legacy.
I’ve got news for the promoters: This fight is already over.
This is not about quarterback ratings or NFL MVP awards, of which Manning has a record four. The most crystallizing, defining measure of a quarterback is this: whether he can perform at his best at the most crucial moment of his given season.
Manning, 37, has superior career passing and touchdown numbers, but those will never trump these: Brady, 36, has won twice as many playoff games and two more Super Bowl trophies. And he has been to three more Super Bowls and four more conference championship games.
Even the best statistical argument for Manning in my mind — his 51 game-winning drives, which are tied with Dan Marino for the most in a career — falls short. Brady has led 42 such drives, but seven have come in January or February, three of them in the Super Bowl.
That’s not merely clutch for his era. That’s historically money.
Joe Montana has 33 game-winning drives but just three in January — including “The Catch” to Dwight Clark against Dallas in the 1981 season’s NFC championship (which Brady actually saw in person as a 4-year-old Bay Area kid) and the 1988 Super Bowl to beat the Bengals.
Of Marino’s 51 game-winning drives, four came in January. John Elway had six in January, and Brett Favre and Drew Brees had three each in January or February.
Of Manning’s 51 game-winning drives, just two have come in January: his signature win against the Patriots in the 2006 AFC championship that the Colts parlayed into a Super Bowl win and another against a 6-10 Titans team on the last day of the 2010 regular season.
Bottom line: Manning’s greatest hurdle Sunday really isn’t Brady; it’s overcoming his own failings in January, including the five times his team lost at home in the postseason. He has won the big one once. That’s it.
Manning always will be considered the better pure passer and mastermind behind the line. But Brady will go down as the greater competitor in meaningful games, the one who made better decisions when the season hung in the balance.
When all of Manning’s numbers and awards are calibrated, this is not an argument but merely a manipulation of statistics to support a weak thesis: that a quarterback with more yards and touchdowns is simply better.
Brady doesn’t have to beat Manning for the second time in three conference title games to be thought of as the more accomplished quarterback. If the Patriots knock off Denver, he is on his way to scaling Montana and Elway, the only two of ahead of him in my all-time, top-five pantheon right now.
Fact: Brady and Montana are the only two players in NFL history to win the NFL most valuable player and Super Bowl MVP awards multiple times. If Brady wins two more games this season, he will have as many Super Bowl titles as Montana.
Fact: Brady and Elway are the only two quarterbacks to lead their teams to five Super Bowls. If Brady takes the Patriots to a sixth this season, he stands alone.
Fact: No quarterback has more wins in playoff history than Brady’s 18 against seven losses. Montana went 16-7. Brady has 31 more regular season wins than Montana and a higher career passing rating.
Fact: Joe Montana’s greatest receiver during his Super Bowl years was Jerry Rice, only the greatest receiver ever. Peyton Manning’s was Marvin Harrison, soon to be a Hall of Famer. Tom Brady’s greatest receiver during his three Super Bowl victories was Troy Brown. (Randy Moss, bless his straight-cash-homie heart, was just passing through.)
Fact: Peyton Manning is 10-11 in the postseason.
For Manning’s professional sake, I hope the Broncos blow out the Patriots and the game is decided before the fourth quarter. I hope for all concerned legacies involved that the game is over long before the final few minutes and that Manning becomes one of the three oldest quarterbacks to win it all after Elway, who won at 38 years old, and Johnny Unitas, who won when he was 37.
Because if it is remotely close with three minutes left, I will take Brady over Manning 10 times out of 10 — in January, in February, wherever. (We’re talking Peyton Manning here; Eli has stolen two Lombardi Trophies from Brady.)
If Brady outplays and beats Manning’s team Sunday and wins his fourth Super Bowl in February, he not only further distances himself from the main contemporary of his era, but he also scales Elway and, finally, Montana as the greatest to play the position.
That’s hard to fathom for a lifelong Montana fan, born and partly reared in Northern California. But, hey, if anyone is going to do it, it might as well be the 4-year-old who saw “The Catch” at Candlestick.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.