Peyton Manning faces Tom Brady on Sunday night, and that means A.) there will be a torrent of hype, and B.) it won't matter. Hype can't ruin this. Manning-Brady is irresistible. It may be the best pro sports rivalry of this era, even though Manning switched teams two years ago.
There really aren't that many consistently compelling professional sports rivalries, when you think about it. Yankees-Red Sox and Steelers-Ravens are great when the teams are great. Traditional rivalries like Lakers-Celtics and Red Wings-Maple Leafs were dormant for a long time. Sure, there is always a little extra juice when, say, the Dodgers play the Giants, but we see pro sports through the prism of winning and losing -- a pro team can't really make its season a success by winning one game, the way Auburn can against Alabama.
Manning-Brady has been watched, dissected, analyzed and debated more than any other rivalry of its time. Since 2001, one simple question could have sparked a heated discussion on any day, any time of the year, anywhere in America:
Most people will choose one or the other. But it's fun because the real answers are "either" or "I don't know."
Brady has won three Super Bowls and been to five; Manning has won one and been to two. You can argue -- and many have -- that this makes Brady more of a winner.
But Manning has thrown for 63,059 yards and 470 touchdowns, compared to 47,358 and 348 for Brady. You can argue -- and many have -- that this makes Manning a better quarterback, and Brady has simply played for better teams.
Their life stories are woven into the arguments. Brady, the sixth-round pick who had to fight young phenom Drew Henson for playing time at Michigan, is forever the gritty underdog who wins. Manning, who was the top high school and then college prospect in the country, was born to be a record-setting quarterback. He has been so good for so long, we tend to measure everything he does against what we think he should do.
Career completion percentage
This means that, in a typical 40-attempt game, Manning will complete 26 passes, and Brady will complete 25.
But really, the difference is even smaller than that. We must account for circumstances. Imagine these are pitchers, and we need to adjust their stats for their home ballpark. Manning played most of his career with a domed stadium as his home field, with annual road games in Jacksonville, Houston and Nashville. Brady plays in one of the tougher climates in the country, with annual road games in Buffalo and New York (and Miami). The difference in their road completion percentages is only 1.67 percent.
Manning threw to a potential Hall of Fame receiver, Marvin Harrison, for Harrison's entire career, and to another potential Hall of Famer, Reggie Wayne, for most of his career. What if Brady had thrown to those two? Or did Manning make them look even better than they were?
Career touchdown percentage
This may be a lot closer than you would have guessed. We associate Manning with the big numbers and Brady with the big victories. But this is also largely due to circumstance.
When Manning was drafted, he joined a Colts team that was awful the year before, and mostly awful in most of the years before that. He was the franchise. His 28 interceptions as a rookie didn't matter; the team stunk anyway. Initially, and really for a few years, Manning could make as many mistakes as he needed to make in order to become a great quarterback. In a sense, he had a lot of freedom to try to rack up touchdown passes, though obviously that wasn't their big goal.
Brady, meanwhile, joined a team that had been built around Drew Bledsoe for several years, and was supposed to compete for a playoff berth. (The Patriots won the Super Bowl in his second year.) The Patriots were never really built to win with big numbers from Brady until they traded for Randy Moss in 2007.
And speaking of which:
Touchdown percentages since 2007
One problem with these comparisons is that they only pit Brady and Manning against each other. It skews perspective. I mean, compared to most NBA players, a 6-foot-3 man is short. So in this case, Manning looks like he throws a lot of interceptions, and that fits with a certain perception of him.
For as great as he is, Manning has thrown some really famous interceptions. He hasn't thrown a lot of interceptions, especially in the last decade; we just remember the ones he threw. There was the pick-six by the Saints' Tracy Porter in the Super Bowl. There was the overtime interception in the upset loss to Baltimore this past January.
Then there were the four interceptions in the 2004 AFC Championship Game. That was the game that really crystallized the Manning-Brady argument. Brady supporters said Manning was a regular-season stats monster and dome quarterback; Manning fans said the Patriots mugged the Colts' receivers (the NFL would agree, and alter its rules on clutching receivers), and Brady's defense won the game for him.
To understand what these numbers mean, compare Brady to the other Manning brother. Most fans would agree Eli Manning is a terrific quarterback. He has some down moments, and he struggled early this year, but Eli won two Super Bowls and played great in both, and it would not be surprising at all if he ends up in the Hall of Fame.
Well, for Eli to match Brady's career interception percentage, Eli would have to throw 2,845 consecutive passes without an interception.
That is ridiculous. And so is this: Since the start of the 2007 season, Brady's interception percentage is 1.6. That is just an absurd number. It means that if Brady throws 30 passes per game, he will only throw one interception every other game.
Yards per attempt
Some context: Brett Favre, the old gunslinger, averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. Jay Cutler, who may have the best arm in the NFL, has never even averaged 7.7 yards per attempt for one season in his career. Matt Stafford has one of the strongest arms in the league, and one of the best deep threats in the history of the sport in Calvin Johnson. He has also never averaged 7.7 yards per attempt for a season.
Several active players have higher career yards per attempt than Manning: Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Cam Newton. They all came into the league in 2004 or later -- right after that 2004 Colts-Patriots AFC title game spurred the NFL to change its rules on impeding receivers.
This is the big one, the one that causes the most heated arguments. Even if Manning wins the Super Bowl this year, and the Patriots lose their first playoff game, Manning will probably never match Brady's playoff record. That playoff record is at the heart of the Brady legend.
Even when Brady was a senior at Michigan, you could tell: His teammates revered him. This wasn't the reverence you find when the starting quarterback avoids alcohol and tucks himself into bed with his Bible at 10 p.m. It wasn't the reverence you find when a guy with limited talent works so hard, he turns himself into a decent player.
This was different. Brady was a winner. That year, Michigan trailed Penn State by 10 points in the fourth quarter on the road. Brady, who had only recently earned the full-time quarterback job, had thrown three interceptions. He led Michigan to a 31-27 victory, and afterward he said:
"I knew we weren't going to lose this game."
This wasn't bravado. It wasn't the media-driven adulation that would be packaged and repackaged a thousand times. It was raw. Real. A little more than two years later, Brady would lead the Patriots to a Super Bowl win, and that would start the flood of compliments that has never stopped: He is a gamer, a winner, nothing fazes him, etc. But in 1999, there was no flood -- just teammates saying all those same things.
So I absolutely believe all of that stuff about Brady being a winner. But also ...
What the heck is THAT? As I wrote above, since 2007, Brady has a higher touchdown percentage than Manning. He has been a better quarterback than he was earlier in his career.
But since 2007, Brady has had precisely the kind of career we think of Peyton Manning having: Big numbers, lots of touchdowns, a ton of regular-season wins ... and playoff disappointment.
Some strange things have happened to the Patriots since their last Super Bowl win. There was the David Tyree catch, the Wes Welker drop/missed pass (depending on how you see it) and shocking home debacles against the Ravens (twice) and the Jets. In his last 15 playoff games, Brady has had a passer rating under 70 five times.
If Brady weren't such a winner, we might wonder why he never wins.
Did the pressure suddenly start to affect him? Doubtful. More likely, the Patriots just asked him to do more. He is better at his job than he was in 2001, but the job is a lot harder now.
You saw it again Monday night against the Panthers. The Patriots defense has been decimated by injuries. Stars Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork are out. Every cornerback on the roster seems to be hurt. Brady's receivers are almost all new and inexperienced. Yet Brady almost led them to victory on the road against one of the better teams in the league, with one of his best games ... only to lose in bizarre fashion yet again, on that no-it-wasn't-pass-interference call. That was the Patriots' third loss of the year, and could knock them out of a playoff bye, which would probably mean another year of watching somebody else lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy.