You will hear all this week, ahead of the most important conference championship football game in the history of earth, about how Peyton Manning has a mountain of pressure on his shoulders.
It’s true. While Manning is largely regarded as the greatest REGULAR SEASON quarterback of all-time, in the postseason, when it matters most, he ranks below the likes of brother Eli, Frank Reich and Jeff Hostetler. He is, as Boomer Esiason once said, “this generation’s Dan Marino.” He is, statistically, the best but if there’s a big game to win, there are dozens of other guys with less talent but bigger grapefruits that you’d rather have leading your team.
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But in a career filled with opportunities like this, Manning has yet another shot to silence those who question his “clutch gene.” Tom Brady, meanwhile, is fighting a whole different legacy battle. While Brady’s mountain of pressure this Sunday is Wachusett compared to Manning’s Everest, it is extremely worrisome for Patriots fans to think about the national dialogue if No. 12 loses on Sunday.
With a loss, Brady’s head-to-head playoff record against Manning would be an even 2-2. Brady, who already has the strangest career arc of any great NFL QB considering it makes no sense for a man to have become “un-clutch” after starting incredibly “clutch,” would be 8-8 in the postseason since the Pats won their last Super Bowl with a loss on Sunday. And if Brady throws a few picks on Sunday AND the Patriots lose, we will hear ugly statistics, like how in 11 of those 16 playoff games since Pats won it all, Brady has posted a quarterback rating below 100.
Under the rules created by anonymous posters in online comments sections of Patriots game stories, Brady is at the head of the class in the ‘what have you done for me lately’ Hall of Fame.
Under these rules, Brady’s loss last season in the AFC Championship game to the Ravens wasn’t all that bad. The loss didn’t come to Manning. It wasn’t a one-and-done scenario. And it wasn’t in a Super Bowl. The absolute worst offense for a quarterback, of course, is making it to the big game and losing it – but we’ll cross that bridge in New Jersey two weeks from now, so long as the Patriots get there or so long as Chris Christie doesn’t close it.
This Sunday, Manning’s reputation as a playoff choke artist will be cemented if Brady and the Pats go into Denver and beat the Broncos. But Brady’s reputation as an all-time great will take a legit pounding if things go the other way.
Yes, Manning and Brady are without question the two best quarterbacks of their generation. But this rivalry has always been part of a much greater debate - the most important football debate in the history of earth.
Follow Metro Boston sports editor and columnist Matt Burke on Twitter @BurkeMetroBOS