By Julian Reed
Sustained excellence, cerebral control and exemplary dominance. What we witnessed in the AFC Championship Game two weeks ago was the culmination of a decade plus rivalry. It was something truly special.
Not the game itself as much as the moment and what it represents. The sad reality for football fans, the light at the end of the tunnel fast approaches two of the greatest Quarterbacks of All Time.
We’ve been treated to consistent excellence from both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The rivalry between them, one “The chosen one” and 1st pick of the NFL Draft and the other a 6th rounder.
The storyline and how things have shaped up couldn’t be scripted any better as Manning has an opportunity to further cement his place alongside greats like Montana, Elway, and his chief rival Tom Brady. Despite a devastating loss in Super Bowl XLVIII, Manning returns to (currently) the best team in the AFC with a chance for redemption. That narrative has been beaten to death the world over though, so for this piece, I want to again look backwards.
Brady and Manning will forever be linked for more reasons than one. In this discussion what fascinates me most, their combined legacy as the faces of this era of the NFL as well as the AFC. Including Manning’s game Sunday, the two will have combined to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl 8 times. Along with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, their teams (Indianapolis and Denver for Peyton) have been the dominant forces in the AFC every year since the early 2000’s. As the NFL has evolved these two have remained the constant. Their impact on the sport of football and the immense growth of the NFL in marketing and on television in the past decade cannot be measured.
The notion of a “Franchise Quarterback” has been around for some time. However, I believe Manning and Brady have provided clarity for what that truly quantifies in the modern era for the elite. Carrying teams, genius football brains, the ability to take over a game at any moment, etc. More than anything, they’ve pioneered what quarterback means today. A chance. The elite tier of NFL QB’s give NFL teams a chance any game, against any opponent, in any weather or situation. Almost invaluable, they operate in a vastly superior stratosphere than their contemporaries.
The modern NFL as well as the sport of football in general is designed for offense, built for high scores, passing yards and touchdowns. Despite that, there is a very large canyon of a gap between the upper echelon and the rest of the 32 NFL starting Quarterbacks. That cerebral pre-snap understanding of defenses, changing between hundreds of plays, block protections, is rare and highly coveted. This ability allows the five or six NFL Quarterbacks with graduate level command of the position to be able to carry teams (somewhat) single-handedly. With little to no help from other facets of their teams like the running game, special teams, and defense, they cover many flaws.
As these legends play out their remaining glimmer of NFL longevity, I imagine how different the AFC will look without them in a few years. Inevitably, there will be a vacuum left in their wake within Denver and New England. Indianapolis truly struck gold when they cut ties with Manning in order to acquire Andrew Luck. They passed that vacuum onto the Denver Broncos organization and now are near guaranteed stability as a franchise for the next 12-15 years. Looking at how different things will be without them is truly a testament to their dominance and impact. 8 Super Bowl apperances and 4 SB rings between them says it all.
Post Manning/Brady, the AFC will be up for grabs like it hasn’t been for over a decade. Leaving teams like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis, San Diego and Kansas City an even greater opportunity to win a Super Bowl with their veteran QB’s, a few of whom already have rings. The chief difference between the AFC and NFC, consistency. Over the past decade, many different teams have emerged to represent the NFC as its elite teams. The Panthers, Saints, Falcons, Seahawks, 49ers, Giants, Packers, Eagles, Cardinals, Rams, etc. Each has had at least one run (or multiple) where they reached a Conference Championship and or a Super Bowl. The AFC is the total opposite of that reality.
Because of the greatness of Brady/Manning and the Pittsburgh/Baltimore organizations, they have remained consistently the face of the AFC for over 10 years. The last 8 Super Bowl representatives from the AFC have all been a Manning/Brady led team or the Ravens/Steelers. The AFC has been all about consistency. Because of that consistency, those teams have picked at the bottom half of NFL drafts. Whereas NFC teams have trended up and down often, having years where they totally bottom out. That’s allowed teams like the 49ers to draft the best players at the top of drafts and soon after be elite again. Reason they today have Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis under contract. It is why the Atlanta Falcons (Who formerly particpated in an NFC Championship a year ago) have a top 10 pick (#6) in the 2014 NFL Draft.
The new innovation flooding into the formerly homogenized NFL game is largely happening in the NFC. The AFC on the other hand, has something of an identity crisis going. Teams like the Steelers and Ravens who formerly were know for great defenses and running games are rebuilding, middling teams like the Dolphins, Bills, Raiders still have a fair amount of organizational instability that hampers their clubs. The Texans who were a playoff team a season ago have the 1st pick in the NFL draft (Rewarded to the team with the worst record). Despite a talented roster, they now need a Quarterback. Thus, the short term viability of that franchise is in question for the time being. What should one take away from all of this? The value of a true franchise QB.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. When they suit up for a team, that team has a chance to win every week. That team has a legitimate chance to win a Super Bowl. Sustained excellence, and the epitome of value. Legacy is subjective and like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.
People talk about Joe Montana as deity like, yet he played in an era before salary caps with loaded rosters. Despite that and his 4 Super Bowl rings, 0-3 on the road in the playoffs. Is he the greatest of all time? Maybe. I believe when their careers are finished, both Brady and Manning will have a valid claim in any such debate. Their domination of an era, impact on the NFL, and the indelible mark they’ve left on the position. Those facts occupy a larger quantity of their legacies than any Super Bowl loss in my opinion.
As football fans, we would all do well to cherish their final snaps under center these next two or three years. The power structure and fidelity of the AFC in the NFL will look vastly different post Manning and Brady. It’s been a hell of a journey.
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