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Who is the best quarterback of the 21st century? Ask around the Northeast, it’s Tom Brady. Ask around the Mid-West, it’s Peyton Manning. But ask anywhere else and there probably won’t be a consensus. From 2001-2004, the differences between the two quarterbacks raised questions about what is most important in determining a player’s legacy. Brady had the trophies: three of them, and two Super Bowl MVPs to boot. But Manning had the statistics: more completions for more total yardage, more touchdowns, better accuracy and a higher quarterback rating, leading to two regular-season MVP awards.
But Manning’s claim to greatness was always hindered by his apparent tendency to shrink in the face of big games, never getting over the hurdles (often the Patriots themselves) necessary to win a Super Bowl. Brady, meanwhile, seemed able to raise his play to even higher levels in the playoffs, rising to every challenge. And his fiery attitude motivated his teammates to play some of the best football the NFL has ever seen. Brady was “clutch,” and Manning was not.
Consider this: from 2001-2004, Brady’s regular season average quarterback rating was 61.75. But in his nine playoff games during those four years (in which he went 3-0), his rating jumps all the way to 91.5. And in his three Super Bowls during that stretch, it climbs even higher, all the way to 98.97. Brady played at two levels, regular season and postseason, but Manning could only ever play at one. And he didn’t seem to care, whereas Brady did. But those contrasts now pale in the face of how close the two players have recently become to each other, both as friends (which they are) and as athletes.
Since 2005, Brady and Manning have come to resemble each other more and more. Manning has won a Super Bowl and been named its MVP, and has appeared in a second. Brady has won a regular season MVP and is the odds-on favorite to win a second. And their playoff resumes are startlingly similar. Let’s compare both teams’ postseason fortunes since the 2004 season:
• 2004: Patriots beat Colts in AFC divisional round; Patriots win Super Bowl
• 2005: Patriots and Colts both lose in AFC divisional round
• 2006: Colts Beat Patriots in AFC conference championship; Colts win Super Bowl
• 2007: Colts lose in AFC divisional round; Patriots lose Super Bowl
• 2008: Patriots don’t make playoffs; Colts lose wild card game
• 2009: Patriots lose in wild card game; Colts lose Super Bowl
• 2010: Colts lose wild card game; Patriots lose in AFC divisional round
Almost the same story for both teams, isn’t it? The Patriots and Colts are 1-1 in head-to-head postseason games since 2004. Each has one Super Bowl victory and one Super Bowl loss. The Patriots have lost three AFC divisional games and the Colts have only lost two, but the Colts have also lost one more wild card game than the Patriots. And the Patriots missed the playoffs in a season where they went 11-5 without Brady, just one win less than the Colts that season.
Even as the Patriots’ and Colts’ playoff records have become photocopies of each other, so have Brady and Manning come to resemble each other. Manning still has a tremendous edge in completions, total yardage and touchdowns, but that’s because the Colts have always been the team that utilizes the deep pass more. No matter what their similarities may be, Manning will likely always have the somewhat stronger arm. But even as Manning has racked up the yards, his accuracy and quarterback rating have dwindled. Manning is still slightly more accurate (64.9 vs. 63.6 completion percentage), but Brady is now the higher-rated career quarterback (95.2 vs. 94.9 quarterback rating). Manning broke the record for most touchdowns in a single season in 2004, then Brady broke it right back in 2007. Manning will likely break most of the all-time records for an individual quarterback, but Brady’s teams own several records of their own (including most points and most passing yards in a single season).
While Patriots fans may love the concept of Brady raising his regular-season game to the level Manning has consistently achieved, they should be petrified at the thought of Brady adopting Manning’s inability to win big. And if the playoffs are any indication, that’s a fear that might become reality. Brady has never matched the emotional energy with which he played his first nine playoff games. Since then, he’s gone just 5-5, a winning percentage that’s the exact same as Manning’s career postseason record (9-9). But worse than the record is the way he’s carried himself, especially in his last three playoff games (0-3, including Super Bowl XLII and two straight home losses). It’s not that he treats the playoffs the same as regular games, it’s that he treats them as another day on the job. And just as many of us pursue jobs with a level of emotional detachment, so does Brady. So we have to ask: no matter what he says to the contrary, does Brady actually still care?
Brady may say that he still hungers for another championship, that he has to win or nothing else is meaningful in his life. But the reality is, the rest of his life is pretty awesome. He has millions of dollars. His wife is a supermodel. He has a son. And he’s already achieved everything a professional athlete could dream of. Championships? Check. Individual records? Check, including one of the most hallowed records in all of professional sports. MVPs? Check. Superstardom? Check. A spot in the Hall of Fame? Undoubtedly (how many quarterbacks who won three Super Bowls haven’t made it to the Hall of Fame?). A retired jersey? Most likely (who else could ever wear #12? And who would want to?).
Is it possible that the same fire burns in Brady that it did 10 years ago? That he really still feels the need to prove himself to the world? That he still carries the shame of being drafted 199th overall? Sure, it’s possible. But isn’t it more likely that Brady has settled into a groove in his life, just as many do when they reach their 30s? Brady isn’t a young man anymore. Any doubts he may have once had about his potential to realize his dreams of playing professional football haven’t plagued him in years. The quagmire that 20-somethings often find themselves in has been replaced by the confidence born of knowing your purpose in life.
Brady was meant to play football, and he will continue to do so until he no longer wants to. But does he still need to win? Maybe not.