Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning is as good as individual football rivalries get, and Sunday’s will be the quarterbacks’ 17th career meeting. But this one is bigger than the others, not because it is an AFC Championship Game with the Super Bowl at stake, but because it almost certainly will be the last time the two great passers face each other. The end.
We date ourselves with the rivalries we held special in our lives, and the only thing they all have in common is that they all were victims of time.
It was May 5, 1969, when Bill Russell faced Wilt Chamberlain for the final time, in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Chamberlain would play four more years, but Russell retired on top after winning the final championship of his dynasty.
On Oct. 1, 1975, “The Thrilla in Manila” ended Muhammad Ali’s rivalry with Joe Frazier. I remember my brother and I listening on a transistor radio. Ali-Frazier would include only three fights over four years (Ali winning the last two) but is embossed in boxing lore.
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Golf rivalries are more amorphous but Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus intersected for 23 years, with the 1977 British Open the last major that saw both finish in the Top 10 as Arnie’s competitive career ebbed and Jack’s still was in its stride.
It was Feb. 15, 1991 when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played for the final time in a rivalry that was nearing an end because of Bird’s retirement in ’92, but ended sooner and more unexpectedly because of Magic’s HIV announcement.
Later in ’91 Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe met for the final time in an official tennis match. It was in Basel, Switzerland, with McEnroe winning for the 20th time in 34 matches in a 15-year duel marked by volatile passion.
The greatest rivalries hardly ever end evenly. Somebody goes out on top. Somebody (besides time) always wins.
Now that looks like Brady.
He is 38 but still performing as if defiantly refusing to let go of his prime. He is 11-5 all-time vs. Manning, has had an excellent, MVP-caliber season, and his defending champion Patriots are three-point favorites Sunday in Denver.
“Nobody is above Tom,” as Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said this week. “Nobody.”
In contrast, Manning is 39 (turning 40 in March) and fading fast. He missed half the season injured and played awfully, the worst of his career, when on the field. Manning is why the Broncos are home underdogs. Suddenly he is seen as the liability.
It is so strange that the great Manning is the final-four quarterback being questioned and doubted — strange, but understandable.
Brady, Carson Palmer and Cam Newton together have thrown 112 touchdown passes and only 30 interceptions this season. Manning has nine TDs and 17 picks.
Brady saw this coming before he and Manning met previously in November 2014, even as Manning was completing a 39-TD, Pro Bowl season. Brady wrote it in an email to a friend that became public related to the Deflategate investigation.
“I’ve got another seven, eight years,” Brady wrote. “He has two. That’s the final chapter.”
Brady apologized, but he was close to right. That meeting in 2014 wasn’t the final chapter. But this probably is.
Win or lose, it is difficult to fathom Manning not retiring after this season, either of his own desire or because he knows Denver surely will be turning to young Brock Osweiler.
If the oddsmakers are right Sunday, the spotlight might find triumphant Tom Brady as he celebrates and heads to another Super Bowl.
But that won’t be as compelling, or stir emotions, as much as the sight of Peyton Manning almost surely trudging off an NFL field for the final time.
Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.