This coming Sunday, Peyton Manning will have the biggest game of his life. Not of his career -- his life.
This is a man who came back after a neck injury that threatened to end his career. Luckily for him, it only suspended it for awhile. But after this season, he will be examined once again, and if there is any cause for concern, he may retire at season's end.
He has just come off one of the finest seasons in NFL history for a quarterback: 55 touchdown passes. Many sports writers who extoll praise on this achievement are, in the end, still unimpressed. Those who follow football do not care about the regular season. For most of us, it's all about the post-season, that rarified world open only to those teams who peak in the winter. And the best teams have the best quarterbacks.
That's true again this season, as the four teams still in the playoffs all have superb leaders: in the NFC conference championship, two young ones -- great, but still unproven; in the AFC championship, two star veterans, Manning and Tom Brady, both with Super Bowl victories to their credit.
But Brady not only has more Super Bowl victories (three, to Manning's one), he also has a sterling post-season record -- more playoff victories than any other quarterback in history. From his first playoff games in 2001, Brady was special, always finding a way to win. Last Sunday against the Colts, he did not throw one touchdown pass, but they could not have won without him.
Manning's post-season record is not nearly as good as his record in regular season games. Many have pointed out his inability to win in cold weather, and this is somewhat unfair; most quarterbacks whose team plays in a dome do not fare well in cold weather. (Ask New Orleans's Drew Brees, an A-list quarterback with a championship ring of his own, who has a subpar record outdoors.) Manning spent most of his career with the Indianapolis Colts, where the weather on game days in their domed stadium is never a factor.
But forget the elements. Manning is in Denver now, having led his team to victory last Sunday against San Diego. He's weary of all of the naysayers who continually hound him for his record in frigid conditions, and frankly, he's got a point. Enough already.
But his playoff record . . . . that's a problem. He's lost more games than he's won. Certainly, a team's defense has something to do with that. Dan Marino's legacy - similar to the one built by Manning -- is secure. But look at his playoff record (again, more losses than wins) and look at his playoff stats -- all of those interceptions -- and they may give you pause. I will always think of Marino as a great quarterback, even though he appeared in just one super bowl (a loss), but a good part of his record belies that status.
No one is talking much these days about Manning's brother, Eli, who, coming off one of the toughest seasons of his career, has two super bowl victories. He may never be as highly regarded as his older brother, which is unfair. When the heat is on, Eli can play.
And that's the biggest knock on brother Peyton. When it's crunch time, he simply is not the same quarterback. (For those who like to think of last Sunday's game as a big pressure game . . . please. Not even close. But to the Bronco's credit, they shut out the Chargers for the first three quarters.)
The New England Patriots come to Denver on Sunday, and the Broncos will have home field advantage, which can be factor in the playoffs, when fan noise reaches higher decibel levels than in the regular season. Just ask teams who've played road games in Seattle, where teams have committed the dreaded false start (a penalty which occurs when the visiting quarterback's signal-calling cannot be heard over the din) more than any other team . For Tom Brady and the Patriots, this won't be a problem. They are too well coached, and will be prepared for this.
Which brings us to the real reason why this game is so important for Manning.
If the Patriots lose Sunday, Brady's legacy will still be secure. Three championships is something only a few quarterbacks have achieved. Even if the Patriots go to the Super Bowl and lose, Brady will still be regarded among the finest quarterbacks of all time. The same cannot be said of Manning. For him, a Denver loss to New England would be devastating.
John Elway knows something about this. The super bowl losses early in his career would have marred his legacy, had it not been for his resurgence at the end of his career, with two super bowl wins. Later, as the Broncos's general manager, Elway brought Manning to Denver, believing that he had what it takes to give the Broncos their next championship.
Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played against each other eighty times. Navratilova was better on grass (and won more finals matches), and Evert was superior on clay -- otherwise, there head-to-head record was 37-43, with a slight edge to Navratilova. This will be the fourteenth time that Manning and Brady have played against each other, and Manning's teams have won only four times. But Manning does have one thing in his favor: there have been just three playoff bouts, and the last was a victory for Manning.
In commercials, and on Saturday Night Live, Manning is a gifted actor and comedian. His retirement looks very rosy, indeed. Of all the sports figures on television today, Manning is far and away the most natural talent. I look forward to the years ahead, when he will no doubt be a regular presence in the media. He's a classy guy, and a real gentleman.
But for now, Manning has some unfinished business. When these teams have met in past playoff games, the home team has won, which may be why the Broncos are favored to win. Still, I would not want to be the oddsmakers on this game. With two of the greatest quarterbacks in the game today going against each other, and two teams playing their best football of the year, it promises to be a great game. I might miss the Super Bowl, but I'm not going to miss this one.