History in the making: Brady vs. Manning

History in the making: Brady vs. Manning
January 13, 2014, 11:30 am
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It was a wild(ish) divisional playoff weekend in the NFL, but for the sake of this column, only two things matter.
1. The Patriots beat the Colts on Saturday.
In the process, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick clinched their eighth AFC Championship appearance in the last 13 years, and for some perspective on how absurd that achievement is, consider the following:
By this time next week, the Patriots will have played more conference championship games in the last 13 years than all but three AFC teams have in 44 years. To put it another way: Since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, only the Steelers (15), Raiders (11) and Broncos (now 9) have reached the AFC championship as many times, total, as the Pats have since 2001.
To put it another way: Wow.
Sometimes it’s easy to take all this for granted — the winning, the Brady, the Belichick, the entire modern day New England Patriots experience. In many respects, it’s unavoidable. It’s human nature. Especially with the window gradually closing and urgency setting in.
But at times like this, the big picture is impossible to ignore. It’s real and it’s spectacular. And on Saturday, the Pats did it again. They’re heading back to the AFC Championship.
They’re the first team since the early-‘90s Bills to make it three consecutive years. (A stat that would be a lot more exciting if not for the early-‘90s Bills.)
2. The Broncos beat the Chargers on Sunday
And as a result, here we go.
What: The AFC Championship
When: Next Sunday
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, CO, USA, Earth
Time: 3 pm
Who: Patriots at Broncos
Plus: Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning
Wow, Really?: Yes.
It’s the game the football world has been waiting for. Over the course of this incredibly wacky season, it’s the only AFC Championship that ever truly made sense. It’s future NFL history, and here’s the best part:
What happens next is a total mystery.
Sure, the Broncos are five-point favorites. With home field advantage and their record-setting offense, that’s probably fair. But in reality, five points means nothing. That’s just a place to get the ball rolling. There are obviously so many ways in which the Patriots can win. There are so ways in which the Broncos can win. And unfortunately, we have an entire week to drag out that conversation. But here’s a spoiler: No one really knows.
For all the analysis and Belistrating that lies ahead, once that opening touchback is in the air, all bets are off. And man, so much is on the line.
For one, a Super Bowl berth. Both teams have their own story to tell about what that would mean, and how desperately they want to get there. In both cases, the face of that story is the quarterback.
It’s impossible to overstate just how significant this game is to the careers and legacies of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — both as individuals and as equal parts of the greatest QB rivalry in NFL history.
Of course, over the years, so much has already been said and written about the Brady/Manning rivalry. And for good reason. We’ve been fortunate to have so many opportunities to watch them compete. But it’s been seven years since they’ve met in the postseason. The last time Brady took the field against Manning with everything on the line, Brady had only been dating Gisele a month. He’d never played a snap alongside Wes Welker or Randy Moss. That was a lifetime ago. No, actually two lifetimes ago.
It was also one of only two times that Brady and Manning have played against each other in the AFC Championship. To this point, they’ve split the pair. As a result, at the end of Sunday’s game, one will be 2-1. One will be 1-2. And if Brady comes out on top, you know how the story goes. It’s the same one we’ve been hearing and believing for the last decade.
If Peyton wins? Lord, have mercy.
In general, I think Patriots fans have become somewhat numb to big losses in recent years. Super Bowl 42 was such an unbelievable shock to the system, and six years later New England is still looking for closure. It’s been a struggle. And getting so close so many times has taken its toll. In a weird way, it’s made losing easier. Now, when something bad happens, that dark hole already exists, and Patriots fans can just crawl inside and escape the world.
But losing the AFC Championship to Peyton Manning and the Broncos would break down that emotional force field. It would hurt.
Then again, with that risk comes potential for the ultimate reward, the mere thought of how it will feel, and what it will mean, if Brady and Belichick walk into Denver, after all they’ve been through this season, and come home as AFC Champs.
Either way, the anticipation is almost unbearable.
You know, year after year, and increasingly as the years go by, the NFL is an organization powered by hype. From the combine to the draft to training camp to the preseason to Week 1 and each week after that, everything in and around this league is the biggest and the best. Everything is drama. Everything is history. By Week 8, there have already been 10 “Most Important Games of the Year” and a handful of “unforgettable moments.”  
I can’t tell you the exact number because I’ve already forgotten most of them. We always do. Over the course of the long NFL season, so much of what’s considered historic and significant turns out to be nothing. History is revised and rewritten every Sunday.
And it will be again this week. Only this time, history will stick. From a Patriots standpoint, that’s both exciting and horrifying, but it’s also so much better than the alternative.
Although, for the eighth time in the last 13 years, New England will have to take the rest of the AFC’s word for it.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine