There were no flies on either man last weekend. Each one played lights-out, as the sportsnuts like to say. They were, you know, unconscious. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the finest quarterbacks in professional football, both peaked one week before they suit up against each other in what might be the first game really worth watching this season. Colts at New England, Sunday night. Even non-fans can get into this one.
If Manning and Brady had been born a half-century earlier and had gone to Hollywood, they would have starred in the kind of Westerns where the hero is clean shaven, morally pure, and lightning fast with a pistol. Think Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea.
But they are quarterbacks in the NFL, and what Unitas and Starr were to an older generation, these two are to theirs. Masters at a job where athletic ability is, of course, a prerequisite, but just the beginning. Great quarterbacks must also be leaders and thinkers. There may not be any other role in sports that requires more character; none, certainly, in any team sport, where keeping cool when the heat is on counts for so much. Two minutes and down by six, whom do you want under center? The great quarterbacks — think Elway, Montana, and Marino — seem to have an internal emotional thermostat: The hotter things get…these dudes just seem to get cooler. Under pressure, they see things with more clarity, time slows, and they feel utterly in control.
The relentless hype-machine of television sports would have you think that every game — and especially every game in prime time — is a must-see showdown, but what you get, almost always, is just another game. These days, you are also likely to get a lot of trash talk, usually by wide receivers. Tiresome, childish stuff from players who, even on their best days, show only an occasional moment of greatness. But the ball touches the quarterback’s hands on every play, and when he is right, he makes it all come together. Noticeably, the people who catch passes from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are not loudmouths and exhibitionists. They understand.
Unlike those athletes who cannot preen enough, both Brady and Manning seem best at doing the humble thing. Brady could have modeled for the cover of the Boy Scout Handbook when was younger, and Manning inevitably puts you in mind of Tom Sawyer. They do the “it was a team effort and the defense played great and kept us in it and I’m just grateful…” post-game thing flawlessly. The better they play, the more they seem to think the credit belongs to others. It is convincing, even if it isn’t sincere. They are as good at this act as they are at picking up blitzes.
Head-to-head, Brady has dominated. Also, he has quarterbacked three Super Bowl winners; Manning has not made it to the Super Bowl, and already there is talk that he, like Dan Marino, may finish a remarkable career without ever winning the Big Game. It isn’t the first match-up of this kind in professional sports. The recent death of Red Auerbach, the legendary coach and owner of the Boston Celtics, brings to mind how basketball was once dominated by Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. They were both great players, and a case could be made that Chamberlain was the best ever. Head-to-head, however, Russell owned him. Chamberlain had the records, but the Celtics had the better players around Russell and, in Auerbach, the better coach. The Celtics were a winning machine, and Russell, who raised defensive basketball to an art, made it run. Chamberlain scored more points; the Celtics won the trophies.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are coached by Bill Belichick, who, besides being a master of the football mysteries, wears the worst looking clothes in public of any famous person this side of Madonna. His business attire includes a sweatshirt that looks like he used it to buff up his pickup after its semi-annual trip to the car wash.
The partnership between Brady and Belichick is that rare thing in sports — and indeed, in life — where there is perfect communication and understanding. So completely in synch are they that you imagine they finish each other’s sentences — that is, when they even need to talk at all. Belichick and the Patriots have the surest touch in football when it comes to personnel, and have assembled, consistently, the perfect roster around Brady.
Manning and the Colts are coached by Tony Dungee, one of the game’s nice men. All of sports grieved with him over the death, last season, of his son. The loss seemed to take the air out of what had been, until then, a flawless season, and the Colts lost in the playoffs to the Steelers, who went on to win the Super Bowl.
This season, the Colts are perfect again. The Patriots have lost once, to the Denver Broncos — a team with a defense that had been considered near impregnable until Manning cut them up for some 350 passing yards and 34 points last weekend. Manning, as usual, ran the game in his solitary, hectic fashion. He is the great improviser, changing plays and making adjustments on the fly, and taking the clock down to the last second before the ball comes into his hands and then goes out on a rope to a receiver who is wide open because of some weakness Manning divined in the defense.
While Tony Dungee made his bones as a defensive coach, the Colts are vulnerable on that side of the ball. Especially against the run. Like any NFL coach, Belichick makes a living by pitilessly exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses. So Brady may not throw as much as Manning will have to.
Matchups like this often disappoint, and it could become a game where Manning is forced into playing catch-up and never…well, catch up. But, then, it might be one of those rare ones, a Hector and Achilles between the hashes.
Sunday night. NBC. 8:15. For some of us, kickoff can’t come soon enough.
— Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.