Ah, the Top Quarterback Rivalries of Football History list, a hoary staple of Internet sports journalishness. It's a chance to spark a little water cooler debate, rekindle memories of adjusting the rabbit ears to watch afternoon Super Bowls and get you to click our site one to 21 times in your rush of excitement to find out who could possibly rank first.
Well, here's the list:
1. Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning.
2. Bart Starr versus Johnny Unitas.
3. Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning.
4. Everybody else.
You may be wondering how Brady and Manning rank first and third on the list. More on that in a bit.
Lacking in suspense, isn't it? Brady and Manning have killed this sports narrative meme, which frankly needed to be put out of its misery. The tide officially turned in November, when Brady-Manning XIV suddenly sprouted its own set of Roman numerals, then actually occurred, then turned out to be a game for the ages, even though it did little more than set the stage for Brady Manning XV.
In the days before XIV, the quarterback rivalry meme shifted from "is Brady-Manning the greatest quarterback rivalry of all time?" to "does anyone seriously question whether Brady-Manning is the best quarterback rivalry of all time?" The change is not a mere matter of semantics, but of collective mindset. Not long ago, Sports Illustrated could rank the quarterback rivalries of pro football history and list Brady-Manning second behind Bradshaw and Staubach. By November, it appeared no one in our churning, gargantuan football opinionverse had the heart or stomach to publish even a perfunctory rivalry countdown list. There are a few half-hearted, almost apologetic lists out there with November freshness, but most writers who volunteered (or got dragooned) into "perspective on the epic rivalry" duty opted for different spins, like "is this the last great rivalry?" (Boston Herald) or "this is why the 'best rivalry' case is closed" (New York Daily News) or "this rivalry is so great that we can no longer talk about how much better it is than all other rivalries" (the article you are currently reading).
There is no meat on any bone which compares Brady and Manning to Starr and Unitas, Staubach and Bradshaw, Bradshaw and Ken Stabler or John Elway and Dan Marino. The best we can do is advance Brady and Manning to Johnson-Bird, Palmer-Nicklaus territory, as Sports on Earth colleague Chuck Culpepper has done, or go all the historic way up to Athens-Sparta, York-Lancaster, Coke-Pepsi and Isaac Newton-Gottfried Leibniz, an idea I am holding in reserve for Brady Manning XVI.
So why does Brady-Manning rank both first and third on the list above? Their rivalry is so much more significant than any other quarterback rivalry that if you break it along regular season and postseason lines, you end up with two of the best rivalries in the NFL.
Let's do it. Let's create two separate rivalries: Brady-Manning Regular Season and Brady-Manning Postseason. It's fun. It's enlightening. It's different. IT'S A FRESH ANGLE YES! YES! I FOUND ONE! I FOUND ONE! (squawking like a seagull circling a boardwalk full of dropped funnel cake).
Brady and Manning have met 11 times in the regular season. Starr and Unitas met 12 times in the regular season. But the differences in game quality and impact are huge. The Colts were a .500-caliber also-ran for much of the Starr-Unitas era, their first great championship run over and their second one yet to begin. Think of them as the current Steelers, a former perennial champion trying to rebuild around their quarterback. When the Packers and Colts met twice per year in the early 1960s, it was usually not a meeting of two top contenders, but of a contender with an also-ran. The most notable exception comes with a bouquet of asterisks.
An example: One Starr-Unitas game in 1962 pitted the 9-0 Packers against the 5-4 Colts in midseason, in an era with no wild cards to make a 5-4 team interesting. Starr threw for 54 yards, but the great Lombardi machine engineered a 17-13 game. There were better games than that, of course, but as soon as you dig into the Brady-Manning stack you find a series of thrillers like November's game, 35-34 Colts in 2009, 31-28 Patriots in 2010 and 38-34 Patriots in 2003, two quarterbacks and teams playing tug-of-war for the Lamar Hunt trophy while the Steelers, Ravens and other contenders cross their fingers that the rope snaps. The Starr-Unitas stack rapidly descends into long-ago Septembers in which Vince Lombardi demonstrated why so much stuff is named after him.
So Regular Season Brady-Manning tops Regular Season Starr-Unitas. Postseason Starr-Unitas is not a thing. When the Colts and Packers met in the 1965 postseason, Unitas was injured, and Starr threw just one pass before getting hurt and giving way to Zeke Bratkowski. Running back Tom Matte replaced Unitas as the starting quarterback. So Starr-Unitas only stands up to Brady-Manning if you replace the three Patriots-Colts playoff matchups of the last decade with a Matt Cassel versus Joseph Addai quarterback duel.
With Regular Season Brady-Manning ranking first, we turn to Postseason Brady-Manning. It is tempting to rank Bradshaw-Staubach first in this category, but only if you a) think Western Civilization reached its apex in 1977, or b) watched 15 NFL Films documentaries each about two Super Bowls and thought you actually watched 30 games. If a pair of Super Bowls defined a rivalry, we would be talking about a different Manning brother.
Brady and Manning are meeting for the fourth time in the postseason. Brett Favre and Steve Young also met four times. Terry Bradshaw and Ken Stabler met five times, though as this article from earlier in the week points out, there is a cheat at work: Stabler was not the starter in the first meeting. No other pair of quarterbacks has faced off in the postseason more than three times.
Those Raiders-Steelers games were thrilling, and they defined 1970s football. But does anyone in 2014 consider Stabler to be a rival to Bradshaw? Not you, RaiderJoe, I mean everyone else. The teams were rivals, and Stabler was a great player for several years, but history has spoken. And frankly, history has a loud voice when we compare the events of 40 years ago to those of this Sunday. If a rivalry fell in the AFC playoffs in the mid-70s, and nobody heard it because we were all about 5 years old, it just did not make a loud enough noise.
Based exclusively on their four playoff meetings, Postseason Brady-Manning still stakes a claim to third place among quarterback rivalries, though the balloting among Favre-Young, Bradshaw-Stabler, Staubach-Bradshaw and old-school Otto Graham-Bobby Layne voters would make things tight. Reconstitute the two Brady-Manning series, and the field gets lapped before they even step on the accelerator, leaving us with little to write about except the battle for second place.
To bury another Internet cliché, Brady-Manning is not Starr-Unitas, Bradshaw-Stabler, or any other old rivalry "on steroids." Brady-Manning is every other rivalry in high-def, with 4G technology, fuel injectors, parking sensors and all the other wonders of 21st century technology. We can only yearn for those old rivalries the way we nostalgically long for some past "experience:" scratchy records, creaky barns, blurry televisions or the romance of driving a giant steel car that had no seat belts and got nine miles to the gallon. As a matter of taste, we can like those things better, but there is no logical way to argue that they really were better.
The only criticisms we can lob at the Brady-Manning rivalry are the ones we toss at our mp3 players and fuel-efficient cars. It's sterile, professionalized and lacks romance. It is overhyped and over-engineered and tries a little too hard to get us to love it. It is so user-friendly you don't need people like me to gild it with context and mythmaking. You just turn it on and watch it. It's a steak so delicious the chef barely has to cook it and we have gorged on it for so long it is only natural to crave something else. But we're the spoiled ones, not the steak.
You will be reading about this rivalry for the rest of your life, but there is nothing really left to write. Brady-Manning now speaks for itself.