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Top 20 Games of 2015: No. 3 -- Patriots at Broncos

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Final score: Broncos 20, Patriots 18

While the Broncos defense played the largest role in Denver winning our third top game of 2015, I want you all to pause for a minute and forget about that.

Throw out the sacks, fumbles, and everything else surrounding this game except for two people:

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Yes, the narrative surrounding their rivalry has become so overblown that many were tired of it heading into this contest (myself included). I've said in this very series that football is the ultimate team sport, but in rare instances we need to just shut up and acknowledge the individual greatness before us.

Never before has the NFL enjoyed a rivalry as storied or iconic as Manning v. Brady, and I feel confident in saying that it will never again. Here's a quick rundown of the other epic quarterback rivalries:

     » Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas squared off 16 times, but they played in the same conference back when the NFL had only 14 teams.
     » Jim Kelly and Dan Marino dueled 21 times, but they played in the same division and met twice a year.
     » Going even farther back, Bobby Layne and Norm Van Brocklin met 23 times, but that was before the NFL rose to prominence (and only had 10 to 14 teams).

Brady and Manning have met 17 times, a rather unprecedented number considering they play in different divisions in 32-team NFL. With Manning now officially hanging up the cleats, the 2015 AFC Championship Game was the final time Manning and Brady will do battle on the gridiron. And that's kind of sad. Here's a small look into how epic this rivalry has been:

     » They've combined for seven league MVP awards, the most in any QB rivalry
     » Their five head-to-head playoff meetings are the most of any two opposing QBs
     » They've appeared in a combined 10 Super Bowls, the most in any QB rivalry
     » Their six combined Super Bowl wins are tied for the most in any QB rivalry (Montana-Elway)
     » Manning ranks in career yards/touchdowns/wins: 1st, 1st, 1st
     » Brady ranks in career yards/touchdowns/wins: 5th, 3rd, 3rd

Just let all of that sink in for a second (and I could go on, believe me).

While there have been plenty of rivalries of quarterbacks at the top of their game, none have ever featured the longevity or sustained greatness of Manning and Brady. They met four times in the AFC title game alone. Oh, right, I should probably talk a bit about this title game.

What wasn't to like? Manning came out slinging in the first half, showing more zip on his passes in the cold Denver air than he had at any point all season. Both of his touchdown tosses to Owen Daniels were gorgeous. Sure he missed a few other passes the Manning of old makes, but this is old Manning we're talking about.

Meanwhile, Brady was simply thrashed by the Denver defense (he was hit 20 times), but he hung in there long enough to throw a last-second touchdown to Rob Gronkowski and give the Pats one last gasp. All they needed was a two-point conversion.

However, as they'd done all day long, the Broncos defense proved too much to handle, wrapping up the final win in Manning v. Brady for their venerable signal-caller and putting him on the path to go out on top of the football world.

Player of the Game

OK, I'd be doing this game a disservice if I didn't dive more into the Denver defense. While the whole unit played lights out, Von Miller in particular was a one-man wrecking crew. He notched four solo tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception. I'd be willing to bet Patriots tackle Cameron Fleming still wakes up in a cold sweat sometimes, thinking Miller is whizzing past him into the grill of Tom Brady. Miller was the best player on the field in this game, and was once again in Super Bowl 50, where he took home the game's MVP award.

Almost Player of the Game

Likewise, as I mentioned above, sometimes we need to pause and pay tribute to individual greatness, so let's talk about Gronk for a second. Facing the league's top defense, all he did was tally eight receptions for 144 yards and a touchdown, nearly single-handedly bringing his team back from the brink. If you wanted to make a case that Rob Gronkowski is the best tight end to ever step onto a football field, I probably wouldn't stop you. Games like this are the reason why.

Play(s) of the Game

Trailing 20-12, on two separate occasions Bill Belichick decided to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal. The first came with 6:03 left in the game, from the Denver 16-yard line. Chris Harris Jr. sniffed out the short pass to Julian Edelman and stopped the play for a loss of one. On the Patriots' next possession they tried to convert a fourth-and-6 to Gronk, but the Denver pass rush rose to the occasion and forced a tough throw. Now, I'm all for aggressive coaching, but the Patriots had all three timeouts on both of these occasions. Just kick the damn field goal, Bill. You had plenty of time and opportunities to drive down for a touchdown (which would then give the Pats the lead with just an extra point). Maybe Stephen Gostkowski missing his first extra point in 523 attempts had Belichick worried? Who knows? But what I do know is that the Patriots cost themselves a potential Super Bowl trip by not taking the points on two separate occasions.

Why This Game is No. 3

The game itself was fantastic, from Manning's first-half touchdowns to the multiple failed fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter to the last-second defense of the two-point attempt, it engaged audiences from start to finish. But what puts it over the top is what it means as a footnote in football history. This was the final time we'll ever see Peyton Manning and Tom Brady line up across from each other on a football field. These two have left an indelible impact on the game of football since entering the league, the magnitude of which is too great to capture adequately in one piece such as this. But hopefully, as you read this piece and watch the game again tonight on NFL Network (5 .p.m. ET), you can pause and be grateful for having been able to watch this incredible rivalry play out. I know I will.

Visit NFL Game Center for more highlights and analysis from Patriots at Broncos, AFC Championship Game.

-- by Alex Gelhar. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexGelhar.

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