Some names in sports have been linked so long, it almost seems like they start to rhyme. Palmer and Nicklaus. Magic and Bird. Ali and Frazier. Woody and Bo.
And on Sunday, we get a contemporary installment of such a rivalry, with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning locking horns for the 12th time in their respective star-studded careers. This one has a Hollywood-type of sizzle to it, of course, and carries the kind of star power that can draw the viewer from Des Moines who couldn't care less about the fortunes of either team.
But as much as it has style, there's a real substance to Brady-Manning that has marked all the iconic battles listed above. In fact, at this point, it's pretty difficult to argue against this one being the greatest quarterback rivalry in the history of the sport.
That's ever, and that's even though both these guys are still at a point where there's plenty of time left to take this one in.
Or, at least, that's the way they see it. As I walked with Brady across the New England locker room on Wednesday, I made it clear that's what I'd write -- that this one is the greatest, that this one does reach across sports into the Ali-Fraziers of the lexicon.
Brady didn't agree. He also didn't disagree.
"I still look at us like we're young guys out there playing," he said. "I know his goal is to continue to play for a long time. It's not like it's coming to the end. I just think when you're the quarterback on a football team, obviously, you get a lot of attention.
"Both of our teams have been successful, for a lot of reasons, not just necessarily because of quarterback play. And we're both beneficiaries of that, guys that have been in the same system their entire career. I know other quarterbacks who've been in different systems -- five systems in five years -- and it's pretty tough to play quarterback like that."
That's all true, of course, and there are plenty of circumstantial things that help you arrive at this conclusion. To Brady's point, the Patriots' quarterback has been paired with the best coach of his era (Bill Belichick), and Manning has worked in tandem with the greatest personnel man of his day (Bill Polian). The two are in the same conference - which allows their meetings to be more frequent -- and play in a time where the passing game has been moved forward by both evolution and rules changes.
But that doesn't mean it doesn't go the other way, too. Being in the same system's great, but a great player makes the system that much better, and each quarterback's ability to lift his teammates can make a coach or team president's decisions look more masterful.
What really makes this one great, though, is the competitiveness of each player, which was on display during last November's wild shootout in Indy. The two guys have, from across the Northeastern quarter of the country, implicitly pushed one another. Remember how Manning was once 0-6 vs. Brady and how Belichick was in his head? He's won four of five since then. That's how they push each other.
"Well, yeah," Brady agreed, when I asked him about that little extra shove. "But I really don't compete against him, per se. I watch him, as someone who's incredibly smart, with that command of his offense, his style of play, the way he gets rid of the ball, his accuracy, his throwing technique.
"Obviously, we have different personalities and different styles of plays, but I love the things that he does. I get to watch him a lot, and I try to always watch what the Colts are doing."
Brady will get the 12th up-close look of his career Sunday. Here are five reasons why this one is, indeed, the greatest rivalry that position has ever produced.
Consistency: This is where the Marino-Montana, Elway-Montana, Elway-Marino, Staubach-Bradshaw matchups fall short. They didn't happen every year. Marino and Elway went 13 years (1985-'98) without playing each other. Montana played both Elway and Marino in Super Bowls, but faced them in the regular season as a 49er just five times total. Likewise, Staubach and Bradshaw met twice in the Super Bowl, but just three times outside of that. Conversely, Brady and Manning are meeting for the 12th time -- including playoffs -- in the 10 seasons they've both been NFL starters.
Relevance: In 2003 and 2004, the Patriots hosted the Colts in the playoffs because they beat them in the regular season. In 2006, the reverse was true. And in each of those seasons, the team that won the regular-season meeting won at home in the playoffs and wound up winning the Super Bowl. In each of the last seven years, the winner of the game had the higher seed in the playoffs, and all six times that one of these teams have made the Super Bowl over the last decade, it beat the other in the regular season. This year, the Patriots are 7-2 and the Colts are 6-3 going in. The upper hand goes to the victor.
Longevity: One matchup that can come close in the above categories was between Steve Young and Troy Aikman. They played each other each season from 1992-'97, the 49ers and Cowboys combined for four world titles in that time and, more often than not, homefield advantage in the playoffs was on the line. And later in the game, a third player -- Brett Favre -- was introduced to the mix. But because of injuries and age, it didn't last more than those six years at the highest level. Brady-Manning is really at 10 years now. And one like Marino-Kelly, which was a division rivalry, falls short here due to lack of championships.
Statistics: Someday, Manning will likely have all the records. And while Brady isn't quite as prolific in that regard, he's had his day in the sun. Remember, Manning broke Marino's record for touchdown passes, tossing 49 in 2004 while throwing for 4,267 yards and a 121.1 rating. Three years later, Brady one-upped his rival, with 50 touchdown passes, while throwing for 4,806 yards and a 117.2 rating. Bottom line: Both guys have the numbers.
Historical perspective: Both these guys are, by almost any measure, among the 10 greatest quarterbacks ever, and each could be in the top five when those doing such rankings have the chance to sit back and assess the guys.
Best part? It's not over yet. We'll get it this year. We'll get it in 2012, thanks to the schedule rotation. And if the teams win their divisions this year, we'll see it in 2011, as well. So appreciate it.
"He's able to continue to be a valuable asset to that team," Brady continued, as we talked about what he likes about Manning's way. "He makes sure that he's in shape, he's ready to go, that he's playing well. He's as dependable a player as has ever played the game."
And much as they'd like to deflect the credit for that, the biggest reason why comes down to two quarterbacks who've forged a competition like the game has never seen.
Brady and Manning, as usual, are fine MVP candidates. But as of right now, it wouldn't be hard to say both take a backseat to Philip Rivers in the race.
Too much changes from week to week for much to be certain in today's NFL, but you can take this to the bank: No one has been quite as responsible for a team keeping its head above water as Philip Rivers is in San Diego. And that's why I'd give him the edge -- slight as it might be -- in the MVP race.
Charging towards Marino
The Chargers are 4-5, you say? I say that they'd be out of contention, thanks to a mountain of injuries and mental errors if it weren't for their quarterback, and that they're in it because he's refusing to allow his team to use those problems (few of which are his fault) as crutches.
"We've all seen it where a guy comes out of a game, another guy comes in, and you might say, 'Well, he hasn't had many reps, so we can't go there'," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "You just don't get that from Philip. He says, 'That guy's on the field playing right now, and I'm going to throw to him. (Seyi Ajirotutu) may not run the route like Malcom (Floyd) does, but Philip expects him to be in position and he'll adjust accordingly.
"We work hard to have our receivers run routes the same way, have the same body language, read coverages the same, but lots of things can get in the way. Philip doesn't let that stuff stop him."
Rivers has completed passes to 14 different receivers this year (more than Manning or Brady), and four of those guys recorded their first NFL catch in bringing those balls in. Three of those four spent substantial time on the practice squad this fall, and two of them are back there now. Rivers' best wideout (Vincent Jackson) hasn't stepped on the field yet, and the next two guys (Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee) have missed seven games combined, while all-galaxy tight end Antonio Gates has battled a debilitating toe injury the last month.
All Rivers has done is complete 65.4 percent of passes in the meantime, and keep a pace that would have him throwing for a league-record 5,234 yards (150 more than Dan Marino threw in 1984) and 34 scores. And while they haven't won all their games, the Chargers have a quarterback who's kept a brave face when disaster was staring his team down.
"For players, it's important they know that, 'OK, that one got away, but we can get the next one'," said Turner. "That's the biggest thing in some of those games. In Seattle, we give up the two kickoff returns, and there were the two blocked punts in the Raider game, and usually you're out of the game. And you can say that, yeah, he threw for 400 and you lost, but the reality is we're knocking on the door at the end of the game with a chance to win.
"I know from a coaching standpoint, and players know too, that with Philip, so long as we're still playing, we have a chance to win, no matter what."
That's why everyone should have their radar up for Rivers and Co. now. Floyd and Naanee returned to practice Wednesday, Jackson's eligible to return a week from Sunday, and rookie tailback Ryan Mathews might finally be getting well. So this team that's built a healthy stock of resolve could soon be playing with a stacked deck, and if Rivers' performance when shorthanded is any indicator, then look out.
"I love the challenge of it," said Rivers. "I want to find a way to help get the most out of every guy. A guy like (Ajirotutu), if you give him the body language or the impression you're uncertain, and that he can't get it done, then he's not going to play as good. But if you say, 'Hey, he's good,' and talk to him like he's Malcom or Vincent, and tell him, 'Hey, stay alive on this, I might come to you,' then he says, 'Shoot, I can do it.'
"That reinforcement makes it so you get the most out of every guy."
And getting the most out of every guy, really, is what being an MVP-level quarterback is all about.
I know this truth ...
Troy Smith is a better quarterback than most people want to give him credit for. And yup, I'm a Buckeye, and I'll be up front about the fact that he was pretty easy to root for as a collegian, so understand that.
Understand this too: Outside of Smith's height, if you watched him play during his Heisman Trophy-winning college career, it's pretty hard to see where this player (with his anticipation, accuracy, and big-game flare) was a fifth-round pick. What's real interesting, though, is that the new starter in San Francisco doesn't care about that chip on his shoulder so heavy it could knock him over. In fact, he goes the other way all together.
"I feel like when things happen to me, they happen on purpose, not by mistake," Smith said. "And I believe in making lemonade out of the lemons you might be handed. The easiest thing in the world to do when things don't go the way you think they're supposed to is to sit back and harp on the negative.
"You have choices to make. I choose to accept what's going on, and real men never back away in these situations. You take all of it in stride."
Maybe that's why he's hardly broken stride since taking over for an injured Alex Smith as the 49ers quarterback, having just wrested the job from the ex-No. 1 overall pick. In London on Halloween, Smith led a 21-point fourth-quarter flourish that turned a 10-3 deficit into a 24-16 win over Denver. On Sunday back home, he and his teammates went into the fourth quarter down 17-10, and Smith did it again, giving the Niners a 20-17 lead with a 16-yard touchdown strike to Michael Crabtree with 2:10 left. The Rams forced overtime, and Smith calmly helped set up a game-winning field goal in the extra frame.
For a guy who hasn't played much, he's been remarkably efficient, scoring quarterback ratings of 115.2 and 116.7 in his two starts, completing better than 60 percent of his passes each week, and going through that time without turning the ball over. And he's been even better in the fourth quarter and OT, going 13 of 18 for 246 yards and two touchdowns, numbers that don't even account for the big 22-yard pass-interference penalty he helped draw on the game-winning drive against St. Louis. Remember, too, that this is a QB who was 25-3 as a college starter, so the "winner" tag isn't new for him.
"If you allow yourself to buy into that, you might go down that road," Smith said of that idea. "My thing is to compete. My attitude as a quarterback is always that as long as you have time on the clock and downs to throw the ball, you can do what you want to. You have a chance."
That's just what Smith has given the 49ers in the hodgepodge of the NFC West standings. They're just two games back of Seattle and they have four division games left with which to make up ground. That Mike Singletary has put him out front of that charge, by positioning him as a leader (Alex Smith isn't on the injury report this week), is "very, very significant," says Smith.
He's grateful, two years after a bout with Lemierre syndrome took away his chance at starting in Baltimore in 2008. My understanding is that the Ravens actually liked him quite a bit, because he was tough and a "gamer," but by the time he got healthy, Joe Flacco was entrenched and a better fit for the system. But Smith sees the significance not in the opportunity so much as the responsibility he now bears. And as for this winding road he's taken, he wouldn't change a thing.
"Say you're in Barnes & Noble, and there are two books -- one about a guy who started at the top and ended at the top, which is a beautiful story, and one about someone started at the bottom and fought to the top," Smith said. "What book would you rather read?"
I don't know a thing ...
The franchise that has been a model of mediocrity under the current regime seemed to be shaking its middling ways with a 3-1 start. A month later, Houston's 4-5 and needs to go 5-2 against a difficult slate down the stretch just to match last year's 9-7 mark.
Of late, the problem has been closing out opponents. The Titans blew a 23-14 lead against San Diego two weeks ago, and it only got worse with last week's Hail Mary-induced defeat in Jacksonville.
Now, here's where things get scary for Houston -- confidence is waning. It's the reason, veteran middle linebacker Kevin Bentley thinks, that the Texans have had issues late in games.
"You get that over the course of a couple weeks, then your confidence won't be very high," said Bentley, the replacement for the injured DeMeco Ryans. "And you have to have confidence, because confidence is what allows you to make plays. If you're confident in yourself and your ability as a team, then you'll be able to make plays.
"So now, we've been in that situation before and it didn't come out in our favor. That's just human nature -- you go back to the last time you were in that situation. By doing that, and letting it linger, we haven't addressed the problem which is closing out the game."
Guard Wade Smith, new to these Texans, says, "We have Arian Foster, Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, a line playing well, so why can't we score every time? I've been places where they don't have this talent and ability, and there are times we score three touchdowns in a quarter. It's just needs to be consistent."
On defense, it's a bit more complicated, particularly with the loss of Ryans. After some shuffling (Brian Cushing took a turn at middle linebacker), Bentley settled in Ryans' old spot and says he's finally gaining the trust of those around him. Which is good, since that front seven needs to lift up a young, struggling secondary.
Overall, though, it's hard to believe that owner Bob McNair can stomach too many more seasons hovering around .500. And the players recognize that.
"We're playing for everyone's job," Bentley said. "Coaches' jobs. My job. The man-next-to-me's job. Fact of the matter is, if we're not winning, they're going to make changes. Whether it's upstairs, downstairs, changes will be made. We're fighting for everyone's job, not just one man. We're fighting for everyone."
Not sure things could get more awkward than what's happening in Carolina right now. The Panthers are 1-8, and that's bad enough. But they also have a coach (John Fox) and a GM (Marty Hurney) that are operating without contracts for 2011, and can walk scot free after the year. A quiet salary purge last winter left the team shorthanded, which couldn't quite have rung through the locker room like a rallying cry. A one-year problem for Carolina as it gears up for the labor uncertainty ahead? Not necessarily. Try hiring a new coach and/or GM with last year's actions fresh in everyone's minds. Won't be easy for the Panthers going forward. Not that it is now, with a street free agent in Brian St. Pierre piloting the offense against a teed-off Ravens defense that's heard all week about how far it's fallen.
... and 10
1) I'm not looking to get any conspiracy theories going here, but last week's failure of the replay system at INVESCO Field was a first for Denver. Here's the background: On Sunday, a 40-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Orton to Jabar Gaffney was questionable enough for Chiefs coach Todd Haley to throw the challenge flag. Haley was told that the system was inoperable, so he couldn't challenge, a snafu that was overshadowed by Haley dissing McDaniels after the game. Well, three Septembers ago, the Broncos (then under Mike Shanahan) were in a similar circumstance, when an interception by Champ Bailey wasn't challengeable because, yup, the replay system was down. On the play, Chris Chambers appeared to be down with the ball, before Bailey snatched it away, and instead of the Chargers maintaining possession, the Broncos got the ball and drove the 29 yards remaining to take a 7-0 lead. The play wound up being overshadowed, just like Sunday's touchdown. That game was "The Hochuli Game," which San Diego lost by 1. Anyway, seems rare that this stuff happens, so it's worth noting when it goes down twice in the same place.
2) Our own Michael Lombardi reported earlier in the week that the Titans have renewed concerns with quarterback Vince Young's work ethic, and that's too bad, because the club really believed he'd made serious strides over the course of the last year. I asked around about it this week and was told that "he did more than extra in the offseason and camp." In fact, lots of offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's work with Young in the spring was based on tailoring the offense to his strengths and helping him find the right run/pass balance. But Young was tremendously uneven in his last two games, losses to the Chargers and Dolphins, and this perhaps best underscores how difficult the mental grind of an NFL season is. Some guys simply have trouble handling it. All that said, the feeling I've gotten is that the Titans think Young will be just fine after navigating this bump in the road.
3) Funny moment in the Cowboys locker room after Sunday's rollicking win over the Giants. Dez Bryant, one of the game's stars, is getting dressed as the media waits, and his tie is sitting on the corner of his locker. He turns toward the press quickly, and goofball teammate Martellus Bennett quickly reminds him, "You better get that tie on before (Jason) Garrett sees you." He was joking -- kind of. Bennett was referencing the new dress code (which Marion Barber broke on the team flight) that Garrett has instituted -- dress shoes, slacks, and shirt with a jacket and tie. Garrett brought it up in his postgame speech, as well, and the message of professionalism and accountability was clear. The dress code, in fact, is similar to the one Alabama coach Nick Saban has for his players, and Saban happens to be the man that Garrett cut his coaching teeth under with the Dolphins. Let's just say that Garrett seems a little bit closer to Saban than he does to Wade Phillips in his style.
4) The rumblings coming out of Indianapolis on Pierre Garcon's development, or lack thereof, aren't exactly shocking to those who've been around the team. Garcon's tremendously physically gifted, but doesn't quite fit the Colts' mold, which calls for receivers to be nimble of feet and mind and have an ability to change directions quickly. Manning has been frustrated with Garcon's mental errors in the past, but he gives the offense a downfield element that complements Austin Collie and gives the team freedom to use the ever-versatile Reggie Wayne in myriad ways. It'll be interesting to see if Garcon can get his act together, because the Colts are now close to having the 2009 band, sans Dallas Clark (which is a pretty big caveat), healthy and back together again on offense.
5) The Vikings have lost twice as much as they've won in 2010, and if they play to form against Green Bay on Sunday, it's worth asking whether it's time to see what you have in Leslie Frazier. Garrett was one example of a coordinator who many believed would be different leading a team, and Frazier is another. By all accounts, the Minnesota defensive coordinator has the universal respect of the locker room, being a former player, and has long been seen as a potential head coach. So if there's one coach on that staff capable of pulling the team together in the face of crisis, and perhaps getting individual players turned around, it might be Frazier. And it would actually be easier to pull off than it was for Dallas, since Darrell Bevell's in place to run the other side of the ball, whereas Phillips had no defensive coordinator. At the very least, at 3-7, it wouldn't hurt to try.
6) Mentioned this on Twitter earlier in the week, and it merits a re-mention: Marty Mornhinweg should be considered a serious head-coaching candidate going into the 2011 offseason. And not just because he'll come a little cheaper in tough economic times. The 48-year-old Eagles offensive coordinator's work can be marked by the quarterbacks he's coached in Philly. First, take Donovan McNabb, a 60 percent passer four times in six years under Morhinweg, and zero times in six years without. Then, there's Kevin Kolb, who's still promising, as the player the coach raised from the ground. And after that, Michael Vick, who looks spectacular as can be. One reason I felt so strongly last week about Jim Harbaugh is that an ability to develop quarterbacks is a huge plus on a coach's resume. Mornhinweg gets a checkmark next to that box.
7) Speaking of McNabb, in light of all the hubbub over his contract, it's worth noting an uncapped-year quirk in the collective bargaining agreement that's often overlooked. It's actually pretty simple, too. Working off an existing contract, no future money on any deal can be fully guaranteed. It can be guaranteed against skill (meaning a player gets said money if he's cut). It can be guaranteed against injury. But not both. That means the only way for a team to truly guarantee the money is to hand over a big, fat signing bonus check. Over the summer, the Jets gave Nick Mangold, Darrelle Revis and D'Brickashaw Ferguson the option to guarantee vs. skill or injury. Mangold and Revis took the injury guarantees, while Ferguson took the skill guarantee and got private injury insurance.
8) There are more than a few ways that the youthful Tampa Bay Buccaneers operate beyond their years, with a propensity for clutch play being a prominent one. Here's another: Their ability to travel. The Bucs head to the West Coast for the third time in Raheem Morris' tenure, and they've won their first two, with a win in Seattle at the end of last year and another in Arizona three weeks ago. Tampa Bay heads out to San Francisco this week, leaving for California on Friday in what would seem to be a tough spot for a team without a ton of experience to draw on. Here's guessing the Bucs will do just fine.
9) Interesting statistic from the NFL's crack PR folks: Only 15 teams have qualified for the postseason since 1990 when under .500 through nine games. That's fewer than one a year, and only three 3-6 teams have made the cut in that time, with the most recent being the 1996 Jaguars. The league's 3-6 teams right now: Cleveland, Denver, Minnesota, San Francisco, and Arizona. So yeah, those teams really are in must-win spots.
10) With sellout streaks ending in certain locales this fall, most recently Cincinnati, it's worth noting that fans are tuning into games on television at an incredible rate, which is part of the challenge for owners in getting fans to hop in the car, battle traffic in both directions, and take in the action live. The raw viewership numbers have already matched those for the entire 2009 season. Found it interesting that eight of the top 13 telecasts involved NFC East teams, the product of nationally-followed franchises and large television markets.