DENVER -- Peyton Manning lined up a few yards behind center, crouching at the precipice of history. Bearing down on the north end zone of Sports Authority Field with a chance to become the second NFL quarterback to throw his 500th career touchdown pass, the Broncos' 38-year-old superstar surveyed his options like a foodie studying the menu at Emeril's.
Should he serve up the fateful ball for Wes Welker, who would reach an eye-popping milestone of his own later in Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals? Should he look to new toy Emmanuel Sanders, one of the NFL's most explosive receivers so far in 2014? Should he switch things up by throwing to veteran wideout Andre Caldwell? Or should he connect with Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas, who would end the day as the NFL's leader in touchdown receptions?
It turned out Julius Thomas got the nod, abusing Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson to complete the 7-yard scoring play just in front of the right pylon, the first of two trips to the end zone he'd make during Denver's 41-20 thrashing of the Cards (3-1) on Sunday. Don't cry for Demaryius, however -- he ended the day with eight catches for a franchise-record 226 yards and a pair of TDs, helping Manning to a career-high 479-yard explosion.
And while I'd never expect anyone to cry for Tom Brady, of all people, Manning's latest masterpiece had to be especially hard for him to watch. Why did I get the distinct feeling that somewhere in the bowels of Gillette Stadium, as he prepared to lead the New England Patriots to an impressive "Sunday Night Football" victory over the previously undefeated Cincinnati Bengals, Manning's chief rival was giving very serious contemplation to chucking the remote at a locker-room TV?
"Oh, you know he had to be hot," one of Brady's former teammates said Sunday. "Look at what he's got, and look at what they give Peyton. How can he not be jealous?"
Or, in the words of a Broncos player: "He had to be saying, '(Expletive) this (expletive). Look at all these weapons Peyton's got. Where are my weapons? What the (expletive)?' "
If Manning is spending his twilight years as the beneficiary of a supporting cast worthy of "The Departed", Brady is Matthew McConaughey trying to carry "Dallas Buyers Club" -- and, during the first quarter of the 2014 season, looking as desperate and frustrated as McConaughey's ailing character, Ron Woodroof, in the process.
Yes, I'm being dramatic, and yes, Brady certainly appeared robust and prolific in leading the Pats to a 43-17 victory over the Bengals. He threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns, providing at least temporary vindication for himself and his coach, Bill Belichick, whose on to Cincinnati apparently served as an improbable motivational mantra.
Yet Brady's ability to elevate his teammates has never been in question. Except for a three-plus-year run with future Hall of Fame wideout Randy Moss, Brady has made a career out of carving up defenses by throwing to the David Pattens and Julian Edelmans of the world, and it's a testament to his greatness that he has been able to do so much with so little for so long.
Yet last Monday night, in the midst of a 41-14 annihilation by the Kansas City Chiefs, Brady suddenly seemed powerless to overcome the inertia of age and a decided dearth of playmakers in his huddle. Before being benched in the fourth quarter, alone in his misery as rookie Jimmy Garoppolo led the Pats to a garbage-time touchdown, Brady looked 37 going on 50.
As incredibly successful as the Belichick/Brady partnership has been over the past 14 seasons, with three championships and five Super Bowl appearances among their many collective accomplishments, many players, coaches and executives across the NFL are currently questioning the coach's commitment to his aging quarterback.
Put it this way: I'm not the only one wondering whether a him or me power struggle might ensue at season's end -- and how such a staredown would be resolved by owner Robert Kraft, who has deep affection for his franchise quarterback but possesses a proper understanding of and respect for Belichick's strengths as a strategist and team builder.
And while Brady's career mortality makes him more expendable, the problem for Belichick is this: His roster-stocking decisions as the Pats' de facto general manager haven't been so good in recent years, and his seeming passivity as Brady creeps up on 40 has been downright bizarre.
By comparison, the Broncos' approach to the end of Manning's career -- as spearheaded by general manager John Elway, a legendary quarterback in his former NFL life -- is simple: We only get this guy for so long, so let's load up our team with as many good players as we can and try to maximize this window.
Welker, an ex-Patriots receiver who has remained close friends with Brady since joining the Broncos before the 2013 season, certainly isn't complaining about his current team's go-for-broke mentality. "I'm happy with all the decisions they make around here, that's for sure," he said after Sunday's game, in which he surpassed ex-Broncos standout Rod Smith for the most career receptions (854) by an undrafted player in NFL history.
As for Brady's views on the Broncos' approach, and how it compares to the one employed by Belichick?
"Who knows?" Welker said, laughing and throwing up his palms for effect.
Others who know Brady well aren't so political. As one person close to the quarterback told me recently: "It's like sending him to a gunfight with a slingshot, and the other team has an Uzi."
Welker's presence in Denver has to be especially galling to Brady, given the context of his departure. Whereas Manning, during his 14 years with the Indianapolis Colts and since coming to Denver in 2012, has always commanded and received top-of-the-market contracts, Brady has repeatedly driven a softer line, structuring his deals to allow the Pats more flexibility under the salary cap.
The catch is, Belichick doesn't seem to care. If anything, he is obsessed with imposing a desired value on players he signs and doesn't sign -- something to which Cardinals defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who played for the Pats in 2013, alluded in a recent interview with his current team's website, saying, "I couldn't take busting my tail every day getting to a game and them taking me out of the game for someone who I know isn't better than me, because he's a cheaper option. Are we worried about money here? Or are we worried about winning?"
After Brady restructured his contract to give the Pats more cap space in February 2013, I wondered whether Belichick would honor his end of the bargain. Not surprisingly, Brady felt burned a few weeks later when the Pats essentially chose Danny Amendola over Welker, who compounded the sting by joining forces with Manning.
Not only was it a poor football decision by Belichick, but it also carried an obvious message: I don't care if you did right by us; we're going to run our business the way we see fit, without regard for your personal sentiments.
Losing to the Broncos in last January's AFC title game couldn't have improved Brady's outlook much. Then came the offseason, and even more misery.
Again, compare the approaches employed by the two franchises: Elway, in the wake of the Broncos' 43-8 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, got even more aggressive, landing a trio of defensive standouts (Talib, former Cowboys pass-rushing star DeMarcus Ware and ex-BrownsPro Bowl safety T.J. Ward) and replacing free-agent wideout Eric Decker with the Pittsburgh Steelers' Sanders, who's currently tied for the NFL lead with four receptions of 30-plus yards in 2014. The Pats made only one high-profile signing, cutting a deal with perennial All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, late of Tampa Bay and the Jets, to replace Talib.
"Everyone talks about Peyton's offensive weapons, but what they did on defense has made a huge difference, too," Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said after Sunday's defeat to the Broncos (3-1). "Their pass rush is a whole different animal now. Ware, Terrance Knighton ... those guys are good. They're going to be in the AFC Championship Game."
Ware explained his desire to come to Denver thusly: "You want to finish out right. That's what Peyton's doing. Five hundred touchdowns, I can't even fathom that. When I signed here, I thought, 'Well, he's only gonna play for so long, and this is an opportunity for me to play with the best.' "
Through a combination of draft mistakes, misfortune (see: Hernandez, Aaron) and a staunch lack of urgency, Belichick has denied Brady that opportunity. That he takes his quarterback for granted is almost too obvious to state -- and for the most part, Brady has been good enough to cover up the Pats' relative lack of talent and let Belichick get away with it.
Nothing lasts forever, however, and thus far in 2014 -- Sunday night's show of force notwithstanding -- Brady has frequently been swallowed up by opposing defenses. One obvious issue has been a lack of protection, and that makes the late-August trade of perennial Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins all the more disturbing.
When Mankins reportedly balked after being asked to take a pay cut shortly before the start of the regular season, Belichick sent him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for tight end Timothy Wright and a fourth-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. The Bucs have been thrilled with Mankins' play, while the Pats' line has struggled in his absence.
Suffice it to say that Brady has yet another reason to be frustrated.
On Saturday, things got even weirder: In what was either a) an admission of a prior mistake or b) yet another signal to Brady that his needs and desires are not paramount, Belichick released second-year pro Kenbrell Thompkins, who caught 32 passes as a rookie receiver and seemed to develop a connection with the quarterback.
"That was shocking," Talib said of Thompkins' release. "I thought he was a pretty good player. But that ain't the weirdest thing I've seen Bill do."
Yet even as Talib shook his head over his former coach's methodology, he acknowledged that expecting Belichick to suddenly start doing for Brady what Elway has done for Manning is pure folly. Brady might wish he had more talent around him, but as long as Belichick is in charge, he can forget about getting the works.
"Yeah, they got their way of doing things in New England," Talib said. "That's Bill's way. They've been successful for this long, I don't see why they'd change it.
"But Tom's poised, and he's a professional. He ain't gonna cry about it: 'Oh, I ain't got no weapons, and Peyton's got weapons.' He'll just play. And man, they'll probably win the division and be in the playoffs again."
If the Pats play like they did at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, that may well be true -- and they may find themselves back in Denver come January, getting another up-close-and-personal view of Manning and his star-studded supporting cast.
And if things don't play out that way? Don't be surprised if Brady's playing for a different coach in 2015.