Tuesday, November 17, 2009

SPORTS >> Manning-Brady debate more entertaining if unresolved

Leader sportswriter

Rivalry of the decade? You’d better believe it.

Sunday night’s matchup between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts could even be tagged as the latest installment of the rivalry of the century, seeing as how we’re only a decade into the 2000s.

And it’s the rivalry of the decade, or century, for one reason and one reason only: Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning.

Granted, it was a poor call in the late going by Patriots coach Bill Belichick — one of the best X’s and O’s guy in the history of the game — that allowed Manning and the Colts to storm back from a 17-point deficit and claim a 35-34 victory and remain unbeaten through nine weeks.

But the showdown between the two marquee quarterbacks lived up to everyone’s expectations in the end.

The neatest thing about the Manning-Brady clash leading up to the game was that all of the other angles that would have been played up under normal circumstances went by the wayside. New England needed a victory to stay in the hunt for home-field advantage in the playoffs while Indianapolis’ 8-0 record was on the line.

But the pre-game talk was mostly debate over which of the two was the better quarterback, which is like asking an 8-year-old whether he prefers double chocolate or caramel-fudge ice cream. And to further complicate the debate, Brady had the better night numbers-wise while Manning pulled off yet another of his classic comebacks.

The game turned out especially sweet for all of those Belichick haters out there who got to snicker at the result of his questionable decision to go for it on fourth and 2 at his own 28 while holding a 34-28 lead with 2:08 left in the game.

The play fell short and gave Manning and company all they needed to orchestrate the dramatic, winning drive, and the TV cameras caught all the looks of disbelief from Belichick on the sideline to satisfy even the most rabid Bill-basher.

I personally do not fall into that category, but I have to admit it’s sometimes entertaining to observe his pouty demeanor in post-game press conferences after such losses.

The guy is a bad sport, no doubt about it. But to give credit where it is due, Belichick has made far more brilliant calls over the years than the fourth-down call on Sunday.

It was a poor decision, though. So poor I began to look for members of the old Searcy High School football coaching staff — the one that posted three victories in four years — on the Patriots’ sideline.

And while that call dominated most of the post-game talk, the Manning/Brady element was still the essence of the game.

For me, the fun is not trying to address who is better. They are hands down the best two in the game right now, and two of the all-time best.

Maybe a case could also be made for Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisburger, but I think many of us view Big Ben as more of a working-class hero type. Plus, he was shut out of the end zone by the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, something that most certainly would not have happened to Brady or Manning.

The fun for me is in the comparisons.

Each has his go-to guy, which is the norm for any great quarterback.

For Manning, it’s heady and deceptive veteran receiver Reggie Wayne. For Brady, it’s Randy Moss, pound-for-pound one of the all-time best at the receiver position. Both quarterbacks make great use of their tight ends downfield and in the flat, and neither can scramble out of the pocket under heavy pressure to save his life.

Then there are the differences, such as Brady’s cool, poker-faced demeanor compared to Manning’s more frantic approach.

Manning’s snap cadence can overpower the most hostile and roaring crowd, and his five to seven quick pumps before releasing the ball can wear you out just watching. Brady can barely be heard even if the crowd is near silent, and he holds the ball back until the last possible moment before launching.

There are more subtle differences ranging from how each sets up the play-action to the number of times each licks the fingers on his throwing hand prior to a snap. Brady wins that one, by the way.

The only real letdown of the Brady-Manning rivalry is that we will probably never see it played out in a Super Bowl; the AFC championship game is as far as it can go, unless one of the quarterbacks gets traded to NFC teams Detroit or Tampa Bay at some point.

Come to think of it, maybe we should just stick to enjoying it as a conference rivalry.