It was Chapter 13 of "The War of 1812" — better known as Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady — and the 31-21 result went like most of the first dozen games: The New England Patriots proved they are a better-coached, more complete team.
While it will go down as the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history, the truth is the performances of these quarterbacks have had little impact on New England’s 9-4 record in the rivalry since 2001.
Sunday’s game was another great example, and it may have shown the Denver Broncos are simply not yet on the same tier as the Patriots in the AFC. Their quarterback was fit for battle, but this team — obliterated 86-33 by the Patriots in two games last year — is still very much a work in progress.
Perhaps already being passed over in the conference they have dominated for a decade by teams like Houston and Baltimore, the Patriots and Broncos still expect to be major players come playoff time. However, if recent performances are any indicator, then New England, as always, is definitely more prepared than Denver.
History of Manning vs. Brady: Don’t fall for the 'QB wins' narrative
It appears some people still think that just because a team wins a game, even regardless of performance, the winning quarterback is better than the loser.
This was alive and well on Sunday, when several reports gushed over the game from Brady (23 of 31 for 223 yards, TD, rushing TD), while ignoring the effort Manning gave his team to even be competitive, unlike they were in their 45-10 playoff defeat last season in Foxboro.
Manning, who finished 31 of 44 for 345 yards and three scores, gave the kind of big performance that has usually led to a win in his career. He is now 24-5 when throwing for more than 300 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of at least 100.0. According to ESPN, Manning had the league’s highest QBR (91.3) in a loss this season. Brady’s was 82.1.
Going up against Bill Belichick always makes for a challenging chess match. And Manning has gone into the match-up under four different head coaches — Jim Mora, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, and now John Fox — which has been part of the struggle.
New England would win this particular game, but look at the real reasons, which have little to do with the two headline-stealing quarterbacks themselves.
Like in many match-ups, New England dominated the trenches. Brady handed the ball off 50 times for 253 yards (5.06 YPC). That’s only the most rushing support Brady has ever had in 186 career starts. Compare it to 18 carries for 61 yards (3.39 YPC) for Manning’s Broncos.
In the 13 career meetings, Brady’s running game has produced 356 carries for 1,641 yards (4.61 YPC) compared with 329 carries for 1,290 yards (3.92 YPC) for Manning’s offenses.
The run-game domination was most evident in the third quarter. Denver had to punt after over-committing to the run, and the Patriots would soon face a 3rd-and-17 situation with a 17-7 lead. On what seemed to be a give-up play, Danny Woodhead ran right through the defense on his way to a 19-yard gain and a crucial first down. Four minutes later, the Patriots were in the end zone for a 24-7 lead.
How rare was that? Since 2000, the longest conversion on a third-down run was Donovan McNabb scrambling for 27 yards on a 3rd and 25 against none other than the Denver Broncos in 2009. At least that is not quite as bad as Leroy Hoard gaining 53 yards on a simple draw on 3rd and 37. Who was that against, again? Oh, that’s right. It was the Denver Broncos in 1999 .
Defense is always crucial when Manning and Brady meet. Brady had the better defense in 11 of the first 12 meetings, often significantly so. The average rankings in defensive points per drive for the Colts (21.8) and Patriots (6.3) in years they met could not be much different. The one time Manning clearly had the better defense, it was a 40-21 blowout by Indianapolis in New England back in 2005.
Coming into Week 5 the defenses had similar numbers in terms of points allowed, but the Patriots were much better at creating takeaways, which again proved deadly. The New England defense collected three fumbles, including a rare one from Manning after he was heavily pressured in the third quarter.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Not like we haven’t seen this before. In the 13 games, Manning’s offense has 33 turnovers (19 interceptions, 14 fumbles) compared with only 20 (12 interceptions, eight fumbles) for the Patriots. Five of the fumbles for Manning’s skill players were in the red zone, compared with two for Brady.
Better defenses get more takeaways, and that has often been the case for Patriots.
Add things together and you get this devastating formula: Since 1970, teams that rush for at least 250 yards and get at least three takeaways are 188-5-1 (.972). That is what New England did Sunday, and that ultimately decided the game.
For as much attention as Manning and Brady get, the fact is their games have not once been a true shootout. They actually often follow a very similar pattern. Manning’s team makes a lot of mistakes, the Patriots take a lead of 17-24 points, and in the fourth quarter Manning tries to lead a furious rally. The New England offense then sputters badly, and it usually comes down to the final, frenetic drive.
We have seen Manning pull off the record-setting 18-point comeback win in the 2006 AFC Championship, and the 17-point comeback in the fourth quarter in the 2009 game known for the “4th and 2” play, but usually the Patriots hold up in the end.
Even with a new team, the Broncos, the formula was in play. But McGahee’s fourth-quarter mistakes cost us a chance at another classic finish.
Hardly anyone even remembers the 2001 games — when they were still in the AFC East together no less — because of how “new” the Patriots were to success, and how forgettable a season the Colts had with the league’s worst defense, which led to Jim Mora’s firing.
We have seen Manning lay an egg with four interceptions in the 2003 AFC Championship. Brady did the same in the 2006 meeting, which cost the Patriots home-field advantage over the Colts that year. We have seen a goal line stand (2003), a missed field goal at the end (2004), and countless red zone turnovers. Usually these are mistakes from Manning’s team.
On Sunday, we saw a lot of the same things. For the eighth time in 13 games, the Patriots led by at least 17 points. For the fifth time in those games, it was still close in the final minutes. Just not as close as usual.
For as much hype as the “great quarterback duel” receives every year, the duel has been video game-like gang violence with a lot of friendly fire involved, and the difficulty settings are never equal for both players.
There was skepticism over how well the offensive line would protect for the Patriots this season, but they look as dominant as ever in the ground game, which has balanced the offense and made them lethal as of late. It especially shows up in the no-huddle attack, and this is with second-year back Stevan Ridley and undrafted free agent rookie Brandon Bolden carrying the load.
The past two weeks have produced the two biggest rushing performances in any of Tom Brady’s 186 career starts. Against Buffalo it was 39 carries for 243 yards. The offense scored 52 points and had 33 first downs. Against Denver it had the 50 carries for 253 yards, a team-record 35 first downs, and 31 points.
Defensively, they also are improved over last season. Though not an elite shut-down unit like they had in their championship seasons, the Patriots still come up with big takeaways, and they have nine in their last two games alone.
The Patriots have already moved past two of the biggest hurdles on their schedule (Baltimore and Denver) with a 1-1 record. The toughest remaining games are a pair of back-to-back games versus Houston and San Francisco, but that is not until December, and both are at home.
Typically the winner of the Manning vs. Brady showdown gets home-field advantage over the other in the AFC, and the two have started a combined seven Super Bowls. We will learn just how important this game actually was this time around.
For the Denver Broncos, it was another tough loss in which they fell behind by at least 20 points, made a fourth-quarter rally but came up short again. If most teams in the league had played their schedule — losses to the undefeated Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, a win over Pittsburgh — then they would be 2-3 or worse by now as well, so that is a consolation prize.
But things have to get better for Denver earlier in games, and it must start now. Before their bye, they go to San Diego (3-2) for a huge AFC West game on Monday Night Football, and the Chargers have had Manning’s number in the past, often forcing him into a very one-dimensional attack.
This is Denver versus San Diego now, but the Broncos look very similar to the Colts of recent years, and that demands perfection from Manning. He has done it in spurts, but not for a full game versus the best teams, and he needs his teammates to step up to his level to get there. Right now there are too many mistakes from Denver’s offense and not enough impact plays on defense.
It looks like every time the Broncos lose this year, many are going to question Manning’s arm strength or how many deep balls he attempts. Just make sure you are not the same person praising a Tom Brady performance that ESPN says featured just a 1-of-5 effort on passes thrown more than 10 yards in the air, including some passes that were not even close, and not to mention several awkward ducking attempts in the pocket.
For some, winning has this magical power of making you overlook anything to try and better fit the narrative. "The War of 1812" deserves better than that.
Manning vs. Brady is the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history. But every chapter sure does split NFL fans, no matter whom they root for, into two distinct groups: those who care about the quarterback, and those who care about how the team did.
Scott Kacsmar (@CaptainComeback) writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, Bleacher Report, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network.
ProFootballTalk: Patriots QB Tom Brady addressed Wes Welker’s decision to head West to Denver. Brady says he isn’t surprised by anything after being in the league for so long and hopes that Welker has a great season with the Broncos.
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