The seventeenth installment of the Peyton Manning and Tom Brady rivalry has added sizzle to the AFC Championship, but unless and until both guys will be on the field at the same time, it’s all overblown. The real battle, and the relevant constant since Brady became New England’s starter in 2001, will be between Manning and Patriots coach Bill Belichick — whose fights with Manning began a year earlier.
Manning, who has the intellect of a coach (Manning arguably would do a better job than five or six of the head coaches hired in the most recent cycle), studies film and understands it like no other quarterback. Although he’s now migrating out of the mid-30s sweet spot between advanced football knowledge and lingering football skills, Manning still excels at scanning the defense, running the information through the red-foreheaded computer that resides in his helmet, and positioning his guys to ensure that he’ll get the ball as quickly as his duck-cannon arm can to the open man.
Belichick knows this well, so the goal will be to confuse Manning, making him think he sees something other than what the New England defense will be doing.
When the Patriots were one of the only teams Manning faced that used a 3-4 defense, it was much easier to Belichick to beat him. As the 3-4 proliferated throughout the AFC, it became easier for Manning to understand the concepts and coverages. Which has allowed Manning to do better against Belichick later in Manning’s career.
With the two brains on equal footing, Belichick realizes the danger of getting caught up in the pre-snap guessing game in which Manning has excelled.
“[T]hat’s really the basis of trying to come up with a game plan and figure out how you want to play a team like that,” Belichick told reporters this week. “You don’t want to put yourself in bad situations. At the same time you don’t want to make it too much of a game where there are a lot of multiples – ‘If they do this, we do that,’ ‘If they do that, we do this’ – that just can go on forever.
“At some point you’ve got to line up and play what you’re going to play. Look, just because they know you’re in something isn’t always the worst thing in the world. All good teams have tendencies. All good players have tendencies. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. It means you’re doing something well. At some point it’s going to come down to you have to play well. You have to do what you do well better than what they try to do against it. I think there are elements of all those things in a game. You certainly don’t want to make it easy for them, but you can outsmart yourself sometimes by trying to play too much of a mind game. Manning’s a great quarterback. He’s a hard guy to fool. He has seen it all.”
He’ll likely see all of it again on Sunday, in what the media has been calling the likely final meeting between Manning and Brady. The real story is that it’s likely the final meeting between Manning and Belichick.