As you might’ve heard already, Peyton Manning is retiring. It’s hard to imagine an NFL landscape without Manning, much less being a Patriots fan and knowing Manning will no longer be in the way in the AFC. Aside from all the Brady vs. Manning debate, Peyton was the ultimate rival and ended Tom Brady and the Patriots season more times than anyone else.
This isn’t going to be another Brady vs. Manning article, nor will it be one where we dive into all the allegations that surround Manning as he calls it quits. This is about tipping the cap to a rival who enhanced all of our football viewing experiences over the last 15-plus years.
The painful place to start with Manning are the six times he beat the Patriots, the most painful of which were the 2006, 2013 and 2015 AFC Championships. Then there’s the most infamous regular season loss of Belichick’s reign, the 4th-and-2 game. Of those, the 2006 AFC Championship and the 4th-and-2 game stand out the most.
In 2013, the decimated Pats were a shell of themselves in the AFC Championship, and in 2015 Manning was a shell of himself. Those weren’t defining Patriots vs. Peyton games. But 2006’s AFC Championship was one of those infamous Patriots dynasty games where I remember every single ebb and flow of the game, and the 2009 4th-and-2 game played out much the same way — Patriots get a big lead, Manning hits unstoppable mode and the Pats run out of gas right at the end. There aren’t many worse ways to lose a game, especially if it’s to go to the Super Bowl, but those two games embodied everything about what made Manning great, and a terrifying opponent to face.
Beating Manning was what defined the early days of the Patriots dynasty. In 2003 and 2004, Manning was lighting up the rest of the NFL, but it was the New England defense, a veteran squad perfectly in tune with Bill Belichick, that got the last laugh four times in those two seasons, including twice in the playoffs. Those were the years that established Brady-Manning, despite them meeting twice in 2001 to little fanfare.
Then came 2005, when the Patriots’ defense had started to come apart. That made it open season for Manning as he led the Colts to three-straight wins – including 2006’s regular season win in Foxboro, the last time Manning would beat Brady in New England. And after capturing his first Super Bowl in 2006, Brady-Manning/Patriots-Peyton truly became a rivalry.
Then came the Pats’ offensive retooling in 2007 that set the stage for another one of the best games in the Patriots recent history. Both teams were undefeated when they faced off in the middle of the season and the Pats would come from behind to knock Manning off in Indy, the last time they’d ever beat Peyton on the road.
Manning’s Bronco years saw Denver travel to New England three straight seasons from 2012-2014 and lose all three in epic fashion. In 2012 the Pats put up 250 rushing yards on the Broncos in a 31-21 win. In 2013, the Pats erased a 24-0 halftime deficit to win 34-31 in overtime. Finally, in 2014, the Patriots left no doubt, hammering the Broncos in all aspects 43-21.
It was that game in 2014 when I knew it might be last time to catch a Brady-Manning game. I met up before the game with Nick Stevens (aka Fitzy), George Kippenham (aka the “other” Pats guy”) and Jerry Thornton. Then we watched the Pats destroy Manning and the Broncos in a game that featured just about everything you could ask for. It was pretty much the perfect day and one I’ll never forget. We hoped at the time it would be the last ever Brady-Manning game, but we just had to settle for it being the last Brady win over Manning. I’ll take it.
As the venue shifted back to Denver, starting with the 2013 AFC Championship, things unfolded differently, culminating with two fluky games in 2015 that defined (and ended) the Patriots’ season.
For all the talk of the Brady-Manning rivalry, after 2007 all that really mattered was who was playing at home. In each game from that point the home team always seemed to get the bounces, or catch fire with unstoppable momentum at the key moments.
What will I remember most about facing a Peyton Manning team? That no lead, no matter how large, was ever safe. Manning always seemed to know exactly where to go with the ball and who to pick on. Bill Belichick got plenty of criticism trying to close the 4th-and-2 game out by going for it in his own territory, but that sums up facing Peyton Manning. Once he got a read on things it was near impossible to stop him.
The AFC just won’t be the same without Peyton Manning. No matter how he looked at the end of last season, just knowing that the Patriots won’t have to face him and all the storylines and attention the game would receive is both exciting and sad. Exciting because it’s one less thing to worry about on the way to the Super Bowl, but sad because we’ll never see two of the great QBs to ever play the game face off again.
He is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. I don’t care to convince anyone which quarterbacks were better or worse than him. He will always be a huge part of the Patriots history and his legacy is unavoidably enmeshed with Belichick and Brady’s.
The Pats had their moments vs. Manning, and he had his moments against them. Now, at the end of it all, it’s easy to say he made football better for even Patriots fans, whether they were beating him or losing to him. He gave you a million reasons to watch, to be nervous, to want to beat him, and almost every single game was an epic battle. Whether you loved or hated him, he reset the bar for NFL quarterback play and it was a privilege to watch him compete.