Most commentators are drawing the wrong lesson from Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on 4th and 1 against the Colts. They think it was about Belichick. In fact, it was all about Peyton Manning.
As I argued last year, Manning-Brady is the greatest individual rivalry in team sports history. At first, it followed the usual Stats Monster vs. Mr. Clutch debate; Manning put up the monster statistics and Brady won the Super Bowls with game-winning drives. In this regard, it was similar to the other great individual rivalries: Wilt vs. Russell, Marino vs. Montana, ARod vs. Jeter**.
* This is where Babe Ruth and Wayne Gretzky stand alone. They were Stats Monsters of the highest order and ran out of fingers to put rings on.
Then two things happened. One, Manning won a title. That’s not unusual. Critics of great athletes in team sports who claim certain guys lack the magical something required to win a championship are often proven wrong (see: Rodriguez, Alex, 2009). But then something truly unusual happened: Tom Brady became a Stats Monster in 2007, putting up single-season numbers that rivaled Manning’s 2004 season and Dan Marino’s 1984 season. This simply doesn’t happen.
Peyton Manning, meanwhile, has continued his morphing from mere Stats Monster to the most dangerous player in football, a guy who is on that rarified level of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods – guys who aren’t simply better, smarter, and more prepared than everyone else – but the guy who has all of those things AND has the desire and the coolness to rip your heart out and then toss it carelessly aside.
The Sports Guy, a Brady acolyte who used to belong firmly to the “Manning is a mere Stats Monster” camp acknowledged this in his piece before Monday night’s game.
And Bill Belichick acknowledged it when he went for it on 4th down. The Colts may not have a running game. The Colts may have Reggie Wayne and a bunch of rookies at wide receiver. The Colts may have had Dallas Clark successfully limited by the Patriots’ linebacking corps.
But the Colts have Peyton Manning. And Bill Belichick did not want the ball in his hands under any circumstances.
Only a few years ago, many people still gave Brady the nod as the best QB in football, or at least tied with Manning. But now, most people seem to think of them as 1 and 1A. Indeed, a poll of Hall of Fame quarterbacks, announced during the broadcast, showed that they picked Manning over Brad by 13.5 to 2.5 (with one of Brady’s supporters being Terry Bradshaw, an above-average but not great quarterback who won 4 Super Bowls).
The only question now for Manning is this: will he go down as the greatest of all time?