- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

Just once, could two great quarterbacks — in this case, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — give us a great playoff game, one we’ll be watching replays of on the International Football League Network 50 years from now? This is the third postseason go-round for Brady and Manning and, well, we’re still waiting for the epic knock-down-drag-out fight we know they both have in them.

Up to now, it has mostly been Manning who hasn’t delivered. In the 2003 playoffs, the Patriots intercepted him four times. The following year, he failed to throw a touchdown pass against them. Brady didn’t exactly light it up in those games, either, but he played efficiently enough to help New England win.

It would be nice, though, if the two quarterbacks brought their “A” games when they meet again Sunday at the RCA Dome. After all, postseason showdowns like this — involving two Hall of Fame locks who are in their prime as QBs — don’t come along very often.

(You certainly couldn’t put the ‘03/‘04 Brady-Manning matchups in that category; it was still early in the game for Tom, and Peyton had yet to have his 49-TD year. But now they’re both unquestionably headed to Canton, no matter how many annoying commercials Manning makes from here on out.)

Indeed, with this third playoff get-together, Brady and Manning are officially joined at the hip pads — much as Brett Favre and Steve Young (Favre beat Young three out of four times in the postseason), Dan Marino and Jim Kelly (Kelly, 3-0) and Roger Staubach and Fran Tarkenton (Staubach, 2-1) were in bygone days. More than mere rivals, they define each other; and unless Peyton starts outdueling Tom when it matters most, he’ll always be thought of as second best.

In olden times, these playoff collisions of Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks happened on almost an annual basis. Take the ‘50s, for instance. In every NFL title game from 1950 to ‘55, there was a Canton-quality quarterback on both sides of the field. You had Otto Graham vs. the two-headed Bob Waterfield/Norm Van Brocklin monster in ‘50 and ‘51, Graham vs. Bobby Layne from ‘52 to ‘54, Graham vs. Van Brocklin again in ‘55. The decade before, you had Sammy Baugh squaring off for the championship against Sid Luckman three times (‘40, ‘42, ‘43) and against Waterfield once (‘45) — all in the space of six years.

No longer. Nowadays, the biggest games — the conference title games and Super Bowls — are likely to feature quarterbacks like Trent Dilfer, Tony Eason, David Woodley, Shaun King, Kordell Stewart and Rex Grossman. So when you get a pairing like Brady-Manning III, it’s something to be savored … because next year we could be looking at Kyle Boller vs. David Garrard.

Timing is crucial in these matchups. You don’t want Johnny Unitas, age 38, facing off against Bob Griese, age 26, for the ‘71 AFC championship. You’d much rather that Johnny was five years younger, if not a decade. Then he might not throw three picks, one of which is returned for a touchdown, in a 21-0 loss.

Luck also is important. Consider the ‘96 playoff game pitting Favre, that year’s MVP, against Young, the 1994 MVP. It figured to be the highlight of the postseason, but lousy field conditions hamstrung both quarterbacks, and then Young exited with a cracked rib in the first quarter. That turned it into a Favre vs. Elvis Grbac affair — and a runaway victory for Green Bay.

Even if timing and luck are on their side, though, the quarterbacks still have to do their part — and play up to their press clippings. It’s rare that both actually do. The only time Kelly and John Elway crossed paths in the playoffs, in the ‘91 AFC Championship game, fans were treated to a scoreless first half, a thigh bruise that sidelined Elway in the late going, an off-the-bench performance by Gary Kubiak (11 of 12 for 136 yards) that put the starting QBs to shame and a totally forgettable 10-7 Buffalo win.

Such is the backdrop of Brady-Manning III. As you can painfully see, there’s only a slight chance we’ll get a classic like the Troy Aikman-Steve Young shootout for the ‘92 NFC championship (322 passing yards for Aikman, 313 for Young). A much more likely scenario is that one quarterback will play pretty well, the other won’t play well at all, and somebody like the Patriots’ Jabar Gaffney or the Colts’ Bob Sanders will steal the limelight.

But a man can dream, can’t he?

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