5. Mantle vs. Mays
The greatest American sports rivalry of our time, and perhaps any time, begins with a simple fact: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning don’t play against each other. They don’t gameplan against each other. They don’t break down each other’s weaknesses or avoid each other’s strengths or challenge each other’s will. They are never even on the field at the same time.
They will remind us of this every time their teams play. Every time. Sunday night, Manning’s Broncos play Brady’s Patriots. It will be the 14th time their teams have faced each other. And, like the previous 13, the two men went out of their way to remind us how it’s a team sport and that they are not REALLY going against each other.
“It’s more of the defense that plays against him,” Brady tells reporters in New England.
And, halfway across the country in Denver, Manning tells reporters more or less the same thing: “Our offense knows what kind of challenge our defense is facing going against Tom.”
But, maybe, this is beside the point. Great rivalries do not need direct contact. They don’t need any contact at all. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays only faced off once in a World Series, that was 1962, and by then the rivalry was coming to the end. By then, Mays and the Giants had left New York. By then, Mantle’s knees were shot; the late nights were beginning to catch up to him. In the series, Mays hit .250 without a home run, Mantle hit .120 without an RBI, and the Yankees won in seven largely because pitcher Ralph Terry had the series of his life. It was a letdown.
But the Mantle-Mays rivalry never had much to do with how they did AGAINST each other. That rivalry was about an ideal. It was about imagination. Mays was the joyous wonder with all five tools — hit, slug, run, field, throw — and a style of play that made your heart want to jump out of your chest. He would run across the outfield after distant fly balls, and the hat would fly off his head, and he would catch it underhand style and he would whirl and throw and fall to the ground and it was all so ecstatic and wonderful. Then, after the game, he might play stickball in the street with local kids.
Mantle, meanwhile, depicted cool, not unlike James Dean. You might notice the slight limp when he walked and remember when he ran as fast as anyone. You might sense the lifting fog from the night before and wonder how anyone could hit like that with a hangover. Mantle would dig in at the plate, either side, and he swung hard, and when he connected he hit baseballs so far that men were inspired to try and measure the distance. Mantle, without even trying, invented the tape-measure home run.
So their rivalry was fought in the minds of children who gravitated toward one or the other. Who would you rather be? Batman or Superman? Sinatra or Elvis? Mantle or Mays?
Manning or Brady? Peyton Manning is the more deliberate of the two passers. Every move he makes seems calculated, planned out, perfectly practiced. You could imagine him training with a sensei. His throwing motion is lifted right out of the pages of “Throw Like A Real NFL Quarterback.” Right over the top. Perfect form every time. His film sessions are legend around the team; nothing escapes his eye. Manning grew up around this game, of course, and so he understands every rhythm of it. You know how in the new “Sherlock Holmes” movies, Holmes can look at a scene and play out precisely how it will go before it ever happens? That’s Peyton Manning. He knows what a defender will do before the defender knows. He knows who will be open before he even reaches the line. He knows because he studied harder than anyone else.
Brady studies the game intently, too, prepares like no one else East (or West) or Manning, but there seems something more intense about the way he plays. If Manning is calculating, Brady is zealous. No one thought he could do this. He could not quite win the starting job in college at Michigan. As everyone knows, he was drafted in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft and might have had a different life if Patriots starter Drew Bledsoe had not gotten hurt in 2001. He has cried while talking about the pain he felt on draft day, the pain that so few people believed in him. And so even now — even after all the Super Bowls, all the broken records, all the Pro Bowls, even after he married a Brazilian supermodel — he plays with an edge, as if it all could be taken away.
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4. Bird vs. Magic
In all the years that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson faced off — from their breakthrough 1979 NCAA championship game through their revolutionary pro careers through three glorious NBA championships — they did not guard each other. Well, of course they didn’t. They did not play the same position. Magic was the point guard. Bird was the small forward. Their jobs were different. They had so many similar skills — about the same height, same weight, supreme passers, great ball-handlers for their size, feisty rebounders — but they did not play alike.
No, Magic Johnson’s game was a constant frontal attack, shock and awe, right at the basket, as fast as he could go. Bird’s game was counter-attack, an answer to whatever question you ask -- you back off a step, and I make the three; you come to close, I work around; you double-team, and I find the open man. Their rivalry was not about how they individually matched up; when considering Bird and Magic, nobody seemed to care who would win a one-on-one game. No, their rivalry was a battle of ideas — the Showtime Lakers and the precise Celtics —a battle of how basketball should be played. Maybe all great rivalries come down to that.
Brady and Manning are also similar — about the same height, same weight, relatively immobile, precise passers, quick thinkers, intense leaders — but their games are distinct. If you put them in street clothes and covered their faces when they played, there’s not even the slightest chance you would get them confused.
Manning would be the one pointing across the line, changing the play (or pretending to) and moving his players around. No, go there! Wait, check that, go over there! Manning is like Bird in that way, he counterpunches, he plays off whatever you give him. He has a play to parry any defense you throw at him. He has an idea that can blow up whatever strategy you try. Before Peyton Manning came along, a 4,000-yard passing season was remarkable even for the best quarterbacks. Manning made it routine. He is about to throw for 4,000 yards for the THIRTEENTH time Nobody else is even close to that (Drew Brees has done it seven times) but that’s because nobody else has so many countermoves and evasive actions and ways to negate the best laid plans.
Brady would be the one standing tall in the pocket, that remarkable balance that is his and his alone, and defenders would be buzzing all around him, and he would make just a subtle shift to give himself room and then unleash a wicked throw into the perfect spot. As much as people have said and written about Brady, few seem to talk about how strong his arm is. It is much stronger than Manning’s. He can whip sideline throws across the field and through the wind that only a handful of men — Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, Detroit’s Matt Stafford, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, a couple of others — can make.
The arm goes unnoticed, I think, because Tom Brady’s strong arm is almost beside the point, just like Magic Johnson’s great free-throw shooting was almost beside the point. There is something bigger to think about. Brady’s teams have had a winning record every single year he has been quarterback. Brady’s teams have won three Super Bowls and lost two others. Brady’s team went 16-0 one year. Brady’s teams have beaten Manning’s teams nine of the 13 times they have played. The great arm is a small thing compared to Tom Brady’s ability to consistently do what he needs to do in the big moments.
3. Chrissie vs. Martina
A great rivalry has contrast. Chris Evert hit from the baseline. Martina Navratilova served and volleyed. This made their tennis matches extraordinarily fun to watch. Navratilova would charge the net and go for the knockout. Evert would hit for the tiniest opening. Again and again. Their styles led to dramatic moments on nearly every point.
These weren’t simply the styles of tennis they played, though. These were encoded in their DNA. Evert was a steely-eyed champion who knew, in a way that only certain people know, that you would make the mistake before she would. You would wear down before she would. You would break mentally before she would. She was willing to stand on the baseline and keep returning every ball you hit for as long as necessary, and then even longer. At her best, she had players beaten before the match even started because they knew she would not stop hitting.
And Navratilova craved conflict, craved the clash that would decide the point, decide the match, because she believed that at the critical moment she would be better. Her attacking style led to countless small defeats, countless passing shots that skidded by her or lobs that floated over her head. She never worried about that and attacked even more vehemently the next time. At her best, she had players beaten before the match even started because they could not match her intensity.
Then, when they played each other, it was Evert’s metronomic brilliance against Navratilova’s relentless attack, and it was amazing.
The differences between Manning and Brady and more subtle. Manning tends to work underneath a bit more and that might explain his slightly higher career completion percentage (Manning 65.4, Brady 63.4). Brady tends to throw a better deep ball, which might explain his slightly lower interception percentage (Brady 2.1. Manning 2.6). But most of their numbers mirror each other:
Touchdown percentage: Manning 5.7, Brady 5.5
Yards per pass attempt: Manning 7.7. Brady 7.5
Yards per completion: Manning 11.7, Brady 11.8
Passer rating: Manning 96.8, Brady 95.8
The contrast, I think, is in their roles. Manning has been the whole show for more or less his entire career. Oh, he has played with many great players, but the point is that everything goes through him. He has played for four very different coaches — Jim Mora, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell and now John Fox (and, a fifth, interim coach Jack Del Rio) — and he has been the constant. No one doubts that to beat the Broncos (or, previously, the Colts) you had to stop Manning. The defenses for his teams have been spotty. The running games for his teams have been spotty. Peyton Manning has been front and center every year, every time.
With Brady, it’s different. He has had one coach, Bill Belichick, who many consider the best in the history of professional football. And so Tom Brady has had to play different roles for different teams. His first season as a starter, Brady was more game-manager than anything else. The Patriots won seven of their last eight games to reach the playoffs but only once scored 30 points in that stretch. The job was to protect the ball, to stand strong in the pocket, to help the defense and to make the big play in the final minutes. Brady showed genius for this right away.
In 2003, this was even truer. That Patriots team had the No. 1 defense in the NFL, a defense that five times held opponents to six or fewer points (three shutouts) and Brady had the be the right kind of quarterback for that team. He didn’t put up numbers (just 3,600 yards passing and 23 touchdown passes), but six times the Patriots won games by a touchdown or less, they went 14-2, and in the Super Bowl the Patriots needed Brady to go crazy, and he did, throwing for 354 yards and three touchdowns in a 32-29 free for all over Carolina.
In other years, of course, Brady was the most prolific passer in the NFL. In 2007, he threw for 4,806 yards and a record 50 touchdown passes. In 2011, he threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns. And so on. Manning is a constant, like Evert, the same brilliant quarterback doing the same brilliant things year after year after year. It’s the greatest passing act in the history of the NFL. Brady transforms into the quarterback he needs to be that year for his team to win.
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No. 2: Ali v. Frazier
Millions and millions of words have been spilled describing the rivalry between boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, but the best, I think, are those of Sports Illustrated’s Mark Kram, written in those moments just after their last fight, the Thrilla in Manila, when the savagery and bravery of the bout still glowed like embers from an extinguished fire:
"Who is it?" asked Joe Frazier, lifting himself to walk around. "Who is it? I can't see! I can't see! Turn the lights on!" Another light was turned on, but Frazier still could not see. The scene cannot be forgotten; this good and gallant man lying there, embodying the remains of a will never before seen in a ring, a will that had carried him so far—and now surely too far. His eyes were only slits, his face looked as if it had been painted by Goya. "Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city," said Frazier. "Lawdy, lawdy, he's a great champion." Then he put his head back down on the pillow, and soon there was only the heavy breathing of a deep sleep slapping like big waves against the silence.
Time may well erode that long morning of drama in Manila, but for anyone who was there those faces will return again and again to evoke what it was like when two of the greatest heavyweights of any era met for a third time and left millions limp around the world. Muhammad Ali caught the way it was: "It was like death. Closest thing to dyin' that I know of."
They pushed each other to places no fighter had ever gone. Ali talked and taunted outside the ring, and inside it, he floated and stung, flashed slashing punches that opened cuts and took the best hits anyone had. Frazier raged under Ali’s taunts, and inside the ring he pushed forward and threw left hooks that started down in that small South Carolina town of Beaufort, where he worked on his father’s farm, and crashed through Philadelphia where he was the real life Rocky Balboa who ran up museum steps and hit raw meat as part of training. And when they got into the ring together, yes, they were fighting for the heavyweight championship, but they were fighting for something else. Something larger. And something smaller too.
Every year, it seems, Tom Brady’s team and Peyton Manning’s team are playing for the Super Bowl. They have both been starting quarterbacks since 2001 (Manning actually goes back to 1998), so that makes 12 seasons, not counting this one. In those 12 seasons, Manning or Brady has been a starting quarterback in seven Super Bowls. In those 12 seasons, Manning’s teams have been in the playoffs 10 times, Brady’s teams 10 times. And for each of them, one miss was due to injury.
So they’re always playing for something important — this year, seemingly like always, they both lead their divisions. And beyond that, they know that they’re playing for their place in sports history. They won’t talk about that, of course, and they should not talk about it. Like Manning says, “That’s not for me to think about.” But they know. They are two of the greatest who ever played, and they are two of the more driven competitors in sports, and they face each other again and again with the nation watching.
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No. 1: Manning v. Brady
Some numbers: They have played 13 times. Tom Brady’s teams have won nine of them, including two of their three playoff games. But Indianapolis won probably the two best games. The Colts beat New England, 38-34, in the 2007 AFC Championship Game; that was the game where the Patriots led, 21-6, at the half and seemed to have Manning entirely frazzled. He was almost perfect in the second half. The Colts also beat New England, 35-34, in a 2009 regular-season thriller; that was the game where Manning was so amazing that Belichick went for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Manning has thrown the ball 100 more times than Brady in their 13 games. That makes sense when you consider his teams were usually behind. He has thrown four touchdown passes twice against New England’s defenses and has thrown for 25 in all. But he has also thrown 19 interceptions; Belichick’s defenses have often baffled Manning.
Brady, meanwhile, has thrown 24 touchdown passes and only 14 interceptions — four of those came in one poor game in 2006. Brady has completed almost 67 percent of his passes against Manning’s teams, the much higher percentage of the two. That too makes sense when you consider that he has probably faced the lesser defenses.
The people who love Peyton Manning will always point to his phenomenal skill as a passer. If he keeps playing, he will have every passing record. The job of a quarterback, they will say, is to score points, and Manning has done that as well as any quarterback ever. He did it with the Colts under conservative coaches in a dome. He does it in Denver, with high altitude and a changing cast and through the falling snow. These days, his arm can unleash some fluttering passes, and his body is a bit balky, and it just doesn’t matter. He’s completing 70 percent of his passes, and he leads the NFL in touchdown passes, and the Broncos offense looks unstoppable.
The people who love Tom Brady will always point to his championships and his durability. The team has changed around him countless times — look at how much this year’s team changes week to week. Receivers come and go, running backs come and go, the offensive line shifts, the league changes all around him. His team always wins. He always wins. People point out that this year Brady’s numbers are way down, he is not even completing 60 percent of his passes, he has 21 fewer touchdown passes than Manning and … so what? The Patriots and Tom Brady keep winning.
There has been some talk about this possibly being the last time they play. Of course, anything is possible — Manning is 37, Brady 36. But you get the feeling Brady and Manning don’t feel close to the end yet. Anyway, even after this, the playoffs are coming. That’s the beautiful thing about the Manning-Brady rivalry. As big as this game is, the next game always might be even bigger.