When Bill Belichick took over as coach of the New England Patriots in 2000, he inherited a talented team that he was able to turn into a champion the following year, with the help of a sixth-round draft pick who, even at the time, held the potential to be a relative flash in the pan (not like we cared). Before the Patriots faced this Broncos this weekend, standard-issue Patriots hating, which began about three years later, has turned to begrudging but sincere appreciation of what Belichick has accomplished over the last decade.
Friend of the blog and Steelers fan Sarah Sprague, writing on Kissing Suzy Kolber, admitted of the Patriots: "I cannot hate them. They've been amazing for the past decade and as a fan of football, I cannot take away from what they have accomplished on the field with something as petty as hate." Drew Magary didn't even bother choosing between the Broncos and Pats: "They're both awesome," he wrote, "and nothing that happens on Sunday will offer incontrovertible proof that one is better than the other."
There are those, like Chad Finn, who believe that Sunday's game is a referendum on Manning, but, win or lose, it is almost unthinkable that he will be the cause of Denver's demise. He most certainly wasn't the problem last year, and he was hardly the problem earlier this year in Foxboro, in a game that featured 11 fumbles on a freezing night that ended after a weird punt bounce gave the Patriots the field position they needed to kick a game-winning field goal.
If the Broncos lose today, would one Super Bowl win be enough for his "legacy?" Short and long answer: yes. In favorably comparing Manning to the other one-time Super Bowl-quarterback to whom he is compared, Magary once wrote that Manning loved football, whereas Brett Favre loved playing football. Think now of this year's photo Peyton, ankle in an indoor pool of ice, following plays on the practice field outside via his helmet and iPad, and the image completes itself, but here's the thing: Peyton loves to play it as well. How do I know? Herman Edwards. You play to win. Manning and the Patriots have won for so long that we're no longer sick of it—we're to the point that we can remember it, and like any thrilling experience, you remember it fondly if you remember it at all. The "rivalry," such as it is, has superseded the bottom-line Super Bowl victories tally, to some degree. That's good.
Manning deserves it. He's a treasure. His arm-waving mania exposes him not merely a giant football dork, which he is, but a master. Their tedium is precisely the point; it is all an act, like Peyton talking to that Buick in that commercial (cars can't talk, duh). As much as Peyton's everydude sponsorship lineup gets more cloying by the second, we're anywhere from two weeks to eight months away from a "Cut That Meat!" reprise, and the gooey, happy feeling of the past, to go with the awful, soggy mozzarella from our telephones. ("That's actually funny!" We'll all say, before getting Annoyed On Twitter.) But on the sets of those dozens of commercials, I'd bet dollars to sizzlin' sides that between takes, Peyton thinks about football—where Ed Reed lined up in 2006, or what T.Y. was thinking against Tennessee when he ran that out option instead of a fly.
But when he's gesticulating? I don't think he's thinking all that. He's conveying information via document dump; if you don't know what page to look on, it's a mess. But if you do, it's beautiful—a masterpiece, completely invisible. In a league where the greatness of its players is overstated by design, the degree of Manning's brilliance is likely still not yet understood.
If Manning's single defining quality is "smart," Brady's is likely "angry." He barks at the line, swears at referees and generally operates like Dick Cheney with a football. If the purported revelation in the Bill Belichick/Bill Cowher interview was that the Patriots' coach can be goofy and fun (enough), Brady has slowly turned from a competition junkie to a literally raging one, the only respite from which is the priceless gag of teammates leaving him hanging when he solicits high-fives. He seems to enjoy the joke well enough, but I hope he hates it deep-down and is so angry that he fills that empty hand with a Lombardi trophy, just to show everyone. In five hours, he'll be one step closer, or Peyton will be happily relaxing with a nice, cold Bud Light, arranging visits with his New York management team because, you know, he'll be in town.