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October 06. 2012 7:58PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Manning vs. Brady renewed

Weeks like these — with the football world awaiting the next showdown between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — used to be seven days full of debate. There were points, and there were counterpoints. Some would bring up the numbers, while others cited the number of rings. It was all driven toward deciding who was the best quarterback of his generation, and thus deserving of a higher place among the all-time greats.

This week, though, has been relatively quiet in that regard. And rightfully so.

Because the debate is basically over.

After a decade spent fighting over the same exclusive territory near the top of both the conference standings and the statistical leaderboards, Manning’s arrival at Gillette Stadium this afternoon provides an opportunity to acknowledge the reality that has become apparent over recent seasons: Brady is better.

That’s no slight of Manning, really. He has been consistently excellent throughout his career, maintaining his elite level of performance even while playing through a neck injury that eventually cost him a year and impelled the end of his days in Indianapolis. Even as a Bronco he’s been generally terrific, tossing eight touchdowns so far.

But gone are the days when the debate between the two era-defining quarterbacks could be quintessentially broken down to putting Manning’s impressive production up against Brady’s lengthy credentials as a winner — in large part because even as Brady has continued to win games, and divisions, and conferences, he’s simultaneously closed the gap on (or even surpassed) Manning statistically.

Supporting Manning used to be as simple to pointing to his monster numbers. But now it’s Brady who holds the all-time record for scoring passes in a season, with 50. It’s Brady who is one of four QBs ever to throw for 5,000 yards in a season. It’s Brady whose 2.65 touchdown-to-interception ratio is second in history. And, perhaps most surprising to those who touted Manning’s stats earlier in his career, it’s actually Brady who has the higher passer rating (96.5-94.9).

That’s a result borne of the fact that although Manning has thrown 100 more touchdowns than Brady, the Patriot has actually thrown a higher percentage of his passes for scores during his career (5.6-5.5), while concurrently having thrown a smaller percentage of his passes for interceptions (2.1-2.7). Brady’s rate there is second-best ever, with Manning having thrown 85 more picks — and before assuming that’s because Manning is throwing the ball downfield more often, know that the two QBs are separated by just a 10th of a yard in terms of how much they gain per passing attempt.

Brady was the quarterback of the highest-scoring team of all-time when he had Randy Moss and Wes Welker in 2007, as well as the quarterback who tied a league record by throwing scores to a dozen different receivers when he had a less remarkable supporting cast in 2005. And though Manning has four MVP awards, one of Brady’s two was the only unanimous vote in NFL history.

Oh, then there’s the standard by which all great quarterbacks are measured. Winning. And there Brady’s case becomes even stronger.

After all, it’s Brady whose 142-43 overall record is the best of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era. It’s Brady whose 16 playoff wins tie him with Joe Montana for the most ever. It’s Brady whose five AFC championships are three more than Manning, even though Manning has played three more years.

And, of course, it’s Brady who has won three Super Bowls, compared to one for Manning, and certainly earned each of them in becoming the only quarterback ever to lead three title-winning fourth-quarter drives.

Brady would have five of each if it wasn’t for another Manning — as Eli has twice undone Brady’s heroics with his own. So when he’s eventually done there could actually be some disagreement about which of Archie’s boys really had the bigger impact on Brady’s legacy. At this point it sets up as an argument over whether it’s the contemporary to which he was most often compared or the guy who two times beat him on the biggest stage. It’s a decent debate.

What’s no longer, however, is who is the best quarterback among the three.

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UNDERRATED: Willis McGahee. Probably overrated early in his career, McGahee has seemingly settled into a comfortable place at Denver. Since the start of 2011 he’s averaging better than 80 yards per game and a strong 4.8 per carry. Manning could becomes all the more dangerous if the Pats can’t slow McGahee today.

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OVERRATED: The softness of the Patriots’ schedule. Based on last year’s results, the Patriots entered this season with the easiest slate in all of football. Already, though, parity has changed that landscape. The Cardinal and Raven clubs New England lost to are a combined 7-2, while this next pre-bye stretch of Denver, Seattle, the Jets and St. Louis doesn’t look nearly as soft as it once did, and games against conference favorites Houston and San Francisco loom in December.

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KEEP AN EYE ON: Von Miller. He was the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year last season, and this year he looks to be on the verge of reaching an even higher level. Already he’s got three sacks and four more tackles for loss, and his impact on one side has helped free Elvis Dumervil for 2.5 sacks.

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KEY MATCHUP: Pats secondary vs. Broncos receivers. Manning’s two favorite targets are Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, so a New England secondary that’s still a work in progress and will be without starting safety Steve Gregory will be put to the test early. The harder it is for Manning to find those guys, the more likely he is to make a mistake.

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STAT OF THE WEEK: Brady and the Patriots played two games against the Broncos last year, winning both by a total score of 86-33. In those games, the Patriots QB went 49-for-68 (.721), for 683 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception. That’s an aggregate passer rating of 137.0.

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Dave D’Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com. Twitter: @davedonofrio


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