New England Patriots loss: What does it mean for Tom Brady legacy?

New England Patriots and Tom Brady lost the AFC championship Sunday to the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning, 26-16. The Broncos head to the Super Bowl.

Joe Mahoney/AP
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady walks off the field during the following the first half of the AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos in Denver Sunday.

Amid all the fanfare that justifiably accompanies any game between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, Sunday offered an important bit of perspective.

The better team won.

There is no doubting that Manning was magnificent. By the end of the game, Manning could have spotted the New England Patriots defense a 12th player, and it wouldn't have much mattered, it seemed. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who tormented Manning so often early in Manning's career, got a healthy measure of payback. The Broncos won, 26-16, to advance to the Super Bowl Feb. 2, but the score hardly reflected the Broncos' dominance. 

Brady, meanwhile, had his issues at times. Crucially, on the road, against the highest-scoring team in National Football League history, Brady missed a wide-open Julian Edelman for a potential touchdown. Twice.

This is how narratives can sometimes shift. With the game on the line in Super Bowl two years ago, Brady also overthrew Wes Welker, who was unable to make a leaping, twisting catch. After Sunday's loss, Brady is now 8-8 in the playoffs, losing both the Super Bowls in which he's played since starting his playoff career a record 10-0 (with three Super Bowl wins).

Ironically, such storylines have defined Manning's career. Eight times, his team has been bounced from the playoffs without winning a game. Before this season, he was 9-11 in his playoff career. He has only won one Super Bowl.

Sunday was not exactly Freaky Friday. Brady never descended into "Peyton Manning face" territory. He never looked befuddled, as Manning so often did in the deep-freeze beatdowns the Patriots put on him (then with the Indianapolis Colts) in New England back in the 2003 and 2004 playoffs.

Instead, he merely ran his fingers through his hair as Manning completed yet another pass for a crucial first down late in the fourth quarter. Could Brady have lined up all the players on the 50-yard line and repicked teams, playground-style, the result might have been different, he knew.

The fact is, Manning was playing with a stacked deck. None of the Patriots' receivers would likely have even made the starting lineup for the Broncos, which fielded two Pro Bowlers and Brady's former favorite target, Welker. Meanwhile, Belichick's defense appeared to auditioning as extras for a zombie movie. Any list of the Patriots' best defensive players would probably begin with Vince Wilfork, Aquib Talib, and Jerrod Mayo. By the second quarter, all of them were out with injuries. (Wilfork and Mayo were out before the game even started.)

After the Broncos' opening drive of the game, Manning's team never punted.

Yet, in some ways, the same thing was true of Manning during Patriots' early-2000s heyday. The issue wasn't so much injuries for Manning as it was being outcoached by a team with a vastly superior defense. "It's not much of a stretch to say that if they had switched teams, Manning would be recognized as the superior quarterback," writes Allen Barra of Salon.

Think about it. Had Manning been the quarterback for the circa 2001-04 Patriots, would he have won fewer Super Bowls than Brady?

In 2004, the last year Brady won the Super Bowl, Manning threw 49 touchdowns to Brady's 28; 4,557 yards to Brady's 3,692; 10 interceptions to Brady's 14. Pair that Manning with Belichick's defense and he loses to Brady's Colts in New England?

Let's try this again.

Pair Brady with the Broncos' receivers Sunday and he loses to Manning's Patriots in Denver?

Possible? Certainly. But not likely, perhaps.

And that was what was on offer Sunday. A helpful serving of nuance.

On this day, Manning was the better quarterback by some margin. But maybe that margin didn't have much to do with him, at all.

Maybe, it's time we just acknowledge that both he and Brady are pretty darn good.

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