The 14th career matchup between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, a 34-31 Patriots overtime victory on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” Nov. 24, checked in as the 14th most-watched television program — and 14th most-watched NFL game — this fall, drawing 26.5 million viewers.
The only surprise was that it didn’t rank higher on the list, though perhaps the Broncos’ 24-0 halftime lead encouraged some viewers to click off the TV and get a decent night’s sleep.
With Brady-Manning XV — apparently featuring the other 90 active players as very special guest stars — set to air 3 p.m. Sunday on CBS, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the ratings are all but assured of dwarfing those from the regular-season matchup, even without the prime-time window.
No one with a genuine interest in football will be checking out early this time around. This AFC Championship game, with two legend-in-their-own-time quarterbacks and such high stakes, is one to be savored.
“This is even more special in that I think we’re all wondering how many more times we’re going to see the two of them playing each other in a really meaningful showdown game,’’ said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus.
“I think there is a certain almost nostalgia in looking at two players who are certainly maybe not at the end of their careers, but in the latter stages of their careers. You always wonder how many more times we’re going to be fortunate enough to see this.
“This arguably is this generation’s greatest two quarterbacks meeting again in the playoffs. Who knows how many more times this is going to happen in the future? So I think we should all just savor this opportunity, and we are thrilled to be there to document it.”
CBS’s coverage begins at 2 p.m. with “The NFL Today’s” one-hour pregame show. Dan Marino will have a sit-down with Brady, while Shannon Sharpe will have a conversation with Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas. It will be a mild upset if Sharpe, who spent 10 years and won a pair of Super Bowls with Denver, isn’t dressed in full Broncos regalia during the segment.
CBS’s No. 1 broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will call the game. They were in Denver last weekend for the Broncos’ victory over the Chargers in the divisional round, and this will be the fifth time they’ve done a Patriots game this season. No broadcast tandem has seen more of Brady and Manning over the years.
Nantz said that familiarity has only made them appreciate the rivalry and anticipate what Sunday might bring even more.
“I think it transcends the NFL. This is something everyone wants to see,’’ he said. “This is tantamount to Ali-Frazier one more time. This is Palmer-Nicklaus. This is Bird-Magic.
“I’m not trying to create some sort of synthetic drama here, but this is what it is. This is as big as it gets. You say Brady-Manning, I defy anyone to say there is anything that has been bigger in this league.”
It’s been suggested the game might mean more to Manning’s legacy than to Brady’s. After all, Brady has won three Super Bowls in five appearances, and this is his eighth AFC Championship game. He’s 2-1 in the postseason against Manning, who for all of his extraordinary accomplishments has a losing record in the postseason (10-11), with one Super Bowl victory in two appearances.
Simms, however, doesn’t buy such a theory. No matter the outcome, he believes both players’ storied place in the game’s history is secure.
“Somebody said their legacies, both of them, are at stake in this game at this time,’’ said Simms. “I don’t care what either one of them does in this game. It will never change what I think of them.
“If one of them goes out and has the worst game of his career and is the sole reason why they lose, it will not bring them down one single bit in my eyes. They’ve done so much for the league, and their teams, and themselves, there is nothing that can diminish it.”
While a Manning-Brady matchup would seem to make more sense as Sunday’s prime-time game, it is the matinee because the start times of the conference finals are set before the participants are determined.
But it’s not as if Fox has an unappealing matchup in the NFC Championship. The first of two games between the 49ers and Seahawks aired on “Sunday Night Football” Sept. 15 and drew 20.5 million viewers, making it the 29th most-watched program this fall. The second showdown between the NFC West rivals, a Fox telecast Dec. 8, was the eighth most-watched program with 27.6 million viewers.
And while the quarterbacks aren’t of the historical magnitude of Brady-Manning, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick are in the fledgling stages of a potentially long-running and compelling rivalry.
Wilson wasn’t at his sharpest in the Seahawks’ 23-15 win over the Saints in the divisional round; he threw for just 103 yards on nine completions. Studio analyst Jimmy Johnson indicated the rubber match could hinge on whether the Niners can keep Wilson in the pocket.
“In some of the ballgames you look at, teams have kind of kept him from getting out of the pocket and made him really a pocket passer,’’ Johnson said. “They still have a great running back [Marshawn Lynch], but I think at times they’ve struggled a little bit on the outside as far as the wide receiver position. That’s one reason they were trying to force-feed Percy Harvin into the lineup. It’ll be interesting to see what San Francisco does.”
It will be interesting to see what all four teams do Sunday. It’s hard to imagine a more compelling NFL final four. And when it’s all over, the ratings once again will confirm the massive interest.Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.