The long-held theory at this address is that it is impossible to overhype a game that has Peyton Manning leading one offense and Tom Brady the other received strong corroboration this week — and it came via one of the aforementioned quarterbacks.
In the week of buildup for the 16th matchup between the two iconic-in-their-own-time passers, Brady was asked what the game — vs. longtime rival Manning and the Broncos — means to him. “You wait a year to play this game,’’ Brady said. “It doesn’t get better than this.”
Now, let’s recognize that in the realm of player chatter before a big game, his comment was hardly akin to Joe Namath guaranteeing victory before Super Bowl III. But given that Brady, who in his 14 decorated seasons as the Patriots’ starting quarterback has mastered the art of affable, engaging conversation while revealing absolutely nothing of controversy or consequence, it was telling in itself that he didn’t fall into one-game-at-a-time cliché.
Brady’s acknowledgment that this one had been circled on his mental calendar essentially since the schedule had been revealed — heck, probably since the Patriots’ 2013 season ended ignominiously in Denver in January — told us all we needed to know about its importance.
This matchup was not overhyped, even if a Google search of “Brady Manning hype” provides more than 8,000 results just in the past week. (Whether it actually lived up to the justified hype depends on your rooting interest, given the Patriots’ 43-21 win.) A Brady-Manning duel, at their combined ages of 75 years and 11 months old, is one to be savored, like Bird-Magic in the ’80s, or other timeless rivalries in the annals of sports.
“Let’s put this in perspective,” said Boomer Esiason on CBS’s “NFL Today” pregame show. “This is Russell-Chamberlain. This is Bird-Magic. It’s Ali-Frazier, Nicklaus-Palmer. Everything we want. Behind the scenes these two guys are as competitive as there has ever been at the quarterback position.”
The Patriots and Broncos were the predominant topics on all of the Sunday studio programs, which naturally led to a wobbly balance between insightful praise (“I think Brady elevates everyone’s play all around the board, whether it is on the defensive side or the offensive side.” – NFL Network’s Shaun O’Hara) and utter nonsense (“Jack Del Rio has taken this [Denver] defense to a totally different level. So, if you are asking who the pressure’s on, I truly believe today the pressure will be on Tom Brady.” – ESPN’s Ray Lewis).
Jim Nantz and Phil Simms were on the call for CBS, the 70th-something Patriots game they have called together. If you’ve heard them twice – once might suffice — you know what to expect. A professional if deferential call by Nantz — he really does perk up when Patriots owner Robert Kraft is on the screen – and dueling insights and malapropisms from Simms. But at least Simms has an opinion, even if it isn’t always correct.
After Julian Edelman returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown, Simms opined that blocker Tim Wright committed a clip. The replay only emboldened the analyst. “Whaddaya think?” asked Nantz as Wright appeared to push a would-be tackler in the shoulder. “I think it wasn’t called,’’ said Simms. It’s to CBS’s credit that it called upon former referee Mike Carey to explain what he saw: “A good no-call,” he said.
Whether hype and anticipation translates to massive ratings for CBS is a mystery that will be solved when Nielsen reveals the numbers tomorrow. It is doubtful that many viewers turned away even with the Patriots holding a 20-point halftime lead given the potency of the Broncos’ offense and the Patriots’ rally from a 24-point deficit in the regular-season meeting last year.
It’s curious that Manning’s matchups with the Patriots through the years haven’t delivered a significant uptick in ratings in the Boston market. The highest locally rated regular-season game in Patriots history is the 2007 season finale vs. the Giants, when the quest for a 16-0 record simulcast on Chs. 4, 7, and the NFL Network drew combined 50.1 rating and a 75 share.
The second-highest-rated game is a Patriots-Broncos showdown from December 2011. But Manning wasn’t the Denver quarterback then. A scrambling scatter-armed southpaw named Tim Tebow was. That game, a 41-23 Patriots victory, drew a 46 rating and 68 share on CBS.
The only Brady-Manning regular-season game to crack the top 10 highest-rated Patriots games in the Boston market occurred in November 2010, when a 31-28 win at Gillette drew a 42 rating and a 67 share.
It should be noted that the Patriots-Broncos playoff game in January was the tied for the highest-rated conference championship game since 1997. Chances are these two teams will run into each other again. The hype was understandable, and it will be again. But this time around, Brady-Manning was more like Tyson-Spinks — or Brady-Tebow — than the classic it was expected to be. The Patriots didn’t believe the hype. They exceeded it.
Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.