Before the anticlimax of Super Bowl XLVIII there was the battle between Tom Brady’s Patriots and Peyton Manning’s Broncos for the AFC Championship. The NFL had the game it wanted, a marquee matchup between the not only two of the best teams in the league, but the two teams with the best rivalry in professional football. And even as the players walked off the field and into a Mile High sunset the rivalry looks poised to keep growing.
The Broncos and Patriots have smartly built themselves into two of the most stable franchises in the NFL. Canadian oil baron Pat Bowlen purchased the Broncos in 1984 and businessman Robert Kraft the Patriots in 1994. Both have run their teams as the best owners typically do: hiring the right executives and coaching staffs and giving the teams the money they need to win.
For the Patriots, the hiring of Bill Belichick ushered in one the NFL’s greatest winning streaks. Since 1995 the team has appeared in five Super Bowls, winning three, and Belichick has been voted Coach of the Year multiple times. The Broncos have changed coaches five times and lost more Super Bowls than they have won but have also had many more winning years then not and are always among the league’s most competitive and entertaining teams. Together, few other franchises are as consistently relevant in the NFL than the Broncos and Patriots.
In the last few decades the NFL has been more than happy to put the two teams on each others’ schedules; since 2000 there has been fourteen games played, 11 during the regular season and three in the playoffs, both teams winning seven games during the stretch. But familiarity hadn’t grown into a contemptuous relationship until the last few years, the result of the Patriot’s dominance since Tom Brady took over and the Manning injury that landed him in Denver.
Not that Manning and Brady didn’t already have a history. While playing for the Colts the two had faced each other 11 times with Indy only winning four. Fortunately for Manning one of those four was in the AFC Championship Game that brought him to Super Bowl XLI and Indy’s Bears beat-down. Since then Peyton has had to watch Eli somewhat inexplicably win two Super Bowls and then wait by the proverbial phone for someone to give him another shot. From one Hall of Famer to another, John Elway made the call to keep Manning’s career going.
Of course a great rivalry is built on more than a tale of two quarterbacks. Coming off a mystifying loss to the Ravens the year before, the 2013 Broncos were built to do nothing but get to the Super Bowl with a historically good offense and bend-but-don’t-break defense. On the other side, the Patriots looked like a team in a rebuilding mode. The offensive talent was young and unheralded with a pool of mediocre running backs, the league’s best tight end was on injured reserve, his backup was in jail, and team had little more than a middling defense. Yet in week 12, in perhaps the regular season’s best game, New England fought back against a 24-point deficit and handed the Broncos their worst regular season loss of the year.
Belichick and Brady seemed to have the will to make any team a contender and for one of the first times in the 2013 season the Broncos looked beatable. With five games left before the playoffs it seemed inevitable: the two best teams in the AFC, would meet again.
The final game in Denver, played in balmy mid-60 degree weather in front of a jubilant stadium bursting at the seams, gave broadcaster ABC the second highest AFC Championship Game ratings in 27 years.
Flash forward, way past the worst Super Bowl in recent memory, to the NFL’s free-agent signing period. The Broncos were major players, poaching three massively talented defensive players and a quality Wide Receiver and signaling to the league they were willing to do whatever it takes to get off the turf, patch their holes, and go back to the Big Game. Unexpectedly, the Patriots were the other big spenders, signing two of the leagues’ best corner backs in an obvious attempt to counter Denver’s passing game.
Like two heavyweight fighters on stage, standing nose-to-nose, daring the other to throw the first punch. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and their teams are poised to keep ratcheting up the rivalry. Another fight is looms on the horizon; both the Broncos and Patriots won their division and are guaranteed to play each other in 2014.
Commentary by Andrew Elfenbein