Wednesday, November 09, 2005

As if that settled anything

All your skinny-post routes are belong to us

One of the first posts I ever made to Down and Distance when I started it in January concerned Peyton Manning vs. the Patriots -- and, specifically, Manning vs. Tom Brady. In fact, one of the reasons I got into the blog business was that I was so exasperated over how the Colts-Pats/Manning-Brady discussion had long since left the realm of good-natured sports debate and become a bitter, highly emotional (and badly misspelled) flame war.

Brady partisans maintained that Manning was an overrated "system" quarterback who was more concerned with stats than with wins and who would not and could not beat the Patriots under any circumstances: regular season, playoffs, at home, on the road, Sunday afternoon, Thursday evening, Monday night. In short, the Patriots "owned" Manning. Bill Belichick was in Manning's head. The Colts' well-documented run of failure against the Patriots hung around the neck of Manning and Manning alone.

In that post back in January, I discussed the case of Brett Favre in the 1990s, a topic that has gotten a considerable amount of play in the past couple of weeks. Like Manning, Favre was once roundly condemned as a QB who put up gaudy stats (3,500-plus yards and 30-plus TDs a year) but was unable to win the Big One because another team (the Cowboys) were living rent-free inside his head. I said the whole concept of a player being "owned" by an opponent was B.S., and I concluded:
"Peyton Manning will not stop hearing how his career is defined by his record against the New England Patriots until -- well, until that one day when suddenly it isn't."

The question now is whether after Monday night's game, a thorough beatdown by the Colts, we have arrived at the day when Manning's career is no longer defined by his record against the New England Patriots.

Oh, I doubt it.

So many people have somehow gotten their egos invested in this issue that Football Outsiders was forced to banish all Irrational Brady-Manning Arguments to a separate thread, which has been active for well over a year now. One Colts victory over the Patriots, even at Gillette Stadium, isn't going to dispel all the karmic energy wasted on the topic or sop up all the ink devoted to it. Like a center-pivot irrigation rig in the arid West, this debate will go around and around, covering the same ground and even occasionally refreshing it, but never going anywhere.

I dread the gloating that's going to come from Colts fans, but I dread more the attacks that Brady's legions will level at Manning, because buriedwithing those broadsides are criticisms of their own quarterback, who amid all the hubbub has developed into the best QB in the league.

Here's what I'm hearing: Manning couldn't beat the Patriots until they had been decimated by injuries. Look, all this game proves is that the 2005 Indianapolis Colts are better than the 2005 New England Patriots -- or, at least, they are better in Week 9 of the 2005 regular season. The last time these teams met, it proved only that the 2004 Patriots were better than the 2004 Colts in the divisional playoffs, and so on and so on. That's all any game ever proves: One team is better than another team on that day. Were the Patriots weakened by injuries? Absolutely. Would the Colts have still won against a Pats team at full strength? There's no way to tell. Does it matter? Not really. Remember, the dig at Manning was that the Patriots -- not just the healthy Patriots -- "owned" him. That failure to succeed was a flaw within Manning himself. Indy's sketchy defense? The poor game plan drawn up for last year's divisional playoffs? Irrelevant. It was on Manning, no one else, to beat the Pats.

And if it's up to Manning to win by himself, why isn't it up to Brady to win by himself? To bring up the injuries is to acknowledge that there's much, much more to this than Manning vs. the Patriots or Manning vs. Brady. If it is indeed the quarterback's responsibility to beat the other team, why didn't Brady beat the Colts on Monday night? Because Brady, despite his great stats(!) in the game, wasn't on the better team. To say the past seven Colts losses were all on Manning is to say Monday night's loss was all on Brady, which is ridiculous.

The injury argument is really a variation on the Colts-haven't-played-anyone theme. As the saying goes, you can only play the games on your schedule. You can't decline to play the Houston Texans this week because it would look better to face the Denver Broncos. And you can't defer your game against New England until they're healthier. Besides, you think Belichick is telling his guys that they can go ahead and blame the injuries for the loss?

Imagine what people would be saying if New England had won on Monday night: Manning can't even beat the Patriots' third-stringers! The Patriots win because they're all about team!

Monday night's game was what it was. For the first time in a few years, the Colts were the better team than the Patriots.

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