When all the adjectives are stacked, when all the numbers are dissected, when all the comparisons are held up to the light, we are left with this:
Statistically, Peyton Manning has had the finest year in the history of history.
And Tom Brady might have been better. For Manning, this always seems to be the way. No matter what he does, no matter how many records he sets, Brady's star seems to shine just a little brighter.
Manning throws 55 touchdowns, and Brady puts the Patriots on his back and carries them to the playoffs. Manning throws for 5,477 yards, and Brady succeeds despite losing Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez from his receiving corps. Manning is about to win his fifth MVP; Brady might be about to win his fourth Super Bowl.
In other words: Man, does Manning need this game.
Today, all of the pressure is on Manning. He is at home. His team is favored. And still, there is this haunting question: If the scored was tied and there were two minutes to play in a playoff game, who would you rather have: Manning or Brady?
Most of us would say Brady. Because he has won the big prize more often.
Simple as that.
It's odd. Manning, 37, has thrown for more than 36 miles, and he has thrown for 491 touchdowns, and he has made millions of dollars. But there is one stain on his record. He hasn't played particularly well in the playoffs.
And that's Brady's thing. You can argue that his coach has been better than Manning's, and his defense, and his offensive line. But you cannot argue against three Super Bowl titles, which, for quarterbacks, is the coin of the realm.
If Manning wins today, he can do a lot to dispel this reputation of underachieving in the playoffs. If he advances to another Super Bowl, if his Broncos can beat Brady's Patriots, then some of that, at least, goes away.
Ah, but if Manning loses, America will bash him over the head with the final score. It will talk about his 10-12 playoff record, and his career 4-11 record against the Patriots, and the way he has been one-and-done eight times, without pause. It doesn't matter if the Patriots win in triple overtime on a fumbled punt. Manning would own this defeat.
After all, as much as we love numbers, we don't quite trust them. Stats come against teams such as Cleveland and Houston. But a quarterback doesn't fake his way to a Super Bowl victory.
With all of his greatness, is there something missing in Manning? Is there a reason he has stumbled so often on the big stage? It's a common charge, one that has spread over the years from Don Shula to Phil Mickelson to Tony Dungy to the Dallas Cowboys, one that was proved incorrect by them all.
And now it is Manning's turn. There were the four interceptions in the playoff game against New England in 2003, remember? There was being held to three points by New England in 2005. There was the pick-six he threw against the Saints in a Super Bowl loss. There was his interception in a double-overtime loss to the Ravens last year.
Manning doesn't need another bit of evidence. Today, he needs to be the difference-maker.
Face it: If Brady, 36, were to lose today, well, there would be disappointment. But he has won enough that his own reputation would not suffer. After all of the Patriots' injuries this year, the country would tousle Brady's hair and send him toward next year. But not Manning.
At this point, Manning is in danger of becoming Wilt Chamberlain, the guy who had all the statistics while Bill Russell won most of the titles. And when you get right down to it, no one cares about how many yards you threw for against Cleveland. They just care about winning.
So here we go again, delving into another chapter of sports' finest rivalry. The guy with so many records vs. the guy with so many rings.
Today, Brady matters.
Today, Manning tries to matter more.
It is a fascinating rivalry. Time after time, these two have stared at each other across a sideline. This will be the 15th time they have played against each other. By comparison, Joe Montana and Dan Marino — the Brady and Manning of their day — played each other two times in their careers. Yet Montana won four Super Bowls. When they talk about great quarterbacks today, who takes Marino?
Don't get me wrong. It has been a terrific season for Manning, especially when you consider that only two years ago, there were some who feared for his future. He led the Broncos to 606 points, the most anyone ever has. He is now second all time as far as yards and touchdowns.
In other words, you would feel just fine about Manning's chances today. That is if someone other than Brady was the quarterback of the other team.
No, Brady didn't quite match Manning's numbers. But when you consider that one of his receivers has spent too much time in the hospital and another has spent too much time in prison, then you get an idea of what the Patriots did this season. This is not one of those New England teams that wows you at first sight.
And yet it finds a way. Brady finds a way. It's why his playoff record is 18-7.
This time, Manning needs to find a way. He needs to reach another Super Bowl. If he can pull off the 41st comeback of his career, that would be good, too.
After all, this game is about legacies.
In the end, that's the statistic that Manning needs: one more win.