Annually awarded to the AFC Championship Game winner, the Lamar Hunt Trophy is a shiny silver statue with metal bars comprising the outline of a football.
The inside is hollow — just like the impending conclusion to one of the league’s great debates.
The “who is the greatest quarterback of their generation?” argument between New England’s Tom Brady and Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning is on the verge of being settled. Brady will move ahead should he lead the favored Patriots over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Brady would be making his fifth career Super Bowl appearance — with prior victories in three of them — compared to a 1-1 record for Manning. Brady already posted more passing yards during the 2011 regular season (5,235) than all but one quarterback in NFL history. He still holds the single-season record for touchdown passes, 50.
That’s not to disparage Manning’s accomplishments. He has four NFL Most Valuable Player Awards to Brady’s two. Manning also has more passing yards, touchdowns and victories in a career that has spanned two more seasons than Brady’s.
Both of their achievements are what made this such a fun discussion.
Ideally, Brady and Manning would continue jockeying for quarterbacking supremacy through their NFL golden years with the Patriots and Colts, respectively. That dynamic, though, seems certain to change.
A postseason fixture for 11 of the past 14 years, Manning didn’t take a snap in 2011 because of the neck problems threatening his football livelihood. It wasn’t just the Indianapolis Colts that suffered en route to a league-worst 2-14 record. Manning supporters and haters alike can agree that the league was robbed of a player who created excitement and memorable moments like few others.
If a Wednesday afternoon Tweet by Rob Lowe is correct — yes, Rob Lowe the actor and connected Colts fan — Manning will be retiring. Even if Lowe isn’t the next Jay Glazer when it comes to NFL scoops, whether Manning can recover to take another snap remains unknown. So is Manning’s future in Indianapolis provided he can resume playing.
All signs point toward the Colts going in a different direction following massive front-office/coaching changes — more assistants were fired Wednesday — and the imminent selection of Stanford wunderkind quarterback Andrew Luck in April’s draft. There are no guarantees Manning, who turns 36 in March, can duplicate the same success if forced to sign elsewhere and reinvent himself in a completely new football environment.
“He’s a great friend of mine. I’m certainly hoping for the best,” Brady said Wednesday when I asked about Manning during a news conference held near where the Lamar Hunt Trophy was on display.
“The NFL is a better place with Peyton Manning in it.”
Ditto for Brady.
New England has already experienced what it was like without a future Hall of Fame inductee. Brady and the 2007 Patriots were about to cement their standing as the greatest NFL team ever until the New York Giants ruined their shot at an undefeated record in Super Bowl XLII.
The bulk of that dominating Patriots squad returned intact the following season but Brady didn’t get the chance to make another run for perfection. He tore knee ligaments in Week 1 and landed on injured reserve.
Like with Manning, this was the first major injury Brady suffered that made him think about his NFL mortality. It also made Brady even hungrier for success upon his return.
“I think we all appreciate the ability to go out and play every week,” Brady said. “Certainly, it’s nothing you take for granted because you never know. This could be your last day.
“For the opportunity to play in a (championship) game like this is something that is excited for all the players involved. When you don’t have that opportunity, it sucks. You sit at home. You watch and listen to every news station and sports station talk about the game. It’s great for us to be playing in it.”
The Patriots wouldn’t be here without Brady. He helped New England (14-3) compensate for a shaky defense, spotty running game and slew of offensive line injuries. Brady kept the Patriots steady when the team was teetering following two straight October losses that dropped New England to 5-3. He did this while playing through a left shoulder injury that is probably more serious than Brady and the Patriots are letting on. Brady missed practice Wednesday but is expected to start against Baltimore.
“He’s earned everybody’s respect,” said New England’s Bill Belichick, who completes the NFL’s all-time winning head coach/quarterback combination with Brady. “When he says something, we all listen.”
Because of Brady’s work ethic and production, a Patriots teammate wouldn’t dare call him out the way Ravens safety Ed Reed did with struggling fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco earlier this week. That isn’t just because of Brady’s track record. His will to win is so strong that anyone who isn’t fully committed to the same will quickly become ostracized.
“He knows exactly where he wants every receiver to be on every single play,” said Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer, who has spent the past three seasons as Brady’s backup. “A guy might be a yard or two steps off. He wants you to get that right.
“He expects perfection from everyone. That’s why it makes everybody around him better.”
Brady sidestepped a question about whether he is still in his athletic prime. But at age 34, much has changed personally and professionally since Brady played in the first of his six AFC title games in January 2002. Brady is now married — to supermodel Gisele Bundchen, no less — and has two children.
“When I was younger, I didn’t have to worry about those things, babysitters and stuff like that,” Brady said in response to an inquiry about his home life. “But it’s part of growing up, part of life. It’s been a great part of my life.”
The Brady-Manning rivalry was great, too. But as we’re reminded by what has transpired with Manning, life in the NFL goes on.