There will be only two games this weekend in the National Football League. Down from four the previous two weekends as many as sixteen during the now-completed regular season during which 256 games were played. Many of these would be charitably described as “forgettable.” But what often seemed like a random process of elimination has marvelously reduced the field of 32 to what are arguably the best four teams and, beyond question, to two best rivalries in football and perhaps, for the moment, all of sports.
Begin with the first game. The Denver Broncos at home against the New England Patriots, though for millions of fans anticipating this game, the teams are almost an afterthought. This is a contest between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady; the game’s two best quarterbacks of the old church faith of drop-back and put your trust in the pocket and when you run, you run with Satan. They are master’s of the craft – at reading defenses, looking off receivers, putting the ball where only their man can catch it, and so forth. None better. And they have been doing it for a long time. Long enough to be, for their era, what Unitas and Starr were for theirs.
So of course they are inevitably compared to one another. And described as rivals. The argument over who is the better – nay, greater – quarterback will never be conclusively settled. That is what makes it such a durable and satisfying controversy. Brady has won three Super Bowls. Manning, one. In head-to-head match ups, Brady comes out on top, easily, 10 to 4. But … he played, and plays, for teams coached by Bill Belichick, widely considered the game’s best. And it is, after all, a team game.
Manning’s individual statistics are better than Brady’s. Better than anyone’s, in many categories. There really isn’t any good way to settle the argument, though the result of Sunday’s game will surely be sufficient for partisans of the winner.
So the game is being hyped as more a mano a mano between Brady and Manning than a football game involving ninety of the best players in the game, all of whom might as well be extras in a film based on the showdown between Achilles and Hector, with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio starring and looking good in loincloths.
Rivalries, of course, are good for sport. The fans love them, whether the sport is as gentlemanly as golf – Nicklaus/Palmer – or as violent as boxing – Ali/Frazier. And everything in between. Bird/Magic. Connors/McEnroe. Petty/Person. The more personal the rivalry, the better. For the fans, anyway.
Brady/Manning doesn’t seem particularly personal. Perhaps because both men are such professionals and getting personal gets in the way of the job and the job is winning the game. Ask either if they would be satisfied to have a lousy game so long as their team won (the way it went for Ben Roethlisberger in the first of his two Super Bowl wins) and they wouldn’t hesitate.
Still, for the fan there is something irresistible about the notion of a rivalry. Brady and Manning are unalike enough to make it work in the imagination of fans if not on the football field.
So, one asks, like what other rivals?
Well, how about William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway? Say, for the sake of the argument, that they were the two best American novelists of the 20th century and go from there. Faulkner, of course, was from Mississippi. (Of Mississippi might be a better way to put it.) Manning’s father played for the University of Mississippi. As did his brother. Peyton played his college ball at the University of Tennessee and that’s close enough. Brady was quarterback at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Not all that far from the Big Two-Hearted River.
There is a distinctively Faulknerian aspect to Manning’s style of play. The misdirection, checkoffs, and audibles (“Omaha, Omaha”) leaving the audience in a slightly vertiginous state. Brady’s style is spare and pure by comparison. He also seems, in some fashion, more brutally competitive. Like Hemingway, who once said, “I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I've fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody's going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I'm crazy or I keep getting better.”
Brady pretty clearly wants to win another Super Bowl and finish in at least a draw with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks with four rings. Manning is plenty competitive (the profession requires it) and undoubtedly lusts after another Super Bowl win. His little brother, Eli, has two, after all, both of them won in games against Patriot teams quarterbacked by … Tom Brady. This brings family passions and histories into the mix, maybe not as dark and primitive as the kind that Faulkner explored, but still …
Anyway, Manning sometimes seems to be working in a realm where he is listening most intently to his muse, unlike the ordinary, mortal player who just wants to win and get paid.
Well, enough of this. Kickoff is at three, Eastern, and for a certain kind of fan, it will be like sitting down with a good book.
And, then, later in the day, it will be on to Seattle where the Seahawks will be playing the San Francisco 49ers in what is a true rivalry of the kind where, indeed, “these two teams don’t like each other,” and, in what is even more fun for the fan, the coaches really don’t like each other.
The teams are in the same division and, hence, play each other twice during the regular season. This year, each won at home. Seattle’s win was a blowout, while the 49ers won a close game. San Francisco won the division last year. Seattle finished on top this year. Whoever wins this game will, of course, go on to the Super Bowl.
Just getting there would be keenly insufficient for the 49ers and their coach, Jim Harbaugh. They lost the Super Bowl last year in the last seconds of the game. Lost to the Baltimore Ravens, a team coached by Harbaugh’s brother, John. Even in the hyper competitive world of professional football there has to be a lot of ambivalence tied up in these brother stories.
But there is nothing ambivalent, none whatsoever, about the relationship between Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seahawks. They really do not like each other and haven’t for a long time, now. Since well before they held their current jobs and built their present teams into powerhouses that are rivals in the old spirit of, say, the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The animus goes right to the top and back to a time when Harbaugh and Carroll were coaching college ball at Stanford and USC. Carroll had built a powerhouse at USC. His teams won national championships and his players won Heismans. Some of these were later invalidated after USC was found guilty of recruiting violations, but while USC was on top and Carroll was still head coach there, his team lost a 24-23 shocker, at home, to Stanford, a 41 point underdog.
USC beat Stanford, at home, the next year but was humiliated, again, in Los Angeles in 2009. With the score 48-21 after Stanford had scored yet another touchdown, Harbaugh left his offense on the field to go for two. Asked, on the sideline, what was up, he said, “I want to put 50 on those [bleeps].”
The two pointer failed. But Harbaugh got his fifty on another touchdown. With the final score, 55-21, the coaches met at midfield where a peeved Carroll said, “What’s your deal? You alright?”
To which Harbaugh answered, “Yeah, I’m good. What’s your deal?”
Both coaches went on to the NFL where they remain unfriendly rivals and their teams follow their leaders. This game will almost certainly be characterized by trash talk, taunting, penalties, and what legendary Texas coach Daryl Royal once called, “Some snot knocking in the okra.” No literary comparisons come to mind. This is just a plain, old-fashioned football rivalry.
And after Sunday, it will be down to two teams and one game. The finals. Which will, most likely, have a hard time measuring up to the semis.