So once more it comes down to Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, and of course the dominant theme is that it's not Brady vs. Manning at all. It's Brady vs. the Broncos' defense. It's Manning vs. Bill Belichick. Whoever wins will not be winning the head-to-head at all.
This is true, from every practical standpoint. And, of course, it isn't true at all in any meaningful way.
The real truth is this always has been and always will be perceived in the public mind as Manning vs. Brady, because they are the two greatest quarterbacks of their generation, and perhaps any generation. Both have been to multiple Super Bowls. Both have won Super Bowls thanks to both their own heroics and the heroics of others. Neither, in this latest meeting, will get to another Super Bowl without further heroics from others.
And yet, it is what it is: Brady vs. Manning.
Here in career twilight -- the twilight admittedly far more advanced for Manning than Brady -- there is a different dynamic at work this time, because the full weight of the outcome does not lie equally on their shoulders. The Patriots, battered and depleted all season, are here almost entirely because of their quarterback. The Broncos are here almost entirely in spite of theirs, as it's Manning, and not his team, who's been battered and depleted all year.
He can still summon the magic once in awhile, but he's a mere phantom of himself these days. He missed two full months of the season, and when he did play, he put up numbers unseen since his early, struggling days in Indianapolis. What he is now was embodied in one play Sunday: After slipping and falling untouched like a doddering ancient as he backpedaled, he rose and threw a strike to Emmanuel Sanders for 34 yards, his longest completion of the year.
But that was only a flicker. The rest of Sunday was about the Broncos' defense holding off Ben Roethlisberger, and the running game producing just enough to keep the offense from being shut down entirely by the Steelers' defense. And that's what it will likely come to against the Patriots.
Brady will be Brady, seemingly ageless and indestructible. Manning will try to stay a step ahead of his crumbling body one more time. Whoever wins will not be winning the head-to-head -- or settling their shared legacy, an argument Brady won a long time ago. Manning, after all, has beaten him only once in their four previous playoff meetings.
And yet, again, it is what it is.
Manning. Brady. One more time.