FORT WAYNE – And now, Rivalry Week.
Over in this corner we have Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll, Mr. $8 Wal-Mart Pants (with pleats!) vs. Mr. Whatever I Wear Just Looks Cool, ’Cause I’m Pete Carroll. One is intense; one is incense.
If you cast them in a film, that film would be Animal House. Carroll would be the hippie with the guitar singing folk songs. Harbaugh would be Bluto, ripping the guitar out of his hands and smashing it to splinters.
Now one of them is headed to the Super Bowl, where, in this other corner, he will meet the real stars of Rivalry Week. They’re the rivals by which all rivals are measured at the moment, the two men it is most likely to come down to when the Denver Broncos welcome the New England Patriots to all that thin mountain air.
America, say hello to LeGarrette Blount and Knowshon Moreno.
What, you thought this was about those other two guys?
Sure, it’s Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady again, for the 15th time in their decorated careers. But time has done its work, and so it’s not really Manning vs. Brady.
This time not one but both quarterbacks have their legacies on the line, because it’s not 2004 or ’05 or ’06 anymore. Manning still carries the old stigma – Superman in the regular season, Clark Kent in the playoffs – but now Brady carries a bit of it, too, to a lesser extent.
Since winning the last of his three rings nine years ago, he’s been to two Super Bowls. He’s lost them both.
One more trip to the big one and one more loss, and suddenly he’s just Mr. .500 – same as Manning, who’s 1-1 in Supes.
So it’s all different now, and not just because of the legacies.
It’s different because, while both Brady and Manning have something to prove for once, it will likely be either Blount or Moreno who winds up proving it.
Blount, of course, is the guy who put the Pats on his back in the divisional win over the Colts, rushing for 166 yards and four touchdowns.
And while Manning threw for two scores last week in the 24-17 win over San Diego, it was Moreno who was key in helping the Broncos drain the last 3:53 off the clock.
So this time could be more about the respective running games and the ability of both teams to stop the run, instead of Peyton vs. Tom Terrific.
The Patriots in particular have so remade themselves that Brady becomes almost an afterthought, even if the forecast for today – dry and 59 degrees with little wind – favors throwing the ball all over the lot.
That was the Patriots last year, when Brady still had Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Now he has only Julian Edelman, a former Kent State quarterback who caught 105 balls this year, and Blount – whom, in his inimitable fashion, Bill Belichick plucked off the scrap heap and turned into a Blount object.
And the Broncos?
Manning will get his yards against a Patriots secondary devoid of anyone but Aqib Talib.
But it will be the defense and the running game that will allow him to decide it.
And he will, it says here. Call it the Broncos and Manning, if for no other reason than symmetry.
After all, if he wins, he and Brady are 2-2 against each other, lifetime, in the playoffs.
All even. Square as square. Only perfect.