This will be the seventh divisional playoff weekend that has featured Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. At 36 and 37, respectively, both men rank among the best ever at their position and are amazingly still improving. Elite is an overused word to describe quarterbacks, and it really doesn’t do either Brady or Manning justice. They are future Hall of Famers because they’ve mastered the little things that often go unnoticed. To best understand this, let’s examine two plays (out of endless possibilities) that appear to be routine but are in fact extraordinary.
Let’s start with Brady. He’s one of the shrewdest field readers in NFL history not because of how quickly he recognizes who’s open, but rather, how quickly he recognizes who’s not open. Unrefined quarterbacks stare at a receiver to learn he’s covered. Average quarterbacks glance at a receiver to learn that he’s covered. Good quarterbacks read primary defenders to learn who is covered. Brady reads multiple defenders at the same time, analyzing not only their coverage assignment but also their body angles. This enables him to rapidly work into later progressions.
Consider this example from Brady’s last divisional round appearance, in 2012.
Manning has similar cunning in his progression reads, which are often set up by his extensive work at the line of scrimmage. The trending narrative is that this cunning has allowed Manning to overcome his weakening arm. That’s fair, but it shouldn’t be hyperbolized. Yes, Manning has lost some power, but he’s not Chad Pennington. Manning can still pinpoint difficult throws from unconventional angles. Perfect ball placement has long been his most under-appreciated trait. When coupled with his field awareness, special things happen. Here’s an example from early this season when Manning all but pulled the ninth of his record 55 touchdowns out of a hat.
The subtle but significant attributes of Manning and Brady create unique advantages for their teams. Whether this leads to another AFC Championship Game appearance remains to be seen, but this much is guaranteed: We’ll see quarterbacking at its most brilliant in this weekend’s AFC divisional games.