When you think about the all time greatest players rivalries in the history of sports, Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady has to be in the mix. In basketball there was Bird vs. Magic, in tennis there was Navratilova vs. Evert, in golf Palmer vs. Nicklaus, in soccer Messi vs. Ronaldo, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in Formula One, or in boxing Ali vs. Frazier. But when it comes to football, only Manning vs. Brady stacks up to the titanic matchups in other sports.
Brady holds a suprisingly comfortable 11-5 edge in head to head matchups against Manning, but Manning leads 2-1 in AFC Championship games. You can take a look at a number of other statistically significant factors in this matchup here, from our very own Brad Gagnon. Sunday the two quarterbacks will face off once again for a chance to compete in another Super Bowl. It will be the fourth time they have faced each other in the AFC Championship, and the 17th time overall. The number of times they’ve faced each other with high stakes is unprecedented and the sustained success they’ve both had, combined with unique longevity, is unheard of.
But where exactly does this rivalry fall in history?
Navratilova vs. Evert
Many will argue that Borg-McEnroe, Agassi-Sampras, Graf-Seles or Nadal-Federer deserve a place at the top in tennis rivalries. While this is subjective, they are all wrong. No rivalry was as contested as Evert and Navratilova in tennis, or perhaps in sports history. Between 1975 and 1987, they each took turns being #1 in the world for all but 23 weeks. At one point, they combined to win 15 consecutive Grand Slam titles. They played each other in 22 Grand Slam finals, with Navratilova winning 14 and Evert winning 8. Navratilova leads the head to head series 43-37. Both were utterly dominant in their prime, and yet they were extremely competitive with each other. While Manning and Brady have enjoyed much success and a competitive rivalry, there’s been other legendary quarterbacks with success during their time period. They have not been consistently at the top like these two players. So this rivalry remains on top.
Bird vs. Magic
Like Evert and Navratilova – during the prime of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson there were was really only two competing for a place at the top. It was these two, and everybody else. In the finals they played 19 games, with Magic winning 11. One fantastic component of how much these two dominated their sport is that we could watch them compete for a title at the end of an NBA season. We’ve never been able to see this with Manning and Brady. For this reason, the Bird/Magic matchups had higher stakes and that’s why I view it as better. Bird and Magic fed into this rivalry with a personal obsession for it too, something Manning and Brady largely dismiss.
Palmer vs. Nicklaus
From 1962 through 1966, these were the only men to wear the green jacket in Augusta. They also dominated their sport like few ever. When people used to talk about Tiger Woods challenging Nicklaus’s record 18 grand slams, Nicklaus’s defenders would point out that Woods never competed against Palmer. Five times Palmer and Nicklaus finished 1-2 at Majors. This rivalry made golf in a lot of ways. I would list it ahead of Manning-Brady.
Messi vs. Ronaldo
In the modern sports era, no two players are more dominant than Messi and Ronaldo. They’ve combined for 8 Ballon d’Ors. Messi leads the head to head 14-8-7 with 17 goals to Ronaldo’s 16. They’ve faced 5 times in Champions League, with Messi leading 2-2-1. I do think this is a very comparable rivalry to Manning and Brady. Manning and Brady have combined for 7 MVPs, though, and so I give a slight edge here to the futbol players.
Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost
These two were dominant in Formula One. You can read about the rivalry here. Sadly this battle was cut short due to the tragic untimely death of Senna and we never knew to what lengths their face-offs would go. With the rivalry lasting about 6 years, I think you’d have to list Manning and Brady as more significantly on longevity alone.
Ali vs. Frazier
Every remembers the “Thrilla in Manila”, perhaps the most famous boxing match of all time. Ali won by “TKO” in the 14th round. The two fought three times, with Ali winning twice. The lack of sample size here diminishes the importance of the rivalry compared to some, though.
Analyzing some of these fantastic rivalries above, you can make a very strong case for Manning-Brady belonging in the top 5 player rivalries of all time. It would be difficult to say it’s top 3, though. Regardless, Sunday will be another notch in the historical belt between the two players. A must watch competition for any sports fan.