It's hard to rank the best NFL games ever, just because there's so many criteria involved, and not all of us were alive when Alan Ameche scored for the Baltimore Colts in overtime of the 1958 NFL championship.
But the AFC championship game at the end of the 2006 season, the last time Peyton Manning and Tom Brady met in the playoffs, rarely gets mentioned in those top 10 lists. I'm not sure why, because over the last 30 years, that's the best NFL game I've seen.
I wouldn't argue to the death if you think another classic is better, because there have obviously been so many great games over the last three decades (an incomplete list of contenders: Frank Reich leads the Bills on a great comeback against Houston, the Giants upset the Bills in Super Bowl XXV, the David Tyree catch game, the Steelers come back to beat the Cardinals in the Super Bowl, the "Tuck Rule" game, a rare regular-season inclusion of Joe Montana beating John Elway at Mile High on Monday night in 1994, Elway and "The Drive" to beat Cleveland in the 1986 AFC championship ... feel free to add your own candidates). But Colts-Patriots in the AFC title game seven years ago had everything.
The Patriots were still at the height of their dynasty, not far removed from winning three of four Super Bowls from 2001-04. That was a great 12-4 team that had won eight of nine games, and upset the 14-2 Chargers the week before. The Colts were 12-4 that season too, but slumped after a 9-0 start. And (does this sound familiar?) Manning came into the game with everyone asking if he could win the big game.
Early in the second quarter, Manning's critics were sharpening their blades. The Patriots led 14-3 when Asante Samuel stepped in front of a Manning pass and returned it 39 yards to make it 21-3. And nobody came back against the Patriots when they were up 18 points.
Indianapolis had a great second half. They got breaks too, like center Jeff Saturday recovering a fumble in the end zone for a fourth-quarter touchdown. And with 2:17 left, the Colts took over on their 20 trailing 34-31. Every play was tense. Manning had some great throws on that drive. Reggie Wayne had a fumble pop straight up in the air but come back into his hands. Eventually Joseph Addai rushed for a 3-yard touchdown on a third-and-2 – a pretty gutsy play call in that spot – to give Indianapolis a 38-34 lead with a minute left.
But Brady is one of the best of all-time, especially in those situations, and a minute was an eternity. That set up the great shot of Manning sitting on the bench, unable to watch the field, as his legacy was decided with him having no control over it. Marlin Jackson intercepted Brady, and the Colts had pulled off a great comeback. They beat the Bears in the Super Bowl two weeks later.
Two great teams competed and executed at a high level and in the end, Manning and the Colts slayed the team they couldn't knock off before. It was as good as a NFL game can get.
Manning and Brady meet again on Sunday in an AFC championship game. Manning has moved from Indianapolis to Denver, but is coming off his greatest regular season at age 37. Brady has been back to the Super Bowl twice since that AFC championship game loss at Indianapolis, but the Patriots lost both. Both quarterbacks come into this week's playoff game still hoping to write another chapter of their incredible careers.
Sunday is shaping up to be a great game. We can only hope it's as great as the last time Brady and Manning met in the playoffs.
- - - - - - -