Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Brady or Manning? The numbers suggest a clear-cut top choice

Denver’s Peyton Manning, left, and New England’s Tom Brady after a 2012 regular-season meeting in Foxborough, Mass.
Denver’s Peyton Manning, left, and New England’s Tom Brady after a 2012 regular-season meeting in Foxborough, Mass. AP

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have combined to play 34 seasons in the NFL.

Manning is 39, Brady 38. They are the greatest individual rivals in football history. Sunday, they will meet for the fourth time in the AFC championship game in Denver and they have been in an all-out war for a subjective title over these many years.

Greatest Quarterback Ever.

These two are squarely in any discussion and, as time passes, their arguments grow stronger. So much so that they might be the only two quarterbacks in the debate.

Yes, Manning is showing significant signs of wear and tear. He missed a bunch of games this season and when he does throw a football, it doesn’t take the beautiful flight it once did. It wobbles, turns and sputters, but it still gets to a receiver more often than not.

Brady defies his age with, he tells us, a diet and exercise regimen you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. An ESPN story about Brady this week listed tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers and eggplant as food he avoids. And I thought those were all good for us, which explains why I don’t eat them, either.

There are those who insert Joe Montana, John Elway, Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas and others into the Greatest Quarterback Ever debate. I’m a Montana guy who for years has insisted that his four Super Bowls and incredible persona and talent gave him an edge. The guy’s name is Joe Montana, for crying out loud. He’s the envy of Joe Smiths and Bob Lutzes everywhere.

Now, though, I’m re-thinking my Montana stance. The enormity of the body of work turned in by Brady and Manning is impossible to ignore.

Consider that they have combined to play in 438 regular-season games in their careers and that their passer ratings are 96.5 (Manning) and 96.4 (Brady). They’ve flung a total of 17,172 passes and for what? One tenth of a percent?

Manning has had the better supporting cast over the years with Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Edgerrin James, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Emmanuel Sanders, among others.

The numbers support that contention.

Manning has played with 10 1,000-yard rushers during his career and with 37 receivers who have had more than 700 yards during a season in which he was the quarterback. He has benefited from 26 1,000-yard receivers, too.

Brady, meanwhile, has played with four 1,000-yard rushers and 25 receivers who have topped 700 yards. The Patriots’ have had 11 1,000-yard receivers during Brady’s run.

It’s too simple to say that Manning has played with more offensive stars because he certainly has had a hand in making them stars. But Brady has had to make due with fewer breakout offensive players, though Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski are two of the best at their positions.

Harrison and Wayne, who rank seventh and eighth in career receiving yards, played the bulk of their careers with Manning. They were fortunate, but so was Manning.

James, the No. 11 career rusher, had four seasons of 1,500 or more yards during his time with Manning from 1999-2005.

Brady’s best offensive weapon, statistically, has been Welker, who ranks 47th in career receiving yards. Randy Moss, who ranks No. 3 in receiving yards, did spend two-plus pretty spectacular seasons with Brady. Otherwise, it’s been receivers like Tony Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch, David Givens, Reche Caldwell, Brandon Lloyd and Brandon LaFell.

In Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, Brady might now have his most lethal offense. But the Patriots have been decimated by injuries at the running back position.

So Brady has become New England’s running threat, too. Not with his legs, obviously, but with short passes to Edelman, Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, who are so good at gaining yards after a catch.

Manning, meanwhile, has running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson to take off some of the load. Thomas and Sanders are big-time threats on the outside and the Pats will have to pay attention to Denver tight end Owen Daniels. The question is whether Manning can get them the football consistently enough.

Manning has dropped 11 of his 16 head-to-head meetings with Brady, but has a 2-1 edge in AFC championship games. His playoff record is a meager 12-13 while Brady is 22-8.

And isn’t that a strong deciding factor in favor of Brady in this debate? He’s 22-8 in the playoffs, a .733 winning percentage. He has led New England to four Super Bowl wins while Manning has one.

Isn’t it reasonable to suggest Brady has done more with less, which conversely means Manning has done less with more?

Both are great quarterbacks, then and now. But one has to be better. They can’t be tied for first.

First is Brady. Isn’t it obvious?