Let’s just get this out of the way right off the top: Tom Brady vs. Peyton manning is the best quarterback rivalry of all-time, and it’s not close. There are many reasons for that (they’re both really good at playing quarterback, and they’ve meet many times during crucial games), but for me the foremost argument is simple: time.
Brady and Manning will toss against each other for the 15th time Sunday, and in the third AFC Championship game, a clash that’s now well over a decade old. It’s lasted through severe injuries to both quarterbacks, much more so with Manning, but Brady still shattered his leg in 2008. And it hasn’t faded with Manning changing teams and adjusting to a new city and a new system.
But there’s been many other great rivalries, so let’s embark on the best football wobbly beverage discussion there is, and a listicle journey as old as the Internet.
Here are the NFL’s top five quarterback rivalries that don’t involve quarterbacks named Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Surely I excluded one or three because avoiding that is pretty much impossible, so please feel free to
yell profanely pleasantly discuss omissions in the space provided below.
1. Bart Starr vs. Johnny Unitas
For another generation, this will always be their Manning vs. Brady. But immediately here we run into the problem of comparing eras in football. Since they both played primarily during a time when no playoff system in the NFL existed and there was only a championship game, Starr and Unitas didn’t meet during the playoffs. Sure, Brady and Manning are about to meet for the 15th time, which on its own is ridiculous. But after Sunday four of those meetings will have been in the playoffs, three of which being to decide who plays in the Super Bowl.
But if the heartbeat of a rivalry is dueling greatness at the same time, Unitas-Starr had plenty of it as they combined to win eight championships. The were also the iconic figures in two historic games: the 1958 championship, and the Ice Bowl.
2. Terry Bradshaw vs. Roger Staubach
The Steelers and Cowboys will forever be two of the NFL’s most widespread and passionately followed teams. So naturally, two of the most successful quarterbacks who led those teams during a highly successful period for both will always be in the same sentence whenever we discuss the quarterback position in the 70′s.
What furthers the Staubach-Bradshaw donnybrook is that they met in two Super Bowls, each won by Bradshaw’s Steelers. Between them, Staubach and Bradshaw have five championship rings.
3. Steve Young vs. Troy Aikman
I’m haphazardly attempting to spread the love here throughout the decades, and in the early-to-mid 90′s, Aikman and Young had some pretty awesome football fisticuffs (not literally, that I’m aware of at least). If we’re elevating Brady-Manning because of how many times they’ve met in the playoffs — oh, we are — then Young-Aikman very much deserves the same treatment. Between 1992 and 1994 they met three straight times in January, and three straight times in the NFC Championship game. Each time, the winner went on to win a shiny trophy two weeks later.
The problem with Young-Aikman when compared to Brady-Manning is (again) one of longevity. Brady and Manning have been slugging it out since 2001, and if Pey Pey’s neck holds up they may have another meeting or two before they’re both done. But Young-Aikman was short lived, with their teams fading as the decade moved on, and both quarterbacks slowed by injuries like this one…
4. Dan Marino vs. Joe Montana
Before Young there was Joe Montana, and before Montana was apprehending purse snatchers he was dueling with Dan Marino. Well, sort of.
History looks upon this as a rivalry because Montana and Marino were the two best quarterbacks during their shared time in the league (arguably…always arguably). As such, this is sort of like pretending we’re in a horrible world where Peyton Manning doesn’t exist, and then having to choose a rival for Brady. By default we’d likely say Drew Brees, even though they’ve never faced each other in the playoffs.
Marino and Montana met once in the playoffs, and at the highest level too. Super Bowl XIX was expected to be a whizz-bang shootout, and it was for about one quarter. But then the pummeling started, with Montana throwing for 331 yards and three touchdowns, while running for 59 and another score during a 38-16 49ers win. That was Marino’s only shot at a championship, and now he’s still followed by people who hate logic, and base their entire “MARINO SUCKED AND HE’S THE WORST” argument on his lack of a ring, while Montana has four.
5. Otto Graham vs. Bobby Layne
Sit down, young man/woman/alternate, and let me tell you a little story (writes the guy who was born, oh, over 30 years after this rivalry existed). This is the dustiest quarterback rivalry, going back to the early 50′s when Layne spent most of his career with the Lions, and Graham spent all of his in Cleveland. They met three straight times in the league championship game, with Layne winning twice.
When he was traded to Pittsburgh where he finished the final four seasons of his career, Layne was, in a word, displeased. As the legend goes, he then placed a curse on the franchise, one that was sort of lifted with a playoff berth a few years back. But yeah, the Lions still mostly suck, and the ties between Layne and Matthew Stafford are downright spooky.