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Clock ticking on battle of best-ever quarterbacks

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Sometime in March, Peyton Manning will have a neck exam that could determine his NFL future.

It could end it abruptly or extend it briefly.

Either way, Manning won’t play much longer. He’s acknowledged it himself, having recently said, “Certainly the light is at end of tunnel for me, no question.”

That’s because he’s 37. He’ll be 38 in March when, according to ESPN, he’ll have an exam on his surgically repaired neck

to determine if he is at risk of further injury if he keeps playing. If doctors say quit, he’ll retire. If they say go, he’ll return next season.

Either way, Manning’s career — 16 seasons to date — is near the end.

Which brings us to Tom Brady.

He’s 36. He’ll be 37 in August and is, like Manning, in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career.

Though he doesn’t have a career-threatening malady, Brady is in his 14th season and is much closer to the end of his playing days than the beginning.

Consequently, Sunday’s showdown between the two best quarterbacks of their generation — or arguably of all generations — could very well be meeting as playoff adversaries for the last time.

You know the history. Most of it occurred during Manning’s Colts’ years. Now it extends to the Denver years. But no matter the uniform, the debate is the same: Who can make the greatest claim to greatness?

If championships are the standard, it’s no debate at all. Brady is the standard-bearer, hands down. He’s been to five Super Bowls. He’s won three. He’s twice been the game’s MVP.

And he’s 10-4 lifetime against Manning, including 2-1 in the playoffs.

Manning, as you know, has been to two Super Bowls. He’s won one and been its MVP once.

Not bad, but not Brady-like.

Now, if a complete body of work is the standard, then Manning is the hands-down standard-bearer. No one in league history has been better over the course of a career, most notably in the regular-season, than the league’s only four-time MVP.

In light of his historic 2013 campaign, Manning is a virtual lock for a fifth MVP. No quarterback has ever put up the numbers he did, and none might ever will.

Moreover, Manning has been a winner throughout his career. Early playoff exits aside, he’s been to the postseason 13 times. He transformed the Colts from annual jokes to perennial contenders, and he has a chance to become the first starting quarterback in league history to win a Super Bowl with two different teams.

By any standard, that’s NFL greatness.

That’s what makes any Manning/Brady showdown a thing to behold, especially in the playoffs. By all outward appearances, both genuinely like and respect each other; both are supremely confident and competitive; and both can take over a game, with his arm or brain, or both. Usually both.

As Manning and Brady correctly point out, the AFC Championship Game isn’t Manning vs. Brady. It’s the Broncos vs. the Patriots. The better team will win. Period.

But that doesn’t alter the fact Manning and Brady are center stage. The better team might win, the better quarterback debate will only intensify after the outcome. The legacies of both players are intertwined. Did the best team win, or did the best quarterback engineer the win?

Unless one or the other is truly abysmal, the Manning/Brady debate is really no debate at all. Both are great players. Neither has anything to prove. One will play in Super Bowl XLVIII. The other will go home bitterly disappointed.

And ultimately, both will go to the Hall of Fame, where both will stand out in a crowd of standouts.

Sunday won’t settle the “who’s better” debate. It can’t, nor is it supposed to. But there’s no denying Manning and Brady heighten the drama for a show that could be, and with any luck will be, a classic. They might never share this stage again.

Time, sadly, isn’t on their side.

Rick Morwick is sports editor for the Daily Journal

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