TAMPA — Tony Dungy heard the question and tried not to laugh.
The former head coach of the Buccaneers and Colts was asked whether Peyton Manning needs a win against Tom Brady and the Patriots Sunday in Denver to enhance his “legacy’’ as one of the NFL’s all-time great quarterbacks.
Evaluating Manning’s place in history has been a common theme leading up to this intriguing AFC championship game, which represents the 15th head-to-head meeting between these two icons under center.
Dungy chuckled at any suggestion Manning has anything to prove at this stage of a majestic career that is likely to earn him a record fifth league MVP award in a few weeks.
Then, he turned serious when discussing the accomplishments of a quarterback he coached for seven seasons at Indianapolis, highlighted by a Super Bowl victory seven years ago.
“Do I think any less of Dan Marino now?’’ Dungy asked over breakfast Friday, referring to a Hall of Fame quarterback whose Miami Dolphins never won it all. “Do I really think Dan Marino wasn’t very good? It’s ludicrous.’’
So is this half-baked notion that Manning’s reputation will be tarnished if he retires before hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy for a second time. Football is often labeled the ultimate team game, yet some people appear eager to diminish a player’s career if his club never reaches the professional pinnacle.
Brady’s teams boast a 10-4 advantage against clubs led by Manning, but not every outcome was decided by quarterback play.
In some cases, weather was a factor. Sometimes, the Patriots had better teams.
On at least one occasion, Dungy is convinced fortune played a critical role.
In the 2007 AFC championship game at Indianapolis, the Colts rallied from an early 21-3 deficit, but Brady engineered a late go-ahead drive that put New England ahead 34-31.
After three Manning incompletions, the Pats assumed possession at their own 40 with 3:22 remaining.
“If they make one first down at that stage, the game’s over,’’ Dungy said.
Instead, New England was flagged for too many men on the field before the first snap of the drive. The Pats went three-and-out, setting up a game-winning 80-yard march directed by Manning for a 38-34 triumph.
That’s how close Manning and Dungy came to ending their partnership without a league title.
Fair or not, quarterbacks are typically judged by rings.
“John Elway wins his two Super Bowls at the end of his career in Denver because the Broncos had Terrell Davis at running back and some really good defenders,’’ Dungy said. “If he doesn’t win those two games, do we say Elway’s career has been a failure?’’
Once again, ludicrous.
According to Dungy, Sunday’s high-profile AFC matchup will be decided by which club’s ground game is more effective.
Keyed by former Buc LeGarrette Blount, New England ran the ball at will against the Colts last week, limiting Andrew Luck’s possessions. Coach Bill Belichick could employ the same formula in the conference title game against Denver’s erratic rushing defense.
“I think Belichick will continue to pound at that and make the game 60 snaps for each team, rather than 75,’’ said Dungy. “If it’s a passing game, the Broncos will win because their receivers are better than New England’s receivers.’’