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Kelly: Time for the Peyton Manning and Tom Brady rivalry to die

This week, Vegas set the over/under of Tom Brady/Peyton Manning split-screen appearances during Sunday's game at six.

I'd bet the over.

I'd take the over if it were 600.

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We already know how the AFC title game between Brady's New England Patriots and Manning's (not-really-anymore) Denver Broncos will go. Like so many of their encounters, it will be a dreary slog and probably a blowout.

By the third quarter, CBS's robot (not "robotic" – no, no – "robot") colour man Phil Simms will be freestyling Manning's professional obituary on live television. It's not going to be Shakespeare.

By the fourth, they'll have anointed Brady the winner of the NFL's most-talked-about personal rivalry. Again. Let us all hope for the very last time.

We've been at this for 15 years now. It's time to put Manning vs. Brady to sleep. With an arm bar, if necessary.

As long as this overhyped annual get-together featuring sport's two most famous middle-aged coots is allowed to continue, it's gumming up the works. Few leagues are more star-based than the NFL. The problem with Brady/Manning is that they suck up all the oxygen in the room.

Generations of players are arriving, catching the light for a few years, guttering and then exiting the stage while these two bland Adonises continue their relentless jog into history. As a pair, they have passed beyond annoying into mind-numbing and finally into the drool phase. How many Brady vs. Manning think pieces must we endure (Ed. Note: after you get all the way to the end of this one)?

It's a shame, because there's so much to admire about them, even now, as individual players.

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By the freakish mean of the sport, neither is a particularly imposing specimen. Instead, they brought geek culture to the quarterback position. They out-thought people, and especially those who tried to out-muscle them. While at their best, Manning and Brady gave football grace.

They aren't doing that any more.

Manning is broken physically. Five years ago, he had his neck fused to allay persistent pain and missed an entire season. That sounds like a great idea for someone who gets run into with the equivalent force of a car crash five or 10 times a week.

After he was accused by Al Jazeera of taking deliveries of human-growth hormone at his home, Manning pretended to be affronted by the suggestion. The rest of us thought, "If I played pro football with a neck held together by plates, I'd eat nothing but HGH smoothies spiked with Vicodin." Whatever Manning is or isn't taking, he's not half the player he once was. Depending on the formula you use for quarterback rating, he was either close to or at the bottom of league rankings this year. If he doesn't decide to leave now, someone will shortly decide for him.

But he's still out there risking permanent injury, fighting to kill off the impression that he's the greatest regular-season pivot in history. Manning is The Milquetoast Terminator. He only shoots people – himself included – in the foot.

In public, Brady and Manning have never had anything but kind words for each other. Also, banal words, clichéd words and, occasionally, weasel words. They are famous friends, golf buddies and enthusiastic enablers. Each one instinctively understands that his own star may never shine quite so bright once the other's is gone.

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The closest we've ever got to the real dope is a single e-mail exchange buried in Brady's public Deflategate correspondence. As dope goes, it isn't all that real.

Sent in 2014, and responding to an ESPN story about Manning's physical decline, Brady wrote to a friend, "I've got another 7 or 8 years. He has 2. That's the final chapter. Game on."

Presumably, this is what Brady would consider trash talk. Even his outtakes are G-rated.

Later, Brady would increase his estimate to 10 years. Everybody smiles reflexively whenever he says something like this, because they're afraid he's serious. Even the most delusional New England fanboy does not want a starting quarterback who's closing in on 50. There can only be one Gordie Howe.

Because Brady doesn't seem like he's ever going to leave or conveniently break like Manning, nature has turned against him. Deflategate was a half-hearted try by the system to rid itself of him – like a virus mutating. This year, people spread some unpleasant stories about his personal trainer/lifestyle muse, Alex Guerrero. The injury fairies took away all of his receivers. There was an amusing flirtation with Donald Trump, alienating Brady from his base of toothless northeastern cosmopolitan types.

But though his personal brand is showing some wear, Brady continues to win on the regular. He's an upgraded prototype based on Manning, and with a more extensive warranty.

On Sunday, Cam Newton will play in the NFC title game. He's now the best quarterback in football. No one seems to care. Aside from the pointless debates about Newton's on-field attitude (almost all of them pinned on straw men), nobody really talks about the most important player in the NFL.

It's even worse than that. I'd guess there are more than a few casual fans who know it's Carolina vs. Arizona, who might even tune in, but can't name the other quarterback (it's Carson Palmer).

Week by week, we should be talking about Newton's emergence onto the biggest stage, shouldering aside the preceding generation. Who are his rivals? How do we get that story started?

Instead, we're stuck on the two guys who just … won't … go.

This will be Manning and Brady's 17th time into the breach together. Let it be a great finale. If it can't be great, let it just be a finale.

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