10/18/2012 06:07 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Fourth-and-Two: Peyton Manning and the Definitive Ranking System for NFL Quarterbacks

"I never had too much hospitality here. Until I went for it on fourth-and-2."
--Bill Belichick at Super Bowl media day 2012, in Indianapolis*

The play will forever be remembered as the moment in time when a Hall of Fame football coach faced one of the top quarterbacks of a generation -- and blinked.

It was "just" a regular season game in November of 2009. The Patriots were winning by six points with 2:03 on the clock. The ball was on the Patriots 28-yard line; New England needed two yards for a first down to close out the game. And Bill Belichick chose to run a short passing play on fourth down rather than punt the ball back to a Colts offense led by Peyton Manning.

The facts that the Pats failed to convert, that (of course) Manning took his team into the end zone, that the Colts won and that the loss had no empirical impact on a Patriots season that ended in Foxboro with a playoff loss to the Ravens are all insignificant dust balls under the bed of NFL history.

Forget a QB rating system based on math Stephen Hawking wouldn't understand. Forget ESPN's new "Total Quarterback Rating." While the latter's emphasis on how much a QB's performance contributes to a win and incorporation of what the Olympics would call a pass-completion "degree of difficulty" make sense, has anyone actually even tried to learn it? Yeah, neither have I.

How many quarterbacks strike such fear into a coach's heart that he would choose Bill Belichick's desperate fourth-and-two play over a punt? "Elite," as Eli Manning can attest, is currently an exasperatingly over-used adjective in the NFL. Merriam-Webster defines "elite" as "the best of a class." When it comes to the gridiron, "elite" means:

Can your quarterback make the other coach flinch? Is anything better in his mind than giving the football back to your signal-caller? Absolutely anything?

We are living in a Golden Age of NFL quarterbacks. Fans revel in the outrageously superior athletic antics of three signal-callers who routinely rise to the Fourth-and Two Standard: Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Peyton Manning.

Going into NFL's Week 6, Brady had led 25 fourth-quarter comebacks, Eli has engineered 22 (in four fewer years) and Peyton... 36. Make that 37.

Next through the door are Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger. Some defensive coordinators may fantasize that they can shut down a moving Sequoia with two rings, 2011's MVP or a QB who collects NFL records like trading cards. However, one could safely lay large bets on the likelihood of a head coach rolling the dice on D rather than willingly handing the pigskin back to any of these men. After all, it only takes one pass. Right, Santonio?

In 2012, Atlanta's Matt Ryan is turning to QB cream before our eyes as he rises to a level that may soon force opponents to contemplate desperate measures. The 27-year-old offensive captain is quietly marching his unit across the yard lines with the same callous disregard for defenders shown by the Big Three.

In Week 6, Ryan completed four passes in under a minute to set up the game-winning field goal. In Week 5, he led two fourth-quarter scoring drives on his way to a 34-of-52 afternoon. In Week 4, the young QB began a game-winning drive at his own one-yard line with 1:09 left on the day. No. 2 may indeed be on his way to joining the "best in class." Before he gets there, some questions will be asked:

Can he make a young Cris Collinsworth, standing on the sidelines after a go-ahead score in Super Bowl XXIII, look with chagrin at a game clock signaling 3:20 and moan, "Too much time."? Joe Montana could.

Can he take the ball on his own two-yard line with five minutes left and go the distance on a frozen field in Cleveland to tie the 1986 AFC Championship Game? John Elway could.

Can he guarantee that fans never, ever leave the stadium before the final gun because no one wants to miss the magic? Brett Favre could.

Can he brutally and methodically dismantle a divisional opponent on the way back from a 24-0 halftime beat-down on Monday Night Football? Peyton Manning can.

Somewhere in New England, as he turned off his television, Bill Belichick thought to himself: "And that's why I did it."

*quoted by Clifton Brown of The Sporting News

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