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Peyton Manning is not a bad playoff quarterback

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You may have heard that Peyton Manning is a bad playoff quarterback. The only problem is that it's not true.

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Peyton Manning is without question one of the best players in the history of the National Football League.

He's the league's only five time MVP (nobody else even has four), a 14-time Pro Bowler, a seven-time first-team All-Pro, a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year, a one-time Comeback Player of the Year, and a member of the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 2000s.  He's a four-time AFC Champion and has a Super Bowl title to his name, as well as a Super Bowl MVP award.  He has helped lead his teams to 15 playoff appearances and 12 division titles over his 18-year career.  In short, there's no doubt that Manning will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer five years after whenever he does decide to retire.

It is widely acknowledged that Manning is the best regular season quarterback of all-time.  After all, Manning ranks first in league history in passing yards (71,940), passing touchdowns (539), game winning drives (56), fourth-quarter comebacks (45), and sack percentage (3.13%, Dan Marino).  He ranks second in career completions (6,125) and in career attempts (9,380) while ranking tied for fourth in career completion percentage (65.3%).  His 270.5 average yards per game is the third-best ever, while his passer rating of 96.5 is fifth (and the top three are all still active, meaning it could change).  He holds the NFL record for most 4,000 yard passing seasons with 14, four ahead of the next closest player (Drew Brees with ten).  From 1998-2014, Manning threw at least 26 touchdown passes in every single year besides for his missed 2011 season - that's 16 seasons with at least 26 touchdown passes!  With Manning under center (or, rather, in the shotgun), a 12-win, 4,000-yard, 25+ touchdown season was the normal.  It's expected.  Just think about that for a second.  Taking away the one season that Manning missed (2011), he has averaged 4,231.8 yards, 31.7 touchdowns, and 10.9 wins per season over 17 years.

While most people will acknowledge that Manning is the best to ever play in the regular season, many will then add a caveat to that statement - "but he chokes in the playoffs."  This narrative seems to be universally accepted by most, as despite the fact that Manning is the best regular season quarterback, the narrative exists that he struggles in the playoffs.  Even former teammate Reggie Wayne mentioned as much, saying recently that Manning struggled in the playoffs.

The problem, however, is that it's simply not true.

Peyton Manning is not a bad playoff quarterback, contrary to what most people will tell you.  The narrative that Manning chokes in the playoffs is, in large part, based on what happened early in his career, and the narrative hasn't changed since then.  In Manning's first five seasons in the NFL, the Colts made three playoff appearances - one as a division champion and the other two as a wild card.  The Colts went 0-3 in those playoff games, losing by a combined score of 83-33 and getting shut out 41-0 in one such game.  Manning struggled too, completing just 47.6% of his passes for 558 yards (5.3 yards per attempt), one touchdown, and two interceptions, good for a passer rating of just 59.1.  In other words, yes, Manning struggled in the playoffs early in his career, just like the rest of his team struggled.

Then, once the Colts finally won a playoff game (behind a perfect passer rating from Manning), they won another one (with Manning compiling a 138.7 rating).  The Colts then ran into the Patriots in the 2003 AFC Championship game, however, and Manning struggled once again - completing just 23 of 47 passes for 237 yards, a touchdown, and four interceptions for a 35.5 rating.  A year later, it was a similar story - the Colts won a playoff game behind a tremendous game from Manning (145.7 rating) before a loss to the Patriots in a game in which Manning struggled (this time posting a 69.3 rating).  This isn't to suggest that passer rating is the best metric to measure a quarterback's performance, but I think it gives a simple, brief overview in this case to see the larger picture - the two losses to the Patriots gave more fuel to the fire that had already been burning after the Colts' first three playoff losses: that Manning wasn't a good playoff quarterback.

Speaking of the Patriots, the early-career narrative for Tom Brady also helped contribute to the perception of Manning as a playoff choker.   In Brady's first four seasons as a starter, the Patriots made the playoffs three times.  In each of those three seasons, they won the Super Bowl.  It wasn't Brady carrying the team, but he still played well nonetheless - completing 62.5% of his passes for 1,951 yards (6.42 yards per attempt), 11 touchdowns, and three picks during his first nine playoff games.  Brady began his career 9-0 as a starting quarterback in the playoffs with three rings.  That's insanely impressive, and it contributed to the negative perception of Manning.  Because Manning wasn't as good as this other young quarterback when it came to the playoffs, it meant that Manning stunk.  The fact that Brady's team beat Manning's team in two of those seasons seemed to cement it.

Now, let's be totally honest here: Peyton Manning's postseason resume will never compare to Tom Brady's.  Manning has four Super Bowl appearances; Brady has six.  Manning has one Super Bowl ring and could add another this Sunday; Brady has four.  Manning has 13 playoff victories; Brady has 22.  Manning has 40 playoff touchdowns; Brady has 56.  Manning has 7,198 postseason passing yards; Brady has 7,957.  This article isn't an argument to suggest that Manning has a better postseason career than Brady, but it is to say that Manning hasn't been as bad as advertised.  Just because Brady has been better doesn't mean that Manning has been bad, but that's part of what helped contribute to the narrative years ago that Manning stunk in the playoffs.

In fact, Manning has the postseason stats.  He ranks second in playoff history in passing yards (7,198), completions (636), and attempts (1,004) while ranking fourth in passing touchdowns (40).  When it comes to passer rating, Manning's mark of 88.1 ranks as the 15th-best in postseason history, (ahead of Tom Brady, who has a career rating of 88.0 in the playoffs) and eight of the players ahead of him are still active (meaning it could change).  His completion percentage of 63.4% ranks 27th, while his average of 276.8 yards per game is 14th.  In addition, Manning has nine playoff games with 300+ passing yards (and three with 400+ yards), the second-most of all-time.

While this article isn't a comparison between Manning and Brady, it's hard to separate the two entirely, so let's just take a look at their playoff numbers - stats that may look more similar than you might expect.

GP

Record

Cmp

Att

Cmp%

Yards

YPA

TD

INT

Rating

Manning

26

13-13

636

1,004

63.35%

7,198

7.17

40

24

88.1

Brady

31

22-9

738

1,183

62.38%

7,957

6.73

56

28

88

Again, I'm not arguing that Manning has a better resume than Brady in the postseason, but at the same time let's be honest and realize that their stat lines are not too different.

Furthermore, Manning's regular season vs. postseason split might not be as different as you may have been led to believe.  Here's a look at some of them:

GP

Record

Win%

Cmp/Gm

Att/Gm

Cmp%

Yards/Gm

YPA

TD/Gm

TD%

INT/Gm

INT%

Rating

Regular Season

266

186-79

0.702

23

35

65.3%

270.5

7.7

2

5.7%

0.9

2.7%

96.5

Postseason

26

13-13

0.5

24.5

38.6

63.4%

276.8

7.2

1.5

4.0%

0.9

2.4%

88.1

It's clear that Manning has experienced some semblance of a drop-off in the playoffs, seen by a slightly lower completion percentage, a slightly lower yards per attempt average, and a much lower touchdown percentage (that's the big one).  Surprisingly, his postseason interception percentage is nearly identical and, in fact, is slightly better than his regular season interception percentage (one that ranks in the top-30 in league regular season history).  Manning's overall passer rating is quite a bit lower in the postseason too, which makes sense considering the drop in touchdown passes.

So what we see is this: it appears that Manning is not as good in the playoffs as he is in the regular season, which his numbers indicate.  At the same time, however, he's not nearly at the level of bad play that many like to attribute to him.  Let's also think about this, however: the postseason features (for the most part) the best teams in the NFL from that season.  Whereas regular season numbers can be inflated by playing bad teams, that doesn't happen nearly as often in the playoffs.  Sure, there are times that a playoff team is clearly worse than other non-playoff teams, but for the most part the level of competition is higher in the postseason.  So could it possibly be that the higher level of competition is enough to explain away Manning's lower stats?  I think so.

To look into that further, I took a look at every single regular season game that Manning played against a playoff team.  In other words, for 1998 I looked at every game he played that season against a team that wound up making the playoffs that year, and then I did the same for every single one of his seasons.  Here are the numbers:

Peyton Manning vs. Playoff Teams

Regular Season

Postseason

97

GP

26

48

W

13

49

L

13

0.495

Win%

0.500

2,202

Cmp

636

3,485

Att

1,004

63.19%

Cmp%

63.35%

25,817

Yards

7,198

7.4

YPA

7.2

266.2

YPG

276.8

178

TD

40

5.11%

TD%

3.98%

125

INT

24

3.59%

INT%

2.39%

87.7

Rating

88.1

Now, understand that these numbers are presented without context.  In other words, they include seasons in which the Colts weren't very good - such as 1998 or 2001 - so it wasn't the Colts as one of the league's best going up against other playoff teams.  But for the most part, I think these numbers do a very good job of illustrating this point: when you account simply for the fact that in the playoffs you're always playing playoff teams (a huge revelation, I know), Manning's stats continue to look better.  In fact, he's about the same guy in the playoffs as he is in the regular season when he's facing playoff teams.  The one thing, once again, that is much lower in the playoffs is his touchdown percentage.  For whatever reason, Peyton Manning has thrown far fewer touchdowns in the postseason than he has in the regular season.  In the regular season against all opponents, Manning averages a touchdown pass every 17.4 throws.  In the regular season against playoff opponents, Manning averages a touchdown pass every 19.6 throws.  In the postseason, however, Manning averages a touchdown pass every 25.1 throws.

Aside from that, however, Peyton Manning is essentially the same player in the playoffs as he is in the regular season.  And while the point of this article isn't to determine a ranking of who the best is of all-time, I'll just say this: if Peyton Manning really is the best regular season quarterback of all time and is essentially the same guy in the playoffs, I'll let you draw your own conclusions on that one.

What is it, then, that causes people to call Peyton Manning a bad playoff quarterback?  We've looked at how his numbers don't come anywhere near grouping him in that category, but he gets put there nonetheless.  He's labeled as a choker.  He's described as struggling in the playoffs.  Why is that?  We already looked at one reason in that Manning's early-career postseason struggles have been imprinted into many minds, but there's an even bigger reason why Manning is described as a quarterback who struggles in the postseason: the number 13.  More specifically, his number of playoff losses.

No starting quarterback in NFL history has lost more playoff games than Peyton Manning.  13 times, Manning's team has lost a playoff game, and eight of them have come at home (four as the AFC's top overall seed, though two of those losses came to the NFC's number one seed in the Super Bowl).  But are wins and losses really the best and most accurate way to judge a quarterback?  They certainly have their place and are worth noting, but they should never be the basis for an entire argument - but that has become the case with Peyton Manning and the playoffs.  It's very ridiculous that it's become the leading argument, however, and there are several reasons why.

Firstly, nobody mentions the fact that Peyton Manning also is tied for the fifth-most playoff wins in NFL history for a quarterback with 13, as he's behind just Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, and John Elway and tied with Brett Favre.  If people are going to point out Manning's 13 playoff losses, they should probably point out Manning's 13 playoff wins.  It's only fair, right?

Secondly, and more applicably, quarterbacks should not be penalized for making the playoffs, yet that's what we're doing with Peyton Manning when saying he's a bad playoff quarterback because of his playoff losses.  Manning has made the playoffs 15 times in his NFL career, so of course the number of losses is going to pile up.  Let's just suppose, for the sake of this argument, that two plays from Manning's postseason career go differently: Nick Harper returns the fumble for a touchdown against the Steelers in 2005 and Hank Baskett recovers the onside kick against the Saints in 2009.  Neither play involved Manning, but if just those two plays turn out differently, there's a strong case to be made that Manning would have two more rings (it's much less certain in 2005, but the Colts were the best team in football that year and would have had a favorable path to the title).  That would give him three Super Bowl wins... and he would still be tied for the most playoff losses in NFL history.

Again, the number of losses is not a good argument to use against Manning because you are essentially saying his legacy would be better if he had missed the playoffs in some seasons.  What about in 2000, when the wild card Colts lost?  Or in 2002, when the Colts - again a wild card - lost again.  They were a wild card team in 2008, and they were just 10-6 in 2010 and needed a four-game win streak to end the season in order to make the postseason.  Would Manning have a better playoff reputation had the Colts not made the playoffs in those seasons?  As crazy as it sounds, he might.  But here's the fundamental reality of the playoffs: anything can happen.  There's too much variable that goes into winning or losing playoff games, so the best thing a team can do is consistently make the postseason.  If a player or a team consistently put themselves in position to win a title, that should be a huge bonus, not a negative just because you lost several of them.

Thirdly, allow me to illustrate some of Manning's playoff losses to show you that blaming one player for the loss of a team makes little sense.  In 2000, the Colts had a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter over the Dolphins, but Indy allowed Miami to drive down for the game-tying score with under a minute left.  After the Dolphins got the possession first in overtime and punted, the Colts then got the ball and Manning drove them into field goal range - only to have Mike Vanderjagt miss a 49-yard kick.  On the following possession, Miami won it on a touchdown.  That's a playoff loss for Manning.  In 2005, the Colts had the best team in football, but they came out flat against the Steelers.  Manning led them back from a 21-3 fourth quarter deficit, however, to draw the team within three points.  Then Jerome Bettis fumbled at the goal line, and the Colts recovered.  Nick Harper picked it up but didn't cut outside, allowing himself to be tackled by Ben Roethlisberger.  Manning had the Colts within field goal range in just two plays before two more passes fell incomplete, however, giving the most accurate kicker in the game the chance at the game-winning 46-yard kick in a dome.  And Mike Vanderjagt missed.  That's one of Manning's playoff losses.  Fast forward to 2008, when the Colts lost to the San Diego Chargers in the wild card round on the road.  The Colts held a three-point lead entering the fourth quarter, and then the Chargers got a tying field goal with under a minute left in regulation.  In overtime, Manning and the Colts' offense never got the ball, as the Chargers marched right down the field and scored the walk-off on a Darren Sproles 22-yard touchdown run.  There's another playoff loss for Manning.  The next year, in 2009, the Colts lost to the Saints in the Super Bowl.  This one isn't as strong of a case as the others because, as many are quick to point out, Manning threw a crushing pick-six in the fourth quarter.  But before that, Hank Baskett allowed an onside kick to go right through his hands to open the second half.  If he recovers, he sets up a dangerous Colts offense with a short field looking to take a double-digit lead early in the third quarter.  The next season, in 2010, the Colts hosted the New York Jets in the wild card round.  In that game, Manning led a fourth quarter drive to put the Colts in Adam Vinatieri's field goal range, as the kicker drilled a 53-yard go-ahead kick with under a minute left.  The defense (with some help from Jim Caldwell) subsequently allowed Mark Sanchez and the Jets to march right downfield very quickly to win it on a walk-off field goal.  Manning put the team in the position to take the lead with under a minute left, yet that game counts as a playoff loss for him.  Two seasons later, with Manning now a Denver Bronco, he had his team up seven late in the fourth quarter before his defense allowed the game-tying touchdown with under a minute left on a 70-yard bomb.  The game went to double overtime and the extra period saw a Manning pick, but it shouldn't have gotten to that point.  But, alas, that game also goes down as a loss on Manning's resume despite the 70-yard score given up in the final minute by his defense.

I hope you're getting the point: there's way too much variable that goes into the subject of playoff losses.  And we haven't even mentioned the fact that Manning played during the same era as one of the NFL's dynasties, as the New England Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years.  So for a stretch early in his career, he was also going up against one of the best teams in league history.  Again, all of these things happening to one player should further go to highlight that the playoffs are way too unpredictable to make conclusions based simply on losses.

That same argument can extend to another popular one against Manning - that he has only won one Super Bowl.  There's no denying that Manning should have more than one ring considering his 15 playoff appearances, talented teams, and high level of play himself.  But using that as the big argument against Manning is about as solid as the playoff loss argument - there is so much variable that goes into winning a Super Bowl that the best thing a quarterback can possibly do is put his team in a position to make a run every year - something that Manning did.  And as we just looked at, Manning hasn't exactly had the best luck when it comes to his teams in the playoffs.  Look, he's never going to catch Tom Brady or Joe Montana when it comes to rings, but while rings are a huge part of a career and the reason everyone plays, it doesn't determine how good a quarterback is.  Dan Marino, one of the best to ever play, has none - less than Trent Dilfer.  Manning has one - the same number as Brett Favre and Drew Brees.  Remember, this isn't an argument for Peyton Manning as the best playoff quarterback ever, but again, it is an argument that he's not a bad playoff quarterback.  And when you consider that he has one Super Bowl, you realize that it's not bad, just perhaps not as good as you think it should be.

To sum up this lengthy article (and if you're still reading this far, you deserve credit!), Peyton Manning is not a bad playoff quarterback.  He's essentially the same player in the postseason as he is in the regular season, though struggles early in his career and 13 playoff losses cause many to suggest that Manning struggles in the playoffs.  One argument is outdated and the other is lazy analysis, however, and so the picture becomes very clear: not only is Peyton Manning the best regular season quarterback in league history, he's also not a bad playoff quarterback either.