We’re getting ready for the beginning of the 2016 regular season for the Indianapolis Colts, but last night NFL Network allowed Colts fans to take a trip down memory road. The Network aired a show ranking Peyton Manning’s top ten career games, and with Manning being the greatest player in franchise history, the Colts were obviously very well-represented.
Though the show itself seemed to be a bit of a joke at times (with celebrities and others sharing strange remarks about some of the moments), it overall was a very fun look back at an incredible era of Colts football, one that likely won’t be replicated. But did they get the list right? Let’s take a look at their list, and I’ll share my thoughts on the worthiness of each game’s inclusion. Obviously, Peyton Manning had so many incredible games, but what were his ten best? Here’s what NFL Network came up with:
10. First win - 1998 vs. San Diego Chargers
This one seemed to be included just because of the storylines that could be told on a TV show. The show talked about how Peyton Manning was the first overall pick, conjured up the old debate about Manning vs. Ryan Leaf, and then emphasized how Manning’s first career win came against Leaf and the Chargers. That’s a great story, right? Sure, but it doesn’t belong in a list of Manning’s top ten career games. The Colts entered the game 0-4 (and would only win three games all year), and Manning was quite pedestrian that day: completing just 12 of 23 passes for 137 yards, a touchdown, and an interception with a 66.8 passer rating. Is that really one of his best games? One in which he didn’t play great for a winless team in his rookie year? Not at all (and it’s not even the best choice from his rookie year, which would have been the comeback against the Jets). Like I said, I wonder if it was included just for the storyline that the TV show could tell.
9. First playoff win - 2003 postseason vs. Denver Broncos
While Manning’s first career win doesn’t belong on this list, his first career playoff win absolutely does. The Colts had lost their first three playoff games with Manning, and they were entering the 2003 season after a 41-0 embarrassment in the postseason the year before. The questions were beginning to creep in about Manning’s playoff ability, but he answered those questions in a huge way in the 2003 playoffs. After winning his first of five NFL MVP awards for the regular season, Manning was masterful in the playoff game in one of his finest career performances. He completed 22 of 26 passes for 377 yards and five touchdowns without a turnover for a perfect passer rating as the Colts cruised to a 41-10 win over the Broncos. It was one of just four perfect passer ratings to ever be posted in a playoff game, and it certainly warrants inclusion on this list.
8. Thanksgiving Day game vs. Detroit Lions in 2004
In the midst of what some (including myself) still consider the greatest season of quarterbacking in NFL history, Peyton Manning had a gem on Thanksgiving Day. Playing on a short week against the Detroit Lions (who, granted, weren’t great), Manning just carved up the Lions on Thanksgiving. He completed 23 of 28 passes for 236 yards and six scores as he led the Colts to a 41-9 win - and he didn’t even play in the fourth quarter! If he had kept going, he could have padded his stats even more. He still threw six scores, and Jon Gruden remarked on the show, “is that all he threw that day?” Mike Chappell perhaps said it best, however, as he said “it got to the point where you were numb at the excellence you saw each week.” There were plenty of memorable performances in Manning’s 2004 season, but the Lions game is certainly among the very best of them and I don’t mind it being included on this list at all.
7. “4th and 2” game vs. the New England Patriots in 2009
Everyone knew this game had to be on the list, and it was. In what quickly became a very infamous game (thanks to Bill Belichick’s stunning decision), the Colts fell behind early. Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, the Patriots took a 31-14 lead over the Colts, but in vintage Peyton Manning fashion, he led his team back. Before long, it was 34-28 New England with just a few minutes left, and the Patriots faced a fourth down and 2 deep in their own territory. Everyone expected the Patriots to punt the ball, but Bill Belichick didn’t. The reason? He feared giving the ball back to Peyton Manning. The show included a clip of Bill Belichick from the sideline saying into his headset, “I don’t want to give these guys the ball back.” The game itself proved to be very memorable, and that decision from the greatest coach of this generation said everything you needed to know: Peyton Manning was at the top of his game, and even the best coach in the league didn’t want him to get the ball back. On the day, Manning completed 28 of 44 passes for 327 yards, four touchdowns, and two picks, but it was the decision Belichick made - and why he made it - that makes it an especially worthy inclusion on this list.
6. Comeback vs. San Diego Chargers in 2012
The first game from Manning’s tenure with the Broncos to make the list, it was definitely another worthy inclusion. It was just his sixth game with Denver (and he has thrown for eleven touchdowns against just three picks in the five games prior), but it helped him cement his reputation as one of the league’s very best despite his struggles with a neck injury in 2011. The Broncos entered halftime trailing 24-0 to the Chargers, who had scored one of their touchdowns on an 80-yard pick-six of Manning. The second half, however, once again proved what everyone knew by that point: if you have Peyton Manning, you’re never out of it. Number 18 threw scoring tosses to Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Brandon Stokely in the second half, the last of which put the Broncos ahead for the first time all day with 9:03 remaining in the fourth quarter. Manning completed 24 of 30 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns against one pick on that night, adding yet another incredible comeback to an already large list of them.
5. Seven touchdown game vs. Baltimore Ravens in 2013
Another game from his Broncos career, you probably could have figured that this one would make the list too. The Broncos opened the 2013 season against the Ravens, who had stunned Denver in the playoffs the year before. On this day, however, it was all about Peyton Manning. The quarterback completed 27 of 42 passes for 462 yards and tied the NFL single-game record with seven touchdown passes - he’s just one of eight players to ever do that and was the first since 1969, though two others have done it since. Manning would go on to break the single-season passing touchdowns and passing yards records that season, but no game was as impressive as his first one.
4. Comeback vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003
Here’s another one you knew would be on the list: the Monday night miracle in Tampa Bay in 2003. You know the story, but it’s fun to remember. The Colts went on the road to face the defending Super Bowl champions on Monday Night Football, and it was a game that also pitted the dynamic Colts offense (featuring that season’s co-MVP Peyton Manning) against a very good Buccaneers defense (that was built largely by then Colts head coach Tony Dungy). Tampa Bay dominated the first three quarters, and then with just 5:09 remaining in the game they added a pick-six of Manning to extend their lead to 35-14. It was, by all reasonable extents, over, and in fact the Colts were about to pull Manning to keep him healthy - which would have been waiving the white flag. After a nice kickoff return, however, Manning came back on to the field and proceeded to catch fire: the Colts erased a 21-point deficit in minutes, coming all the way back to tie the game at 35 with 35 seconds left to send it to overtime, where Mike Vanderjagt hit the game-winner. On the game, Manning completed 34 of 47 passes for 386 yards and two scores with one interception, but in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime Manning completed 13 of 20 passes for 181 yards and a score as he led the Colts to 24 points and the win. It’s a true classic, and as Mike Chappell said on the show, the game highlighted that “when you have Peyton Manning, nothing is impossible and no game is unwinnable.”
3. 509th touchdown pass game vs. San Francisco 49ers in 2014
On October 19, 2014, Peyton Manning reached one of his greatest career milestones, something that he had been working toward since week one of his rookie season in 1998: the career touchdown pass record. With his third scoring toss of the game against the San Francisco 49ers in 2014, he broke it, throwing his 509th career score on an eight-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas. It was a very impressive day for Manning overall, too, as he completed 22 of 26 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns for a passer rating of 157.2 - his highest-rated game as a Bronco. Still, the reason this game was included on the list - and as highly as number three, at that - was because of his career milestone, which doesn’t exactly seem to fit in a list ranking his top games. Manning was very good on that night, but it’s another question entirely whether it was one of his top ten games, and there are several that were left off the list that I would include instead - including his 2009 AFC Championship game win over the Jets, his 2013 AFC Championship game win against the Patriots, and his 2003 playoff win over the Chiefs in the divisional round.
2. Super Bowl XLI victory
I do think the list got the top two games absolutely right. We all know what number one is, but his performance against the Chicago Bears two weeks later in his first career Super Bowl is certainly worthy of the number two spot. After disappointments in the playoffs throughout his first nine years, Manning finally reached his ultimate goal of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on a rainy night in Miami on February 4, 2007. Manning completed 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards, a touchdown, and an interception on that night en route to winning the Super Bowl MVP award, but there has been a perception in recent years that suggests Manning wasn’t that good in the victory. While I agree that Dominic Rhodes should have won the MVP award, I think it was accurate how one analyst on the show last night pointed out that it was actually an underrated performance by Manning. After some struggles on the first drive, Manning then finished the game 24 of 34 for 240 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 100.1 on a rainy night. It wasn’t his sharpest performance, but considering the circumstances - in his first Super Bowl after years of playoff frustrations - it was undoubtedly one of his greatest.
1. AFC Championship game vs. New England Patriots in 2006 postseason
There’s absolutely no doubt about this one, though I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that the NFL Network show actually got it right (I wasn’t confident, but they did). Their tease before unveiling it was even that “we all know what’s coming next,” and it’s a no-brainer choice for the number one spot. Entering the 2006 season, Manning had just a 3-6 career playoff record and had been bounced out of the playoffs by the New England Patriots twice in the last three seasons. The questions were swirling by that point, as people openly wondered whether Manning - entering his ninth season - would ever win the big one. Meanwhile, Manning’s biggest rival - Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the New England Patriots - had won three Super Bowls in the past five seasons and were looking for a fourth ring. It just so happened that they also beat the Colts twice to get to the Super Bowl previously, and that matchup was set up once again in the AFC Championship game in 2006. The game started out terribly, with a pick-six of Manning putting the Patriots up 21-3 midway through the second quarter. But from there, with doubts about Peyton Manning growing even louder, number 18 delivered the signature performance of his career, leading the Colts back to a thrilling 38-34 comeback victory to advance to his first Super Bowl. He completed 27 of 47 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown with an interception and also a rushing touchdown, but the game wasn’t about stats: it was about the situation and the circumstances, and it was about Peyton Manning putting his team on his back and finally breaking through, beating his biggest rival and advancing to his first Super Bowl. There’s really no other choice for number one on a list of Manning’s best games.
So what are your thoughts on the list overall? For the most part, I actually think it’s a really good list. I would get rid of his first win and his 509th game (because like I said, that’s a career accomplishment) and replace them with some better games - such as his 2009 AFC Championship game victory over the New York Jets, his 2013 AFC Championship game victory over the New England Patriots, or his 2003 AFC divisional round victory over the Kansas City Chiefs - but I think the list overall is a good one and is definitely a good trip down memory lane.