The ongoing debate about the best quarterback of all time becomes complicated when people mention Dan Marino or Brett Favre, men whose playoff accomplishments did not match their regular season success. In our generation, two players sit high above the rest: Tom Brady, winner of three Super Bowls, and Peyton Manning, whose eleven playoff losses often overshadow his lone ring. Following a devastating loss in double overtime to the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens, Manning exited another postseason earlier than planned with only a few more chances left in his career to capture another title. Over time, the media has placed a lot of emphasis on his team’s playoff failures, which has led fans to believe Peyton Manning is a choke artist when it matters.
In the 2013 regular season, Manning produced eye-popping numbers that may never be reached again: 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns, both of which are NFL records. Number 18 was also incredibly accurate, completing 68.3% of his pass attempts while throwing only ten interceptions. Even more impressively, he did all of this while battling ankle injuries. So his numbers beg the question, “Is Peyton worse in the playoffs?” Instead of comparing Manning’s overall regular season totals to his playoff numbers, I only took games that Manning played against playoff teams in the regular season and compared those to his playoff stats. When it comes down to it, the numbers show that there is no difference between the way Manning plays in the regular season and the postseason.
THE FIRST FIVE YEARS
First, we must note that Peyton Manning was not the quarterback in his first season that he is today. The growing pains that come with young athletes were evident. With ten playoff teams scheduled for the number one pick in his rookie season, the young Manning struggled against experienced defenses, tossing twenty interceptions in those ten games and posted a 3-13 record, which still remains by far the worst of his career.
After his ugly first season, Manning improved notably as he gained more experience in the league, which is normal for any young quarterback. Dealing legendary running back Marshall Faulk to the Rams allowed Edgerrin James to take on a large role in the offense. However, the team often struggled against the better defenses in the league. Manning’s first two playoff games were both losses that were within one score. The results, while disappointing at the time, were altogether encouraging for the future success of the Colts.
After missing the playoffs in 2001, coach Jim Mora Sr. was shown the door and the Colts hired former Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy. The talent on that Colts roster was enough to make the playoffs, but the Herm Edwards-led Jets routed the Colts 41-0 in New York. Manning failed to complete even half his passes and threw for just 137 yards.
The Tony Dungy Era
Following their first season under Tony Dungy, the Colts played their first home playoff game. Manning shredded the Broncos secondary, completing just under 85% of his passes for 377 yards and five touchdowns, capturing that elusive first playoff win. He followed that up with another great performance at Arrowhead Stadium to lead Indianapolis to the AFC Championship. However, the New England Patriots halted the Colts’ postseason success that season by stifling the Colts offense with four interceptions, four sacks, and a safety.
The next season saw a more experienced Colts team take another step forward but again fall short of another Super Bowl appearance in Foxboro. In Manning’s first seven games against the Patriots, the Colts failed to win even once. The media tries to make it seem as if the Patriots mystically had his number, but during that seven-year span, the Patriots defense was one of the best in the league and a major reason for their three Super Bowl victories (although one cannot completely ignore Tom Brady’s contributions). Even when Manning played well against the Patriots, such as in their 2003 regular season game where Manning threw four touchdowns and just one interception, the Patriots came out on top against a weaker Colts defense. Early in Manning’s career, the Colts defense was anything but spectacular, and relied on the powerful offense to win games.
During the early part of Tony Dungy’s time leading the Colts, the team caught a series of tough breaks. In 2005, the sixth seeded Pittsburgh Steelers came into Indianapolis and jumped out to a 14 point lead, sparked by the play of Ben Roethlisberger. Still, Manning helped the Colts claw back into the game, but normally accurate kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed the game tying field goal at the end of regulation. Manning’s performance in that game was arguably better than most of his others against playoff teams that season. In comparison to the first time the Steelers and Colts played that season, Manning looked no better or worse, but unfortunately the result was different.
Dungy and Manning lost to San Diego in two consecutive seasons, despite Manning throwing for 712 yards combined in the two games. In the first loss, Chargers’ backup quarterback Billy Volek and backup running back Darren Sproles exposed the weak Colts defense. Sproles was the difference in the next game as well, tallying over 300 total yards and scoring the game winning touchdown in overtime. In that game, Manning did not get to see the ball in the extra period as a result of losing the coin flip.
The thing that will stand out most from the Dungy era was the 2006 Super Bowl. It was arguably Manning’s worst statistical postseason (3 TD’s, 7 INT’s), which can be attributed to the series of strong defenses the Colts faced along the way. His numbers that postseason show how the association between wins and the play of the quarterback is often over-emphasized. After all, the defense has to be on the field for about half of every game.
Jim Caldwell and the Broncos
Caldwell and Manning enjoyed a great deal of success in their two seasons together. In the three games Manning played against eventual playoff teams in 2009, Manning tore apart the Cardinals, Ravens, and Patriots, throwing for over 100 yards and 9 touchdowns in the process. After cruising to the Super Bowl, the Colts lost to the Saints, due in part to Tracy Porter’s interception return for a touchdown. The following season, Manning threw the ball quite frequently, averaging 49 attempts per game against playoff teams. However, a stout Jets defense held the Colts offense in check in the wild card round of the playoffs. The Jets won the low scoring affair 17-16 after Nick Folk’s game–winning kick sailed through the uprights.
When the Colts chose Andrew Luck over the injured Manning after their 2-14 season with Manning out for the year, Manning signed with the Broncos. Despite a great offensive effort by Manning in the divisional round of the playoffs in his first season as a Bronco, the defense ultimately could not hold up its end of the bargain. The Broncos scored 35 points against the Ravens, but Baltimore was up to the task and ended up winning the game 38-35.
Manning’s 2013 season may be the most impressive individual offensive performance in a season, and it included seven games against postseason participants. Peyton Manning added more accolades to his already impressive résumé. He proved once again he is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
As for Manning’s play in the postseason, the numbers suggest that he plays as well in the playoffs as he does in the regular season games against playoff teams. In his playoff career, he has thrown fewer interceptions, has been more accurate and has thrown for more adjusted yards per attempt. The most apparent reason for Manning’s poor record in the playoffs deals more with luck. Over the course of 83 games, Manning has accumulated a 40-43 record against playoff teams in the regular season in comparison to a 9-11 mark in the playoffs. He is an even 20-20 in those regular season games that were decided by one score while he has posted a 2-7 mark in playoff games decided by one score (entering the 2013 postseason).
The numbers from Manning’s past nine seasons are more telling about Manning’s play against playoff teams simply because he had not developed into the quarterback he would eventually become before then. During that nine-year stretch, Manning boasts a 25-11 record in games against playoff teams in the regular season, compared to a 9-8 mark in the postseason. However the win/loss total is not completely indicative of his play. Manning has averaged over 300 yards passing in these games while completing 66.4% of his passes. In almost every statistical category, Manning has played about the same or slightly better in the playoffs than in regular season games against playoff teams.
So, what if Vanderjagt makes his kick and forces overtime? What if the Colts win the coin toss in San Diego? What if Nick Folk misses? What if Flacco does not throw that 70-yard touchdown pass? Unfortunately for football fans and Manning, the answers to those questions will remain unknown. Time and time again, other factors aside from Manning’s play determined the outcome of the game. Manning now has another chance to win another Super Bowl, and the road in the AFC goes through Denver. The numbers disprove the misconception that Manning struggles in playoff performances, and he has a great opportunity to squash the criticism and hoist the Lombardi Trophy for a second time.
Image courtesy businessinsider.com
Data courtesy of pro-football-reference
Georgetown University Class of 2017
 One can only imagine what an offense featuring Manning, Faulk, Harrison, and James would have looked like.
 Colt’s rankings for points allowed by year: 1998: 29th, 1999: 17th, 2000: 15th, 2001: 31st, 2002: 7th (yet gave up 41 to the Jets in the playoffs), 2003: 20th, 2004: 19th, 2005: 2nd, 2006: 23rd, 2007: 1st 2008: 3rd, 2009: 8th, 2010: 23rd.