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Peyton Manning, Playoff God

Even when the answer is in the negative, the questions are asked relentlessly: is Peyton Manning better than Tom Brady? Is Peyton Manning the best quarterback in the NFL? Is Peyton Manning the best quarterback of all time?

Even some Colts fans aren't ready to canonize him yet; but there's still a pretty strong consensus that Manning is, at least, the best quarterback currently playing. Some have even taken the last step and declared that no quarterback in NFL history has ever been better. He either owns all the records or is on track to own them, even Brett Favre's consecutive start streak (he's never missed a single NFL game). He's reputed to be the smartest quarterback in the league, a master at reading defenses and making perfect adjustments. And he's long outgrown his early reputation of being a playoff choker, with a Super Bowl ring to his credit.

Peyton Manning is a football god, and the New Orleans Saints are in deep trouble come Miami. At least, that's the official story. But as we asked about other opponents this year: is the official story true?

Let's get a few odds and ends out of the way early. First of all, I'm not trying to establish whether or not Manning is better than Brees. That's not what this is about...let's keep the focus on Manning alone. Secondly, nothing I have to say should be construed to mean that Manning is a bad quarterback...or even less-than-great. He is, for sure, a dangerous player, capable of beating any team on any day. But I would contend that he's hardly the football god he's been made out to be; in fact, come playoff time, Manning's performance drops.

It's true. I swear to Peyton. Throughout his career, Manning has played better in the regular season than he has in the playoffs, and the stats prove it.

I compiled his stats since the 2003 season (inclusive). That excludes every season in which the Colts didn't make the playoffs; it also excludes 2002, when they were trounced 41-0 in the first round, and Manning had a passer rating of 31.2. On the one hand, this artificially elevates his playoff stats; but on the other hand, it's more indicative of the Manning of today. He's only had one playoff game that bad since.

So let's look at the stats now, shall we?

PEYTON MANNING Passer Rating Completion % Yds. Per Attempt TDs TD % INTs INT % TD/INT Ratio
Regular Season 102.27 66.85 7.94 228 6.14 81 2.18 2.81/1
Playoffs 93.0 65.3 7.88 26 4.79 16 2.95 1.62/1

The first thing that stands out is the simple fact that all of Manning's stats are worse during the playoffs. Some are barely changed...but the change is still in the wrong direction. For instance, there is little change in his yards per attempt or completion percentage, but his passer rating drops by a full 9 points. The reason is readily obvious: for every touchdown he throws, he's almost twice as likely to throw a pick in the postseason. During the season, Manning throws 2.81 touchdowns for every interception; but in the playoffs, the ratio drops to 1.62.

Whatever else you might have to say, you can't claim that Peyton elevates his game when the stakes get really high. The strange thing is: neither does the rest of his team. Over this same time period, the Colts averaged 27.5 points per game during the regular season. In the playoffs, that dropped to 25.6. This year, they have averaged 26 points per game, and 25 in the playoffs. The trend is remarkably consistent, and always points downward.

I know I said we'd keep this about Peyton; well, I lied. Let's compare his stats to Drew Brees.

The first thing to admit is that Brees' sample is much smaller (no jokes...I'm watching you). Manning has played in 14 playoff games in his career; Brees has played in 5, but we're only going to count what he has done with the Saints, since 2006. That makes a total of four games. Admittedly, not much to go on; but let's see what we see:

DREW BREES Passer Rating Completion % Yds. Per Attempt TDs TD % INTs INT % TD/INT Ratio
Regular Season 96.9 66.2 7.7 173 5.3 79 2.4 2.18/1
Playoffs 100.5 60.4 7.2 9 6.2 1 0.6 9/1

The most obvious thing about Brees' stats is that they go in the opposite direction of Manning's: in the postseason, Brees improves. His completion percentage and yards per attempt both dip a bit; but his touchdown percentage gets better, and his interceptions drop through the floor. As a consequence, his passer rating goes up in the postseason, whereas Manning's drops.

The changes aren't overly dramatic, but I think they're real. And what they point to is this: Peyton Manning is a very good quarterback with an even better publicity machine. He is certainly capable of beating us; but, before the games were played, you could have said the same thing about Kurt Warner and Brett Favre. Many people thought either Warner or Favre would prevail, and they were all wrong.

As for the team itself, the Saints improve in the playoffs at the same time that Indianapolis tends to tail off. Since 2006, the Saints have averaged 27.5 points per game in the regular season, and 29.2 in the postseason. This year, we've averaged 31.8 points per game during the season, and 38 points in the playoffs--a touchdown per game better than the regular season.

So, what can we expect from Manning and the Colts? Well, 25 points, for starters. But also, consider this: Manning has won a Super Bowl ring. One ring. Only one ring. That means that in eight postseason campaigns, only once has he managed to avoid having that one bad game that was sufficient to knock his team out of the playoffs. That exception came, ironically, in 2006--by far his worst offseason statistically, other than the lone disaster in 2002. That year, the Colts' defense carried the team into and through the Super Bowl--even though Peyton picked up the MVP for his 81.8-rated game. Had the defense not played so well, the Colts might have lost in the opening round to Kansas City, when Peyton had a 71.9 rating. More likely, it would have been the following week against Baltimore, when his rating was 39.6! Manning's worst game since his playoff debut came in his Super Bowl year!

Manning has been remarkably consistent through the years. So far this postseason, his passer rating stands at 104.6. In order for him to finish at his postseason average of 93, he'll have to play a poor game in the Super Bowl...say, 27 of 41 for 243 yards, 1 touchdown, 2 interceptions. That gives him a passer rating for that game of 69.4. Can the Colts survive that kind of day?

None of this, of course, proves anything; and what happened in the past will have no bearing on the Super Bowl ("That's why they play the games"). But at the least, a close look at Manning's history indicates that he's as mortal as anyone, and maybe even a little more than Drew Brees. It's a good idea to be cautious and respectful...but scared? Nah. We can take him.

My own prediction: Saints bring home a Lombardi, 34-24.