The Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning Debate

Since the Patriots beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, plenty of declarative statements have been made about Tom Brady’s legacy. “He’s the best of this generation.” “He’s the best of all-time.” “The Peyton Manning/Tom Brady debate is over!” This one entertains us the most. So we went back and looked at the careers of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to try and see if the debate should in fact be over.

The Brady vs. Manning narratives go something like this: Peyton Manning has the stats but chokes under pressure. He’s the best regular-season quarterback ever. Tom Brady has the rings and comes through in the clutch. He’s the best postseason quarterback ever, and therefore, the better of the two. The other common arguments are that Manning has had more talent around him and Brady has done more with less. So how true is all of this?

Regular Season Stats:
First of all, Brady is not that far behind Manning in the statistics department. Manning currently has the lead on the bulk stats because he’s played almost 3 more seasons than Brady. But Brady is still 5th all-time in touchdowns and yards. He isn’t anywhere near finished, both from a performance and a health standpoint, which means he will continue to climb every career statistical list. Regardless of whoever ends up with better stats at the end of their career, both Brady and Manning have been as efficient as they come.

Manning has completed 65.5 percent of his passes throughout his career while Brady has completed 63.5. Manning averages 7.7 yards per attempt while Brady averages 7.43. Manning has a rating of 97.5 and Brady has a rating of 95.9. Manning has the slight edge in each of these areas, but when you’re talking about a sample size of 200+ games and a decade and a half of football, those differences are negligible, and can probably be explained by Manning having better talent on the perimeter and playing in more favorable weather conditions more often.

Regular Season W-L:
Just as Manning leads in the statistical comparison, Brady leads in the W-L comparison. Brady has a 160-47 (.773 win pct.) career record while Manning has a 179-77 (.699 win pct.) career record. Brady gets the edge here, and this is where the overall debate starts to tilt in his favor because of the notion that winning is all that matters.

While this is certainly true, it is not a good or fair way to evaluate individual players. The quarterback position might be the most important in football, but there are so many factors outside of the quarterback’s control that go into winning games. Those uncontrollable elements are where Brady has had a distinct advantage over Manning throughout his career.

The Role of the Defense:
Manning has had several very good individual players on the defensive side of the ball that Brady hasn’t had. Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware come to mind. But the Patriots have almost always had a much better lowest common denominator. They’ve always had more depth and more ability to win with schemes catered to each individual opponent (the Belichick factor). The proof is in the data.

Since 2001, Brady has gotten more support from his defense. The Patriots have allowed 18.69 points per game (excluding the 2008 season that Brady missed), while the Colts/Broncos have allowed 21.11 points per game (excluding the 2011 season that Manning missed).

The Patriots have had 10 top-10 finishes in points allowed, while the Colts/Broncos have had 6. The Patriots have also finished ahead of Manning’s teams in 8 of the 12 seasons when both Peyton and Brady played.

Additionally, between 2001-2014, the Patriots allowed less than 20 points in 103 of Brady’s 207 starts (almost 50%). In just 87 of Manning’s 208 starts during that time (41.8%) has his defense allowed less than 20 points. This speaks to Manning having to do a little bit more on a regular basis to get a victory. By the way, in those 87 games Manning is 86-1. The one loss came in the final game of the 2007 season when he was pulled early because the Colts’ playoff seed was set.

Despite the lack of as many premiere individual players on defense, the Patriots have generated more sacks and turnovers than the Colts/Broncos. They have 517 sacks to Indy/Denver’s 479. They have 420 takeaways to the Colts/Broncos’ 360.

Additionally, the Patriots have defended the run better, allowing 108.33 rushing yards per game and 4.16 yards per rush. Manning’s teams have allowed 118.98 rushing yards per game and 4.33 yards per rush.

None of these stats alone would indicate a huge advantage for Brady over Manning. But when you put them all together, Brady has had a defense that allows fewer points and rushing yards per game and generates more impact plays like sacks and turnovers. So whether it’s due to coaches, schemes, or depth of personnel, Brady has had much better support on the defensive side of the ball in the regular season.

The Playoffs:
The common perception is that Tom Brady has performed much better than Peyton Manning in the playoffs. With such a discrepancy between their playoff W-L records (Brady is 21-8 and Manning is 11-13), doesn’t this have to be the case? Well, let’s try to look at this objectively. The first thing we have to compare to try and explain their W-L records is each quarterback’s individual play.

You might be surprised to find that Brady has a career playoff passer rating of 89.0 while Manning’s is 88.5. Passer rating isn’t a great barometer of quarterback play in small sample sizes. But Manning has played a season and a half and Brady has played almost 2 seasons worth of playoff games. One quarterback is not necessarily better than another just because they have a higher rating. But when the ratings are so close, as is the case here, it indicates that both Manning and Brady have played similarly throughout their playoff careers. So what accounts for the difference in record?

Again, we have to look at the teams (and coaches) around Manning and Brady. Brady has played 15 seasons with Bill Belichick as his head coach. He has never had to face Belichick. As we wrote a few weeks ago, Belichick has shut down the all-time great quarterbacks and offenses of the last 30 years, including Joe Montana. This is something that is often overlooked and has to be talked about any time these two quarterbacks’ careers are compared.

Manning, on the other hand, has had Jim Mora, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, and John Fox. These are not bad coaches, but they’re also not exactly all-time greats.

As far as help from the defense is concerned, once again Brady has had a distinct advantage over Manning in the playoffs. His Patriots have allowed 2.1 fewer points per game than Manning’s defenses. They’ve also generated 67 sacks in 29 games while the Colts/Broncos have generated 36 sacks in 24 games.

The Pats have also generated 55 takeaways while the Colts/Broncos have only created 38. New England has allowed 105.2 rushing yards per game with a 3.97 average yards per carry, while Manning’s defenses have allowed 124.9 rushing yards per game and 4.34 yards per carry.

Additionally, the Patriots have not allowed a single return touchdown in the playoffs during the Bill Belichick era. They have created 7 returns for touchdowns, however. Manning’s teams, on the other hand, have allowed 3 kick/punt return touchdowns, and have only generated 3 return TD’s of their own. These are some of the hidden areas that might help explain the difference between Manning and Brady’s playoff careers.

For the most part, Manning has had to do more in order for his team to win. This is the story of his career. When his passer rating is 100 or above in the playoffs, his team is 5-1. When his passer rating is 90 or above in the playoffs, his team is 6-4. When it’s below 90, his team is 5-9.

When Brady’s passer rating is 100 or better in the playoffs, the Patriots are 10-0. When it’s 90 or better, the Patriots are 12-2. When it’s below 90, the Patriots are still 9-6. In fact, in the 11 playoff games where Brady has had a rating below 80 (which would not be considered a good game), the Patriots are still 7-4. That record is better than Manning’s teams when he has a rating of 90 or better.

All of this speaks to how Manning has had to be more exceptional in order for his team to win. Brady has definitely been exceptional at times throughout his playoff career, but even when he hasn’t been, his team still ends up on top. This supports the argument that Brady has had more help around him.

This isn’t to take anything away from Tom Brady. The man has won 3 Super Bowl MVPs. He has led the Patriots on a game-winning drive (a scoring drive that puts a team ahead for good in the 4th quarter or overtime) in all 4 of New England’s Super Bowl wins. He also just had arguably the greatest 4th quarter performance in the history of the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. We’re certainly not arguing against him being the best of this generation and possibly the greatest of all time. We are, however, trying to evaluate both quarterbacks objectively using as much evidence as possible.

2001-04 vs. 2005-14:
Since 2005, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have had almost identical careers. Brady has a 112-33 W-L record in the regular season over 145 games. Manning is 113-31 in 144 games.

Brady has completed 64.2% of his passes during this stretch. Manning has completed 67%.

Brady has thrown for 39,333 yards and 7.64 yards per attempt. Manning has thrown for 40,249 and 7.79 yards per attempt.

Brady has a 295-91 TD-INT ratio while Manning has a 314/114 ratio.

Brady’s rating is 99.2 during this time while Manning’s is 101.4.

Brady has 2 MVP’s. Manning has 3.

Brady has 9 division titles to Manning’s 8. Both have 9 playoff appearances and each missed 1 season due to injury.

In the playoffs during this period, Brady is 12-8 while Manning is 8-8. Brady has an 89.1 rating while Manning has an 88.3 rating. Both have played in 3 Super Bowls. Both have won 1 of those 3 as well as a Super Bowl MVP.

The similarities here are absolutely absurd.

The argument that the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning debate is over basically stems from Brady’s first 4 seasons as starter in which the Patriots won 3 Super Bowls. Those teams were the best and most balanced that Brady has played with. They were not built on Brady carrying the team. Brady wasn’t a mere game manager during this time, but he didn’t have to play exceptionally well every week for the Patriots to win. During that time, Peyton Manning did. Manning won 2 MVPs in 2003 and 2004, and he carried the Colts. This wasn’t enough to win a championship or beat the Patriots, but he was a better player than Brady at that time.

It’s interesting and ironic that these two quarterback have been nearly identical in every way since 2005, both in the regular season and the playoffs. Yet Brady’s accomplishments from 2001-04 (when Manning actually was the better player) are what most define him and separate him from Manning.

The Role of Luck and…Kickers:
The most interesting aspect of the Manning-Brady debate is the role of things like luck and kickers. You need help around you to win championships, and you absolutely have to get lucky at times, no matter how good you are.

Brady has had 5 playoff games in his career where the game has come down to a late field goal try for his team or for his opponent. His team has won all 5 of those games. Manning has had 3 such games. His team has lost all 3.

Brady’s kicker, Adam Vinatieri, made a 45-yard field goal in a blizzard in the famed “Tuck Rule” Game in 2001. He then kicked a 23-yarder in overtime to win it. In the Super Bowl that year, Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal as time expired for the win. Two years later in Super Bowl XXXVIII, he kicked a 41-yard field goal to win the game. Three years after that in 2006, Brady’s new kicker – Stephen Gostkowski – kicked a 31-yard field goal with a minute left to take the lead against the Chargers in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. The opposing kicker missed a 54-yarder to tie the game. Similarly, in the 2011 AFC Championship game against the Ravens, Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed an easy 32-yard field goal at the end of regulation that would have sent the game to overtime. None of these plays are within the quarterbacks’ control, and all of them broke in Brady’s favor.

Manning’s kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, missed a 49-yard field goal in overtime of the 2000 AFC Wild Card Playoffs against the Dolphins – This game was in Miami, not a blizzard. In 2005 against the Steelers in the divisional round, Vanderjagt missed a game-tying 46 yarder in a dome at the end of regulation that would have sent the game to overtime. 5 years later, in the 2010 AFC Wild Card Playoffs against the Jets, Manning finally saw his kicker make a late kick. Adam Vinatieri (of course) made a 50-yard field goal to give Indianapolis the lead with 53 seconds left. The Colts defense folded though, and allowed Mark Sanchez to drive downfield with ease, setting up a 32-yard field goal for kicker Nick Folk. Coincidentally, this was the same distance of the aforementioned kick that Billy Cundiff would miss a year later in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. Folk made it, and the Colts lost. None of these kicks are within the quarterback’s control, and all of them broke against Manning.

There have been plenty of other examples of Manning’s team letting him down. For instance, after giving the Colts the lead in the 4th quarter of the 2007 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Manning’s defense gave up a game-winning 78-yard touchdown drive to back-up quarterback Billy Volek.

In the 2012 AFC Divisional Playoffs against the Ravens, Manning led his Broncos on a 4th quarter go-ahead 88-yard touchdown drive. They had this game won, until Joe Flacco threw up a prayer and Rahim Moore mistimed his jump, resulting in a Hail-Mary 70-yard game-tying touchdown with 30 seconds remaining. The Ravens ended up winning that game.

The Patriots had a similar type of situation this year. Just like Manning’s Broncos did in 2012, Brady’s Patriots scored 35 points in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Ravens. Joe Flacco threw two deep passes into the end zone at the end of the game. The first one was intercepted. The 2nd one was knocked down. This was another eerily similar event in the Brady/Manning careers that broke favorably for one player, and unfavorably for the other.

This isn’t to say Brady hasn’t had any bad-luck moments in the playoffs. Just ask David Tyree. But it’s tough to debate that Brady hasn’t received more help from the team, coaches, schemes, and kickers around him than Manning has. He’s had a few more lucky breaks too.

Final Thoughts:
We should mention here that we do not have a definitive answer for who we think is the better quarterback. Manning has always been a little more of a downfield passer than Brady, while Brady has been more of an inside-the-numbers quarterback who utilizes a little more ball control. One style isn’t necessarily better than the other. It just depends on what the team and head coach’s philosophy is.

You can still make a valid argument for either quarterback being the best of this era. Peyton Manning might be 11-13 in the playoffs, but he has won a Super Bowl and a Super Bowl MVP. He has won 5 regular season MVPs as well. He has gone to the Super Bowl with 3 different head coaches and 2 different franchises. He has provided 2 of the 8 highest rated playoff games by a quarterback in NFL history as well as 3 of the top 18. He led his team to the biggest come-from-behind victory in AFC Championship history. He has more game-winning drives than any quarterback ever. He is 2-1 vs. Belichick and Brady in the biggest possible game in which they can play each other, the AFC Championship. The aspect of his poor playoff W-L record that is overlooked is the fact that he has played in the 2nd most postseason games ever. You have to win in the playoffs to accomplish something like this.

Tom Brady has probably had the best career of any quarterback ever. He has 392 touchdown passes and counting. He has 4 Super Bowl rings, 3 Super Bowl MVPs, 6 Super Bowl appearances, as well as the most playoff wins and games played in history. He has 9 game-winning drives in the postseason, 4 of which came in the Super Bowl. He has also played better in his 6 Super Bowls than Manning has in his 3.

Again, you can make an argument for either quarterback. If you put Manning with Belichick for 15 years and Brady with the Colts and Broncos, Manning probably wins 4 Super Bowls and Brady probably puts up bigger numbers. Both are exceptional quarterbacks. Both make the players around them better. Both have total command of their offenses, a top-notch work ethic, and a savant-like understanding of their opponents. No top-5 all-time quarterback list is complete without Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. To say the debate is over between them because Brady just added another Super Bowl ring is to oversimplify what it takes to play the quarterback position. The debate will never be over. And why would anyone want it to be?

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