Irrational Eli vs. Peyton Postseason Debate Begins

Scott Kacsmar gets an early jump on the irrational “Who’s the best Manning brother in the playoffs?” debate. Must-read history inside.

Other than a quick and disappointing exit in San Francisco this Sunday, there is nothing stopping the “Eli is the best Manning in the postseason” media express.  

In fact, the train’s already taken off. If you’re masochistic enough to watch ESPN’s First Take, you would have heard Skip Bayless already offer this “insight” this week, as Stephen A. Smith, the “George Jefferson of sports analysts”, shouted at him from across the table. 

It has reached Twitter, as Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter is drinking the freshly stirred Eli Kool-Aid this week. Some may even suggest Eli’s better overall (would Peyton get swept by the Redskins?), but I won’t acknowledge that one. 

And it’s only just beginning. Rather than tackle the comparison in depth, the fact is it’s not a debate worth having just yet. If one wanted to say Eli has done better in road playoff games than Peyton, then they have a very good argument for that. Eli has twice as many road wins (4 to 2), has played a few elite teams, and has compiled some of the best road playoff statistics of all time. 

But the overall body of work? It’s just not there yet. What happens if Eli has a disastrous performance this week? It would make all the talk look premature and foolish. 

The biggest problem people have with arguing about Peyton Manning’s postseason career is the overwhelming lack of understanding of what happened in those games. Yes, his record is 9-10. Yes, Eli’s record is 6-3. But in the “everything is magnified” scope of the postseason, it can’t possibly be that lazy and effortless can it? 

Even the slightest bit of analysis should start to lead you to think something’s just not right with the Colts’ playoff record relative to their quarterback’s performance. Look a little further and you will find some things that are just flat out bizarre.

Let’s take that in-depth look into 40 percent of Peyton’s playoff losses. 

This week I looked at home playoff losses, finding that in the league’s entire history, the home team is 293-140 (.677) in the playoffs. It’s a significant advantage to be home, though in the case of the Colts, they were a game under average at 6-4 with Manning at home. 

What I also found is that Manning’s four home playoff losses are the most in NFL history, which obviously doesn’t sound good. Of course, it doesn’t sound as bad when compared to the league average; noting that one more win would have been 7-3 (.700). The four games are 1999 AFC Divisional vs. Tennessee, 2005 AFC Divisional vs. Pittsburgh, 2007 AFC Divisional vs. San Diego, and 2010 AFC Wild Card vs. New York Jets. 

In total, 28 different quarterbacks have lost multiple home playoff games as starters in their career. That includes both Manning brothers and others such as Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and John Elway. If you view the table near the bottom here, then you will see some stunning results.

  • While Manning’s lost a record four home games, they have been by a combined score of 11 points (4, 3, 3, 1).
  • Manning’s average margin of defeat, -2.75 points, is the lowest among all 28 quarterbacks.
  • Only six quarterbacks have a smaller total margin of defeat than Manning’s four losses by a combined 11 points.
  • 20 out of 27 other quarterbacks have at least one home loss by more points than Manning’s four losses combined.
  • Only Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Terry Bradshaw have not lost a home playoff game by more than four points.
  • Manning has the highest cumulative passer rating (88.2) in these home playoff losses.
  • Eli Manning ranks 25th out of 28 in average margin of defeat (-17.50) and 25th in passer rating (31.8).
  • Eli’s home playoff losses by 23 and 12 points are each more than the margin of Peyton’s four losses combined (11).

Clearly, Peyton’s been more unlucky at home rather than “bad”. In fact, it’s easy to see he has been historically good in his home losses. Take the statistics for all 140 starting quarterbacks that lost a home playoff game and you end up with the following results: 

  • Manning’s 108.7 passer rating against the 2010 Jets in the Wild Card is the highest passer rating any starting QB’s ever had in a home playoff loss*.
  • Manning’s 97.7 passer rating against the 2007 Chargers in the AFC Divisional is the 5th highest passer rating. The 402 yards passing and 33 completions are the most any QB’s had in either category in the 140 games.
  • Manning (1/13/2008) and Y.A. Tittle (12/22/1957) are the only starting QB’s in NFL history to throw three TD passes and lose a home playoff game.
  • Manning had two turnovers in the four losses combined. They were both interceptions against San Diego, and each pass went off his receiver’s hands (Reggie Wayne and Kenton Keith).
  • Manning’s 90.9 rating against the 2005 Steelers in the AFC Divisional is the 15th game where a quarterback had a rating over 90.0 in a home playoff loss.

It usually takes something unusual for a quarterback that plays that well to lose in the playoffs. For example, any type of play that comes late in the game to dramatically swing the win probability, such as a missed game-tying field goal (Vanderjagt vs. Steelers).  

There could also be some hidden stats, like a fumble, but Manning did not personally lose any fumbles in any of these games. He has one lost fumble in 19 playoff games, and that was on a hand-off to Joseph Addai in Super Bowl XLI that the Bears snuffed out in the backfield.  

When looking at Manning’s loss to the Jets last season, consider it was only the second playoff game in NFL history when the lead changed twice in the final minute. When Joe Montana had a 103.0 rating  (2nd highest) against the Giants in the 1990 NFC Championship, he had to leave the game after being injured, Roger Craig fumbled the ball late, and the Giants got a last-second field goal to win 15-13. Speaking of field goals, Drew Brees (101.2 rating in 2004; 3rd highest) lost his playoff debut in overtime after Nate Kaeding failed on a 40-yard field goal that would have won the game. 

It’s the unusual circumstances that create the loss in these cases, not the quarterback. 

*Notes: This data was based only on the starting quarterback’s statistics. Carson Palmer had a 118.8 rating vs. Pittsburgh in 2005, but that was on one attempt as he was injured and left the game. The best performance by a QB in a home playoff loss belongs to Don Strock, who in a relief effort came in during the second quarter for injured starter David Woodley and dueled with Dan Fouts in one of the most classic games ever. Read the details here. The other great performance as a non-starter in a home playoff loss was by Charlie Conerly, who was 10/14 for 187 yards, TD against the Colts in the 1958 NFL Championship (better known to fans as “The Greatest Game Ever Played”). Johnny Unitas led the Colts back late to force the first ever overtime, where they won it 23-17. 

But wait – there’s more. 

Since Peyton’s playoff debut in the 1999 season, 46 teams have lost a home playoff game. Excluding Carson Palmer in 2005 again, there have only been four starting quarterbacks to throw zero interceptions in those losses. 

Who are those four? Peyton Manning, Peyton Manning, Peyton Manning, and Trent Green.  

Who did Green lose to? Peyton Manning, in a 38-31 game that neither team punted during. The 31 points by Kansas City were the most scored by a home playoff team in a loss since 1999. In fact, the 31 points are tied for the second most ever in a home playoff loss (tied with the 1977 Colts; “Ghost to the Post” game). 

From 1999-2011 (playoffs):

  • 42 home QB’s in losses were a combined 793/1403 (56.5 percent) for 8,530 yards, 6.08 YPA, 32 TD, 79 INT, 58.7 rating.
  • Manning at home in four games was a combined 92/154 (59.7 percent) for 1,144 yards, 7.43 YPA, 5 TD, 2 INT, 88.2 rating. 

Eli’s first playoff game was a 23-0 shutout loss at home to the 2005 Carolina Panthers. It’s only the 9th time a team has been shutout at home in the playoffs (the only since 1980). He had the No. 1 seed in 2008, and only scored 9 points on offense at home to the Eagles in a 23-11 loss. Younger brother may make up some of the gap with road performances, but “home favorite” is not a role he plays well.  

Eli is hot right now, but should a bad misstep happen in San Francisco, will he be given the same strong criticism his brother received for playoff losses at New England against Bill Belichick’s elite defense? If Eli’s supposedly as good as Peyton, then the criticism should be the same. That’s just being fair. 

Of course, things rarely have ever been fair for Manning in regards to the playoffs. What if I told you a record-setting MVP season resulted in a 17-point loss in the Divisional round, in a game where the receivers dropped six passes, the offensive line struggled, the defense gave up long scoring drives, and the quarterback’s lone interception came after the two-minute warning, down by 17? 

Would you know I was talking about Manning in New England in 2004 (20-3 loss), or was I talking about Aaron Rodgers on Sunday at home against the Giants (37-20 loss)? Somehow one gets the “choker” label, while the other gets the “he didn’t have his best game”, which is a super-clean euphemism.  

One could only wonder if Peyton Manning will ever have another opportunity to start a playoff game and prove the critics wrong. If not, then I guess we’ll just be left with a 19-game playoff history that’s already been revised and butchered so many times that it’s hard to imagine what type of legacy he’ll be thought to have left behind in the future.  

The history doesn’t lie, as long as you’re willing to dig beneath the final score.