This post was initially published on January 15, 2014; it has been updated.
The debate over Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning has never really ended but it has intensified with the Broncos' 2013 AFC Championship win over Brady and the Patriots. And with the passage of time I'm noticing more and more defenses of Manning as somehow the better quarterback.
The problem is the objective reality showcased by the Superbowl - Brady is the superior quarterback.
Let's look at the reasons why, here and below -
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD - Brady is 10-5 against Manning entering 2014, and the way they've played in these matchups has showcased that Brady is the better quarterback. Manning infamously has been absymal in bad-weather games where Brady has thrived. These matchups have also showcased a larger weakness of Manning that has invariably gotten to him in his playoff career in general - indecision and panic. It was surprising Manning didn't fall into that trap this most recent game.
PLAYOFF PERFORMANCE - Brady has eighteen playoff wins to Manning's eleven and Manning's twelve losses have showcased his inability to handle playoff football - he has consistently showcased indecision, panic, and lack of command of the offense -
1999 vs. Tennessee Titans - only 19 completions in 42 passes; fails to convert fourth-down attempt in final five minutes.
2002 @ NY Jets - two interceptions, limited to 137 yards.
2003-4 @ Patriots - combined five interceptions, just 17 points generated in two games.
2005 vs. Steelers - failure on fourth down in final minutes.
2007 vs. Chargers - two interceptions, two fourth-down failures in final three minutes.
2008 @ Chargers - up 17-14 fails twice on third-down attempts in final six minutes; Chargers tie game, win in overtime.
2009 Superbowl XLIV vs. New Orleans Saints - late interception-return touchdown; fails on fourth down at Saints 5 in final minute.
2012 vs. Baltimore Ravens - throws interception in overtime; Ravens win at start of second OT, 38-35.
Superbowl 48 vs. Seattle Seahawks - Two interceptions, another fourth-down failure, utterly incapable of establishing any offensive flow - in contrast Russell Wilson put up the drives that put up points and controlled the game.
What is striking is how overlooked is the angle of his clutch failures on third and fourth down in his playoff losses. Also overlooked is the underrated key to football - favorability of the matchups. Of Manning's eleven playoff wins, seven have come against cupcake (for Manning) matchups - Kansas City, Denver, Baltimore, and the Rex Grossman-led Chicago Bears; he has owned the Chiefs, the Ravens, and the Broncos, and it makes his overtime gag job against the Ravens in 2012 all the worse. Even his playoff win over the Chargers showed him losing the turnover battle, while his previous two playoff games saw him throw three interceptions.
RELEVANCE TO THE ROSTER - A myth that has been gaining steam is that Manning has suffered because of poor defenses on his clubs. Rodney Harrison has made that argument and it is a bizarre one. The fact is Manning has had multiple first-round draft choices for teammates (Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark notably) and in 1998 inherited an offense already poised for becoming very good, with Marvin Harrison, Marcus Pollard, and Marshall Faulk before his trade to the Rams. Manning was surrounded by top-round talent where Brady was put into a club undergoing a top-to-bottom changeover, and his career has been defined by near-constant turnover on the offense.
This pattern was repeated when Manning joined the Broncos, a point made amid the increasingly bogus Larry Fitzgerald lobbying campaign by Boston-area media.
Reexamining his playoff failures above should disabuse the notion that Manning was hamstrung by an inferior supporting cast, and the concurrant myth should also be addressed - that Brady benefitted from a great defense. It is a myth that was being pushed at the time, even though the actual games showed more often that Brady had to rescue the defense, from 2001 onward -
2001 vs. Chargers - defense fails to hold a lead; Patriots trail 26-16, Brady leads comeback win.
2001 vs. Colts - Brady gives defense 38 points to be able to front-run to a 38-17 win despite being shredded for 484 yards of Indianapolis offense.
2001 vs. Saints - Brady throws four touchdowns; defense front-runs to 34-17 win.
2001 vs. Raiders - Defense fails to prevent 13-3 Raiders lead in fourth quarter; Brady leads three scoring drives to win 16-13 in OT.
Superbowl XXXVI vs. Rams - Brady gives defense 17-3 lead; defense gashed for tying touchdowns in final minutes; Brady authors first walkoff scoring drive in Superbowl history.
Of course it's been ongoing; in 2003 Steve McNair's Titans hammered the Patriots defense for 30 points while Brady and the offense wound up winning in a game where the lead changed hands seven times; at Miami the Dolphins, tied 13-13, bullied their way through the defense to the Patriots 18 but the late field goal try was blocked; they blasted to the 18 in overtime and missed the FGA, before Brady finally won it on his 82-yard touchdown bomb; the defense got gashed and the Patriots trailed 26-23; Brady got the ball back and drove to the winning touchdown with 30 seconds to go; a Keystone Kops performance put the second-year Houston Texans up 20-13 before Brady nailed the tying touchdown, this before another Viantieri field goal with one minute left in overtime won it; the same Colts who'd put up 484 yards against the Patriots two years earlier shredded the Patriots for 34 points before a heroic goalline stand won it 38-34.
Come the playoffs, New England's 17-14 playoff win over Steve McNair's Titans came on a dropped Drew Bennett bomb from McNair that Bennett nearly caught despite being surrounded by Patriots defenders; one hesitates to give the Patriots defense as much credit as they've gotten. Then came Manning and his patented playoff choke job against the same defense he'd destroyed earlier that year. And two weeks later in Superbowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers the Patriots vaunted defense was - again - utterly destroyed, this time by Jake Delhomme, and it was Brady who led the offense to the 32-29 win.
And it's continued, as shown in these examples -
2006 @ Chargers - Defense fails to prevent 21-13 Chargers lead; Brady throws tying touchdown, then leads winning FG drive with 49-yard bomb to Reche Caldwell; Patriots win 24-21.
Superbowl XLII vs. NY Giants - down 10-7 throws go-ahead touchdown with 2:42 to go; defense then collapses on the most infamous fluke pass play in football history.
2010 vs. Ravens - Defense fails to contain Ravens, Brady leads comeback from 20-10 gap to win in OT 23-20.
2011 vs. Dolphins and Bills - Defense falls behind 17-0 vs. Miami, Brady leads 27-24 comeback win; defense gashed for 21-0 first-quarter lead, Brady erupts to 49 unanswered points.
2011 vs. Ravens - defense gives up 16-13 lead; Brady leads go-ahead touchdown drive.
2012 at Bills - Defense unable to prevent Buffalo from racing to 21-7 lead in third quarter; Brady erupts by leading offense to outscore Buffalo 38-7 for the 52-28 win.
The blunt reality is Brady and the offense have been the reason for New England's success, while the playoff failures of Indianapolis and Denver rest on poor play by Manning.
THE 2013 COMEBACK WIN - This is the game that forever defeats the notion of Peyton Manning as somehow the better quarterback, for it displayed everything showcasing otherwise - winds and bitter cold, with Brady elevating his game (his touchdowns came into the winds) and Manning's game regressing; Manning having the stronger supporting cast with Brady in the middle of another reconstruction of the offense; Manning unable to move the ball when the game's full outcome came onto the line. Of course the Wes Welker gaffe on a late overtime Patriots punt was a key play and wound up finishing off that game, but even with that it merely provided the finish touch to what the game showcased - given the chance to win in overtime, Manning couldn't move the ball. Even with the first half explosion and a game-tying touchdown late, Manning was clearly weaker in a cold-weather game.
SUPERBOWL PERFORMANCE - In two losses to the Giants Brady put the Patriots into the lead in the second half. In his two Superbowl losses Manning blew a late lead then threw an interception and failed on fourth down, all against the Saints. Against the Seahawks Manning was in over his head from the opening series and never got anything going.
For all the efforts to give Peyton the edge over Brady, they ultimately do not work. Because Brady has succeeded in circumstances where Manning has not.