I thought I would take a look at each quarterback's best regular season and break them down to see who performed better. This would put Peyton Manning and his 49 touchdowns in 2004 against Tom Brady and his 50 touchdowns in 2007.
Now, this isn't a comparison of who is better overall in their career, but rather this one specific year.
It's not just an evaluation of their touchdowns. It's their entire game. It's their supporting cast, defense, and leadership abilities. This is which quarterback you would rather have starting for your team. If you absolutely need a win, whom do you take: Manning in '04 or Brady in '07?
For the record, this is written by an Eagles fan. I could care less who is better. From my perspective, we play the Colts and Patriots once every four years, lose, and move to our next opponent. I have no bias toward either.
I looked at different criteria for my selection and I did this like the writers vote for MVP award—strictly regular season, no postseason performances included.
1. Which quarterback put up better stats?
The first thing you notice when evaluating two players is their respective stats. It's what jumps out at you. And here they are for Manning in '04 and Brady in '07:
Manning threw 49 touchdown passes, eclipsing Dan Marino's 20-year old single-season record, while also setting an NFL record with a 121.8 passer rating. Brady threw 50 touchdown passes, eclipsing Manning's three-year old single-season record, while putting up the second-best passer rating in the history of the NFL.
Several key things jumped out at me immediately. First of all, it's difficult to compare all their stats head-to-head, since Brady threw 81 more passes than Manning over the course of the season.
Second of all, Manning threw his 49 touchdown passes in only 15 games. He sat all of Week 17, except for the opening drive, in which he threw just two passes.
Manning leads Brady in touchdown percentage (9.9 to 8.7), yards per attempt (9.2 to 8.3), net yards per attempt (8.7 to 7.8), and overall passer rating (121.8 to 117.2).
I've heard a lot of NFL analysts say yards per attempt is the most important statistic among quarterbacks. Manning wins in yards per attempt and net yards per attempt, both by a pretty significant margin.
And as good as Brady's season may have been, Manning holds the single-season record for passer rating.
Personally, my favorite statistics are touchdown to interception ratio and interception percentage. If your quarterback isn't throwing interceptions, he's doing his job well. Very well. And he's going to keep his team in the game.
Brady leads Manning in completion percentage (68.9 to 67.6) and interception percentage (1.4 to 2.0).
Brady wins in TD to INT ratio by a decent amount. Brady posted a ratio of 6.25 to Manning's 4.9. I can't guarantee it, but I am virtually certain that Brady's TD to INT ratio is the greatest in NFL history.
Brady also wins in interception percentage, with the 15th best performance in the history of football, and his plus-42 more touchdowns than interceptions is an NFL record.
The Verdict: I'll give the edge in stats to Manning based on his passer rating and almost as many touchdowns with significantly fewer passes.
2. Which quarterback got the most out of their surrounding talent?
Each quarterback was blessed with tremendous receivers, an above average running game, and a dynamic offensive line.
Manning became the first quarterback in history to throw for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns to three different receivers: Marvin Harrison (1,113 yards and 15 TDs), Reggie Wayne (1,210 yards and 12 TDs), and Brandon Stokley (1,077 yards and 10 TDs). He also made viable targets out of RB Edgerrin James, TE Marcus Pollard, and TE Dallas Clark.
Few teams in history have ever had three legitimate receivers like the '04 Colts.
Manning's running game—primarily Edgerrin James—only ranked 15th in the NFL in rushing offense and 19th in total touchdowns, but there is no denying that James in '04 was a stud. He made the Pro Bowl, ranked fourth in the league in rushing yards and third in total scrimmage yards, and averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
To have James in the backfield took a lot of pressure off of Manning. Teams couldn't come out in dime formations and force Manning to beat them throwing the ball because James could counter with a strong rushing attack.
Then again, I think Manning's presence at quarterback may even be more of a reason for James's success. Teams couldn't get away with putting eight or nine men in the box because Manning would pass for 450 yards and four touchdowns.
As for the men protecting Manning, it's difficult to judge a team's offensive line, but the Colts have always been known for having one of the best, if not the best, offensive lines in the NFL. In 2004, the Colts' line—anchored by Pro Bowl left tackle Tarik Glenn and center Jeff Saturday—gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL.
What about Brady?
To solidify Brady's receiving corps, the Patriots brought in three big playmaking receivers—Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth. Moss had always been one of the elite WRs in the NFL—maybe the best in the league over the last decade—but he had never before had a season like he had with Brady in '07.
Moss gave the Pats the deep threat they had always lacked, hauling in 98 catches for 1,483 yards and an NFL-record 23 touchdowns. Welker put in one of the greatest seasons by any slot receiver in history, notching a league-best 112 catches for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns.
Stallworth caught 46 passes for 697 yards and three scores, and the Pats also had over 300 yards of production from Kevin Faulk, Ben Watson, and Jabar Gaffney. In his first season with a stud receiver, Brady showed the world exactly what he could do if surrounded with playmakers.
The only knock on Brady is that almost half of his touchdowns (46 percent) went to one receiver.
Or is that a knock?
Does it really matter whom he threw the touchdowns to, as long as he threw them? Let's face it—that season, no defensive back wanted to cover Randy Moss. Brady turned Moss in '07 into a better receiver than Harrison was in '04. Moss in '07 may have been better than any WR in any one season in football history.
Brady's running game was 13th in the league—not much different than Manning's—although the Pats' running backs did finish fifth in the NFL in rushing touchdowns.
Again, it's difficult to measure offensive lines, but Brady's line in '07 was widely considered the best unit in the NFL. All-Pro left tackle Matt Light was arguably the best lineman in football and was selected as Tuesday Morning Quarterback's Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP.
Left guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Koppen also earned Pro Bowl selections.
The Verdict: It's close. Manning had three legit weapons at receiver—a Hall of Famer, a perennial Pro Bowler, and a career third-stringer he turned into a 1,000-yard receiver.
But so did Brady. He didn't have three 1,000-yard receivers, but then again he easily could have. Manning's top three receivers combined for exactly 3,400 yards. Brady's top three receivers combined for 3,355 yards. Pretty much the same yardage for each quarterback.
I'll give the edge to Brady; and it's so close that I am tempted to change my mind. My reasoning: Brady turned Moss into the best one-season WR ever, better than even Jerry Rice in his best season.
He got the best year out of Wes Welker's career. And Brady was so good that season, there were games he didn't even need a running game. The Pats frequently implemented three, four, and even five-receiver sets, even on 3rd or 4th-and-short.
Manning's record when his team didn't produce a 100-yard rusher: 5-3
Brady's record when his team didn't produce a 100-yard rusher: 11-0
Whether his team could run the ball or not didn't seem to phase Brady. He was incredible to watch that season.
Take the Week 14 game against Pittsburgh as an example. Brady's running game combined for just 18 rushing yards against the NFL's third-ranked rushing defense, so Brady took matters into his own hands.
Against the league's third-ranked passing defense, he tossed for 399 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 34-13 win. It's games like this one that give Brady the advantage.
3. Which quarterback received the least support from their defense?
I was shocked to realize just how much Manning was not helped by his defense. I knew the Colts didn't have a great defense, but I was surprised to see the Colts finished 29th in total defense and 19th in scoring defense (351 points allowed).
Brady's defense fared much better, finishing in the top 10 in both rushing and passing defense, while ranking fourth in total defense and scoring defense (274 points allowed). For the most part though, Brady's defense never really had to bail him out.
The Pats put up 34 points in each of their first eight games and 20 or more points in every game of the season. Only four times did they fail to score 30 points. It really didn't matter how the defense did, as long as they limited their opponents to under three or four touchdowns.
Even when the defense gave up 35 points as they did in Week 17 against the Giants, Brady still led the Patriots to 38 points. I get the feeling if the Pats had given up 45 points, Brady would have led the Patriots to 48 points. Bottom line is, he wasn't going to lose the game.
The Colts scored 20 or more times in every game of the season that Manning played (not counting the season finale when Manning sat out the majority of the game).
Manning's D didn't help him out much, particularly in back-to-back games in the middle of the season when Manning threw for a combined 840 yards, eight touchdowns, and just one interception, and led the Colts to 24 and 35 points.
His defense yielded 27 and 45 points and the Colts lost both games.
The Verdict: I have to give this to Manning. The bottom line is the Patriots' defense ranked fourth in the league in total defense and scoring defense, compared to 29th and 19th for the Colts.
I can only imagine how much better Manning would have done with Brady's defense. I highly doubt he would have led the Colts to a perfect regular season like Brady, but I don't think it's unreasonable to think his team could have gone 15-1 or 14-2.
4. Which quarterback played better against top 10 defenses? What about top five defenses?
Just to make it clear, I am basing the term "defense" on total yards allowed, not points allowed, simply because this has been the standard in the NFL for a long time.
Manning's Colts played against just two top 10 defenses in '04 and no top five defenses.
Week One - L 27-24 NE (ninth) - Manning: 16-29-256-2-1-93.5
Week 15 - W 20-10 BAL (sixth) - Manning: 20-33-249-1-0-94.1
In two games, Manning threw for over 500 total yards, three touchdowns, and just one interception. He posted virtually identical passer ratings, both very impressive against top 10 defenses. The Colts split the two games, averaging 22 points per contest.
Brady's Patriots played against six top 10 defenses in '07 and two top five defenses, including the NFL's No. 1 ranked defense.
Week Eight - W 52-7 WAS (eighth) - Brady: 29-38-306-3-0-125.6
Week Nine - W 24-20 IND (third) - Brady: 21-32-255-3-2-95.2
Week 12 - W 31-28 PHI (10th) - Brady: 34-54-380-1-0-90.0
Week 13 - W 27-24 BAL (sixth) - Brady: 18-38-257-2-1-76.3
Week 14 - W 34-13 PIT (first) - Brady: 32-46-399-4-0-125.2
Week 17 - W 38-35 NYG (seventh) - Brady: 32-43-356-2-0-116.8
Brady played six of his games against top 10 defenses but it didn't really seem to affect him, as he led the Patriots to a 6-0 record in those games, and threw for 15 touchdowns against just three interceptions. The Patriots averaged 34 points per game against top 10 defenses.
Against top five defenses, Brady won both games, throwing for seven touchdowns against just two interceptions.
Perhaps his finest performance came against the NFL's No. 1 stingiest defense—the Pittsburgh Steelers—when Brady threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns while putting up 34 points against a defense that had given up just two total touchdowns in its previous three games.
The Verdict: Brady. By far. It really didn't seem to matter who Brady was playing that season. He was on fire. It seemed like he could have played the Steel Curtain defense of the '70s and still thrown for 300 yards, three touchdowns, and put up 30 points.
5. Which quarterback played better against playoff teams?
Manning's Colts squared off against two playoff teams in '04—not counting the Denver Broncos in Week 17, because Manning sat out the majority of that game.
Week One - L 27-24 NE (14-2) - Manning: 16-29-256-2-1-93.5
Week 16 - W 34-31 SD (12-4) - Manning: 27-44-383-2-1-95.2
Manning went 1-1 against playoff teams, one of which was the eventual Super Bowl champion (New England Patriots). He threw for four touchdowns and two interceptions, posting very similar passer ratings in each game.
Brady's Patriots played against seven playoff teams in '07—almost half of the team's games.
Week Two - W 38-14 SD (12-4) - Brady: 25-31-279-3-1-123.0
Week Five - W 34-17 CLE (10-6) - Brady: 22-38-265-3-0-105.7
Week Six - W 48-27 DAL (13-3) - Brady: 31-46-388-5-0-129.6
Week Eight - W 52-7 WAS (9-7) - Brady: 29-38-306-3-0-125.6
Week Nine - W 24-20 IND (13-3) - Brady: 21-32-255-3-2-95.2
Week 14 - W 34-13 PIT (10-6) - Brady: 32-46-399-4-0-125.2
Week 17 - W 38-35 NYG (10-6) - Brady: 32-43-356-2-0-116.8
Brady went an incredible 7-0 against playoff teams, including a win over the eventual Super Bowl champion N.Y. Giants. He beat all three of the division winners in the AFC by an average of 16 points per game. His stats for those seven games: 23 touchdowns and three interceptions...against playoff teams. Those are jaw-dropping statistics.
The Verdict: Brady. Not even close. Brady posted a passer rating of 95.2 or better against all seven playoff teams he played—and he won every single game! I think Brady could have played against his own 16-0 team that season and won soundly.
6. Which quarterback benefited from their stadium more?
Manning plays in a comfortable dome in Indianapolis. Brady plays outdoors in Foxborough, where he faces anything from sub-freezing temperatures to windy snowstorms.
I thought I would take a look at each quarterback's road statistics to get a better understanding of how each fared away from their home stadium and crowd. Once again, take into consideration that Manning sat Week 17 against Denver, which was a road game.
Manning in seven road games: 5-2 record, 23 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 120.7 rating
Brady in eight road games: 8-0 record, 29 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 127.0 rating
Manning in outdoor stadiums: 4-2 record, 17 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 112.7 rating
Brady in outdoor stadiums: 15-0 record, 47 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 118.5 rating
The Verdict: It's hard to make a case for Manning. Brady's home stadium is frequently 30 degrees or less, compared to the comfort Manning receives from the Colts' dome.
And when they were forced to travel, Brady significantly outplayed Manning, posting a higher passer rating in their road games and games in outdoor stadiums.
7. Which quarterback played better in the clutch?
Fourth quarter, two minutes left, down by three, which quarterback would you want guiding your team down the field?
Both quarterbacks played remarkably when the stakes were high. Manning's clutch splits were fantastic, although slightly below his season average—third down (105.7 passer rating), fourth quarter (95.2 rating), behind (123.5 rating), and in the fourth quarter within seven points (108.9 rating).
Brady's clutch splits were equally impressive—third down (115.6 rating), fourth quarter (114.1 rating), behind (112.6 rating), and in the fourth quarter within seven points (113.1 rating).
The Verdict: Brady beats Manning in every stat—except for performance when trailing. I would give the edge to Brady, based on his clutch play in the games in which the Patriots trailed. There's a reason that team went 16-0.
Watch the fourth quarter of the Ravens, Eagles, or Giants game to see Brady at his finest.
8. Which quarterback played better against their division?
Against his AFC South foes in 2004, Manning posted a 5-1 record, sweeping the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans, while splitting with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He tossed 17 touchdowns and five picks in those six games.
Against his AFC East foes in 2007, Brady posted a 6-0 record, sweeping the Miami Dolphins, N.Y. Jets, and Buffalo Bills in dominating fashion. He tossed 21 touchdowns and three picks in those six games.
The Verdict: I am not going to penalize Manning too much for the one three-point loss to the Jags because he was flawless in the game, but even if he was 6-0 against his AFC South rivals, his numbers still wouldn't be as good as Brady. Edge goes to Brady.
9. Which quarterback played better down the stretch?
Brady faded down the stretch (at least compared to his record-setting pace of his first eight games), throwing for 20 touchdowns and six picks in November and December, for a passer rating of 100.9, a full 36 points lower than his passer rating from the first eight games.
He still won his final eight games of the season, including a tough Week 17 battle against the future Super Bowl champions to end the regular season undefeated.
Manning was the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for November, throwing 19 touchdowns against just three picks. In the second half of the season, he threw for 23 touchdowns and six picks on the whole, for a passer rating of 121.0.
The Verdict: Manning, by far. He finished with a perfect 7-0 record in the second half of the season and posted a passer rating over 20 points higher than Brady.
10. Which quarterback's team did better that season?
Manning led his Colts to a 12-4 record, good for first place in the AFC South. To be fair, Manning actually led his Colts to a 12-3 record, until he sat out the last game. Since the team (Denver Broncos) Manning sat out against in Week 17 was the same team he played the following week in the playoffs—and defeated, 49-24—it's safe to assume he would have beat them in Week 17 and ended 13-3.
Brady led his Patriots to a perfect 16-0 record, good for first place in the AFC East and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. It was the first time in NFL history a team ever completed the 16-game regular season with an undefeated record.
The Verdict: 16-0. Enough said.
11. Which quarterback accumulated more personal achievements?
There are very few awards that Manning and Brady did not win in their record-setting seasons.
Both Manning and Brady took home the league MVP award, with each coincidentally receiving 49 of the 50 first-place votes. Both were selected as Offensive Player of the Year, named to start in the Pro Bowl, and voted first-team All-Pro.
Manning was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week four times; Brady five times. Manning was named AFC Offensive Player of the Month once; Brady twice.
The Verdict: The awards are virtually the same, with a slight edge to Brady.
12. Which season does the general public view as more impressive?
Both quarterbacks got a lot of recognition for their amazing seasons, and deservedly so.
It's difficult to measure just how the public views these two seasons, and even tougher considering Brady's year just happened in 2007. I am interested to see in 20 years which season is viewed as more impressive.
The Verdict: I have to give this edge to Brady. It's hard to argue with perfection, especially when the Patriots became the first team ever to complete the regular season 16-0. And say what you want about their passer ratings, but people remember simple numbers.
And Brady takes the edge in touchdowns (50 to 49), and stands as the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for 50 touchdowns in one season.
13. Which touchdown record in itself was more impressive?
Manning threw 49 touchdowns. Brady threw 50 touchdowns. Forget the pass attempts, passer rating, and interceptions. Which was more impressive?
The Verdict: Pretty easy decision. I'll go with Manning. Manning broke a 20-year old record, set by Dan Marino, the NFL's all-time leading passer (at the time). This record was supposed to be etched in stone.
No quarterback had really come close to breaking this. Other than Marino himself, who threw 44 touchdowns two years later, the only quarterback to even throw 40 touchdowns in a single season was Kurt Warner in 1999, who threw 41 touchdowns.
Manning came along and made football history. And he did this all without even playing the last game. That's incredible. He could have easily surpassed 50 if he had played that last game.
If he had kept up his regular season pace of just over three per game, Manning would have ended with 52 touchdown passes. And if you project his passes to what Brady threw in '07, Manning would have thrown eight more touchdown passes that season, for a grand total of 57.
As it stands, the team Manning played in the first round of the playoffs—the Denver Broncos—was the same team Manning sat out against in Week 17. He threw four touchdowns in the playoff win, meaning 53 touchdowns seems like a very accurate projection for Manning in '04.
The Ultimate Question: If My Life Was on the Line, Which Player Would I Want to Quarterback My Team in a Must-Win Game?
The Verdict: This was one of the toughest choices I have ever had to make.
Writing and researching for this article has given me a further appreciation of just how dominant both Manning and Brady were in their respective seasons. With all due respect to Dan Marino in 1984 and any season by Joe Montana or Steve Young, these are probably the two most dominant seasons by any quarterback in NFL history.
If you have either quarterback leading your team, you're pretty set.
But if I absolutely had to choose...
I would pick Tom Brady.
I can't argue with perfection. I think, in terms of pure dominance, Brady is your man.
He was on such a roll in 2007 that perhaps no athlete since Wilt Chamberlain has experienced. He went a perfect 16-0 in the regular season, and he did so by leading the most prolific offense in NFL history. The average margin of victory for the Patriots that season was almost 20 points.
Brady dismantled every team he faced—playoff team, No. 1 defense in the NFL—didn't matter who he played, he beat them, and for the most part, he beat them soundly. He threw 30 touchdowns—in the first half of the season!
And even after he cooled off, he still threw 20 in his last eight games.
I went into this article thinking I would pick Brady. Halfway through, I thought I would pick Manning, and finally I settled on Brady.
And the final answer is painstakingly close. I could make a pretty good argument for Manning—his 29th ranked defense, NFL record passer rating, 49 touchdowns in just 15 games, and three legit wide receivers—but the bottom line is, if they went head to head with equal defenses, I think Brady would walk away as the winner.