If "clutch" is defined as winning big games against big opponents, then Peyton Manning is definitely clutch. In prime-time games since 2003, Manning has an outstanding 31-8 record, including a 12-4 mark on Monday Night Football that gives him the highest winning percentage among quarterbacks in its history.
But neither I, nor anyone else, can get over the issues he has had in the playoffs. He has been knocked out in his first game eight times and has a 9-11 record overall.
So if his perceived lack of "clutchness" isn't the issue, what is? Here are the five real reasons Peyton Manning has struggled in the playoffs.
Peyton Manning's teams have won nine of 20 games in the playoffs for a winning percentage of .450. However, things look a bit better when you calculate their Pythagorean winning percentage in those games.
Their Pythagorean winning percentage in those games is .528, meaning that based on their level of play in that sample, they should have won about 10.5 out of those 20 games, a very significant deviation.
Why would that be? There are several possible answers, but the most obvious would be that when Manning loses in the playoffs, the games are close.
Statistically speaking, games decided by a touchdown or less are essentially random. You can expect to win about half of them. However, Manning has played 10 such games and has lost eight of them. To give you a point of reference, a quarterback who has been especially lucky in these situations is his brother Eli, who has a 5-1 record in such games.
If you need proof that those games come down to luck look at the circumstances surrounding them.
For example, had a punt not grazed Kyle Williams' leg, the Giants would have lost to the 49ers in the playoffs last year. Had Wes Welker caught a critical 2nd-and-11 pass in the Super Bowl, the Giants probably would have lost that game as well. Finally, if Brett Favre hadn't thrown a horrible interception in overtime of the 2007 NFC Championship Game, the Packers easily could have won that game.
Did Eli Manning have anything to do with those plays? No, he did not. But he still gets credit for leading his team to wins that should really be chalked up to luck. It's simply flawed logic; football is a team game.
Now on the same token, let's look at the moments that swung those games for Peyton Manning.
Manning has played three overtime games in the playoffs. He has lost the coin toss in each one.
Are any of these things Manning's fault directly? No, but they played a big part in helping him lose each one and gain a reputation as a choker. This is not to say there weren't playoff losses that were directly caused by Manning's play, but this just goes to show that sometimes a game is simply out of the quarterback's hands.
As pretty much everyone knows, Peyton Manning struggles in cold weather. However, nobody is quite certain why.
The obvious answer is that Manning played in a dome, limiting his exposure to cold weather. However, there have been plenty of dome quarterbacks who have managed to play at their normal level in cold weather. Guys like Warren Moon and Drew Brees have managed to at least somewhat maintain their usual level of play in cold weather.
But Moon played in the CFL for several years and Brees went to Purdue. They had prior exposure to cold weather before reaching the NFL. In fact, the same can be said for almost every all-time great, whether they played in a cold weather NFL city (Tom Brady went to Michigan), or a warm weather NFL city (Joe Montana went to Notre Dame, Steve Young went to BYU).
The few great quarterbacks to come out of warm weather colleges and succeed in cold weather NFL games all had to acclimate because it was their home city. Brett Favre may have gone to Southern Miss, but he got used to Green Bay quickly. Same goes for John Elway after making the transition from Stanford to Denver.
But for most of Manning's career, he was in a unique situation. He grew up in Louisiana, went to college at Tennessee and played his NFL games in a dome. He never had any exposure to cold weather football, so the few times he's had to play it he was at a significant disadvantage.
Throughout the history of the NFL, there are only three other significant quarterbacks to face this problem: Daunte Culpepper, Ken Stabler and Archie Manning. In each case, they fared significantly worse in the cold than they did in their natural habitat.
Archie played only eight "cold weather" road games in his career (defined as games played in a cold city after Thanksgiving). He went 2-6, beating only the lowly 4-8-2 1971 Green Bay Packers and the even worse 4-12 1980 New York Jets.
Daunte Culpepper was even worse, going 2-7, though admittedly one of those was a playoff win in Green Bay.
Stabler's case presented a unique problem. Because his Raiders shared a stadium with the Oakland A's, the Raiders played most of their road games early in the season (when the A's were at home) and their home games late in the season once the A's were done.
Still, because of his playoff appearances, this did not destroy the sample size. Stabler went 5-7 in such games, which is particularly worth noting because unlike the two previous quarterbacks, he won plenty in the regular season (with a record 96-49-1).
Another interesting note about Stabler is that, like Manning, he had trouble winning in one particular city. He played the Steelers in the playoffs five times, and though he managed to go a respectable 2-3, he couldn't beat them in Pittsburgh. He lost both games played there and only put up 17 total points.
Beating a dynasty is hard enough, but beating one at a severe weather disadvantage is nearly impossible. Manning isn't the only quarterback to struggle with that.
Here's the point: Manning has always been at a significant disadvantage in cold weather because he was never consistently exposed to it. The same issues plagued the few other quarterbacks in his situation.
Peyton Manning has had incredibly bad luck in the teams he's had to face. Obviously any playoff team will be a tough matchup, but Manning specifically has had to consistently face top-ranked defenses. Here are, in chronological order, the rankings (by points per game) of the defenses Peyton Manning has played in the playoffs in both wins and losses:
Losses: 15th, 3rd, 14th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 15th, 20th, 6th, 12th.
Wins: 9th, 19th, 9th, 11th, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 1st.
Combined average: 7.7
So, in 20 playoff games Manning has faced 10 top-five defenses, 13 top-10 defenses, and only two defenses in the bottom half of the league. While his stats have certainly fallen, they are still within reach of his regular-season numbers.
His yards per attempt fall from 7.6 to 7.46, his interception percentage rises from 2.7 percent to 2.76 percent and his completion percentage falls from 65.2 percent to 63.2 percent. Considering the level of defenses he was playing, I'd say that's perfectly acceptable.
A common argument people use in the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady argument is that Brady plays better in the playoffs. Let's take a look at the rankings of the defenses he has played:
Losses: 6th, 23rd, 17th, 3rd, 6th, 25th.
Wins: 19th, 3rd, 7th, 13th, 20th, 10th, 19th, 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 10th, 5th, 24th, 3rd, 9th.
Combined average: 10.5.
That difference of around three spots might not seem significant, but remember the sample size is at least 20 games for each. That dilutes the averages a bit, and in truth over the course of their careers that is a very significant difference.
Aside from the averages, look at some of those individual numbers. Despite playing three more playoff games, Brady has played seven top-10 defenses to Manning's 10, 12 top-10 defenses to Manning's 13, and seven bottom half defenses to Manning's two.
Is it at all possible that the difference in playoff performance between Manning and Brady comes down to the level of defenses that they've played?
Though Manning's level of play has definitely declined in the playoffs, but so has his teammates. This is most evident in the running game he has had to lean on. Look at Edgerrin James.
In seven years with Indianapolis, James averaged 4.2 yards per carry and 96.1 yards per game. In the playoffs, those numbers dropped to 3.9 yards per carry and 68.4 yards per game.
Joseph Addai did the same thing. In his six years with the Colts he averaged 4.1 yards per carry and 57.1 yards per game. In the playoffs, his yards per carry fell to 3.9, but his yards per game actually went up to 62.1. This was because of increased carries and one outlier (a 122-yard performance against the Chiefs in 2006). Without that game, his yards per game fall down to 55.4, below his career average.
Peyton's defenses haven't done him any favors either. In his 20 career playoff games, his teams have given up 21.75 points per game. In the 2012 regular season, that would have placed his teams squarely in the middle of the pack.
Over the course of his career, Manning gladly would have taken that. His defenses have generally ranged from slightly above average to downright terrible. Here are his teams' rankings in total defense chronologically:
30th, 15th, 21st, 29th, 8th, 11th, 29th, 11th, 21st, 3rd, 11th, 18th, 20th, 2nd.
Ironically, it has been the teams that performed the best in the regular season that have struggled the most in the playoffs. The second-ranked defense of 2012 gave up 38 points to the Ravens, the third-ranked defense of 2007 gave up 28 points to the Ravens, and the eighth-ranked defense of 2002 gave up 41 points to the Jets. Not surprisingly, his teams lost all three games.
Finally, one key player consistently managed to disappear in the playoffs, costing the Colts dearly. In 16 career playoff games, Marvin Harrison has gone from an elite receiver to merely average at best.
His receptions per game fall from 5.8 to 4.1, his yards per game fall from 76.74 to 55.19, and most significantly, his touchdowns per game fall from .43 to .125.
One of the biggest criticisms of Manning has been a failure to win even with great weapons. Well, the biggest weapon of them all has consistently failed when it mattered most.
Maybe if Manning's teammates played up to his level he'd have a few more championship rings.
Ready for a controversial statement?
Peyton Manning hasn't struggled in the playoffs. He simply looks like he has because of the playoff brilliance of his biggest rival: Tom Brady.
Don't believe me? Consider these stats provided by Bsports.com. Among the top 10 regular season winning quarterbacks of all time (and it's quite a star studded list: Brett Favre, Manning, John Elway, Dan Marino, Brady, Fran Tarkenton, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Warren Moon) Manning's playoff stats have been rather impressive.
Among that group, Manning has the second-best interception percentage (behind Brady), third best touchdown-to-interception ratio (behind Brady and Montana), sixth most yards per attempt, most yards per game and highest completion percentage.
Now let's compare his numbers individually with the quarterback who is universally considered the greatest postseason player of all time: Joe Montana.
Manning: 32 TDs, 21 INTs, 63.2 completion percentage, 7.46 yards per attempt, 284 yards per game and 2.8 interception percentage.
Montana: 45 TDs, 21 INTs, 62.7 completion percentage, 7.86 yards per attempt, 251 yards per game and 2.9 interception percentage.
Aside from the touchdowns (which could come down to any number of factors), those stats look pretty similar. However, Montana's teams won, so he gets more credit despite playing at a similar level.
Had Manning played in any other era he would have been seen as a perfectly acceptable postseason quarterback, perhaps even one of the best of all time. But he shares an era with Tom Brady, who won so much and so quickly that he has gained a label he didn't rightfully earn.
Manning might have struggled in the playoffs relative to Brady, but compared to everyone else he has done just fine.