"Peyton vs. Eli," "The Manning Bowl," "Brother against brother." NFL fans just can't get enough of the narrative this week.
There are other interesting matchups, subplots and trends in this game, but nobody wants to hear about them. For this Sunday's showdown between the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants, our football nation is completely obsessed with comparing the two teams' quarterbacks.
Peyton complained about it in a conference call with New York media, according to Jeff Legwold of ESPN. "I haven’t been asked one question about the Giants defense," Peyton said. "That’s where the focus is for me as a quarterback and our offense."
Sorry, Peyton. Our focus is on your sibling rivalry, even though you two won't ever be on the field at the same time.
It's inevitable; the Mannings are brothers. They're both former No. 1 overall draft picks and sons of a No. 2 overall draft pick. They'll always be compared, and they always have been—well before either drew a professional paycheck.
If we're going to compare them, though, let's do it right.
Tale of the Tape
Here's a classic "tale of the tape" breakdown, with all of the big, piled-up numbers we use when it's Pro Football Hall of Fame voting time:
Peyton is taller, bigger, older, more experienced, has almost twice as many yards, more than twice as many touchdowns and is one win short of having twice as many wins. Peyton has 12 Pro Bowl nominations to Eli's three, six first-team All-Pro nods to Eli's zero and one Super Bowl championship ring.
Eli of course has two rings.
Even if this is Peyton's last season and Eli plays for six more years at his career-average level, the Giants signal-caller won't catch any of his brother's other big totals.
Some football folks would say Eli's second ring carries at least as much weight as all of the gaudy statistical and individual achievements on Peyton's side of the scale.
There's a reason I said "Pro Football Hall of Fame," though; these brothers are both surely bound for Canton. Eli's totals already match many of the greats. If he can add just a few solid years, he'll stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of all eras.
What about the best of this era?
Beyond the Big Totals
The explosion of passing numbers in the past decade is blowing up quarterbacks' numbers. If the late 1960s and early 1970s were the NFL's "Dead Ball Era," current times are surely its "Steroid Era" (in terms of offensive stats, I mean, not PED use).
Inconsistent players like Josh Freeman and Matthew Stafford are set to rewrite their franchises' all-time record books this season, even though last year both were still too young to rent a car without paying extra.
Using advanced and rate stats, let's compare the Manning brothers to their top quarterbacking peers:
Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value, marked here in dark blue, is a great one-number stat. It captures both a player's real-world production and what that production was worth to his team. It takes into account all production by that player, so mobile passers get credit for rushing, too.
I sorted all 16 active quarterbacks with at least one Pro Bowl nod by total AV, getting a set of quarterbacks who've been great at least some of the time. I then averaged their AV totals by season and set an arbitrary cut-off at an average AV of eight per year (dropping Derek Anderson, Matt Cassel and Matt Hasselbeck from the conversation).
Of the 13 remaining top quarterbacks, Peyton has by far the highest AV per season. The list goes clockwise from there: Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick all come in front of seventh-ranked Eli.
In yards per attempt, a great measure of how well quarterbacks move the sticks, most of these top signal-callers average between seven and eight yards. Aaron Rodgers' 8.12 figure is the high mark, and Peyton is sixth with 7.65. Eli is second-to-last at 7.11.
For touchdown percentage, there's more variance. Rodgers, again, is the leader at 6.44 percent of his attempts finding the end zone. Peyton is No. 2, with 5.65 percent, and Eli is ninth at 4.78 percent.
Sack percentage is calculated as a percentage of the number of dropbacks since sacks don't count as pass attempts. Marked in orange here, the culprits stand out like sore thumbs: Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler all get sacked frequently.
Peyton, at 3.15 percent, is sacked less often than any top active quarterback. Eli is fourth at 4.58. Given that the rest of the top five are Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer, we see that avoiding sacks in today's game means getting rid of the ball, not running away.
When it comes to avoiding picks, Aaron Rodgers is again the best in the business: Just 1.74 percent of Rodgers' throws are caught by guys wearing the other team's colors.
All but three of the other quarterbacks are clustered within two and three percent; Peyton is ranked sixth with 2.67. Unfortunately, Eli is one of those three; he's ranked 12th of 13 in interception rate at 3.27 percent.
Overall, the numbers reveal what we know from the eyeball test: Eli is a very good quarterback, one of the best of his generation. If he keeps going, he will have earned his spot in the Hall.
Peyton is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—of all time, and he stands head and shoulders above his brother.
It's well known that Peyton's rookie year was, well, his rookie year. Manning set career worsts in completion percentage, touchdown percentage, interception percentage, yards per attempt, NFL passer efficiency rating and approximate value, per Pro Football Reference.
Oh yeah, and the Colts went 3-13.
Manning immediately improved, cutting his sacks and interceptions down, boosting his average yards per attempt and leading the NFL in fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. Much like Andrew Luck did in his rookie year, Manning's arm made the difference in a lot of close games, and the Colts went 13-3.
The Colts lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1999, and Manning didn't play well (19-of-42 for 227 yards and no touchdowns). Oh, well; the second-year star was still off to his first of 12 Pro Bowls.
In his third season, Peyton again boosted his touchdown percentage and dropped his interception rate. He led the NFL in completions (357), yards (4,413) and touchdowns (33) that season. The Colts went 10-6 and made it to the playoffs for a second straight year.
And for the second straight year, they lost their first playoff game.
Peyton's stat line was better, going 17-of-32 for 194 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Unfortunately, kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed an overtime field goal, and the Miami Dolphins scored on the next possession.
Though Peyton and the Colts offense were as potent as ever in 2001, finishing second in the NFL with 25.8 points per game, the defense fell apart. The Colts allowed 30.4 points per game, and Indianapolis finished 6-10.
This is the only big dip in Peyton's stats; his sack and interception rate spiked as his AV and touchdown rate fell off.
Then, the Colts fired Jim Mora and hired defensive mastermind Tony Dungy. The results were immediate and astonishing: Indianapolis finished seventh in the NFL in scoring defense in 2002, with an average of 19.6 points allowed per game.
The Colts offense wasn't as effective. While Peyton cut down his sack and interception rate, his AV and touchdown rate were flat.
In 2003, Peyton became Peyton, cutting his interception percentage to a then-career low of 1.8 and leading the league in completions (379), completion percentage (67.0) and yards (4,267). Peyton not only earned a first-team All-Pro nod for the first time, he got the playoff monkey off his back.
The Colts went 12-4 in the regular season, then romped over the Broncos 41-10 and went on the road to beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 38-31. Then, well, Peyton ran into a buzzsaw called the New England Patriots.
Kerry Byrne of Cold Hard Football Facts is a respected researcher and analyst; going into those playoffs he saw a late-season tail-off of Peyton's numbers and pronounced him "The Picasso of Choke Artists."
When Manning's brutal four-interception performance in the AFC Championship Game bounced the Colts from the playoffs yet again, Byrne pronounced Peyton "Mr. October." In baseball, that's a compliment. In football, not so much.
Despite three consecutive first-team All-Pro nods in 2003, 2004 and 2005, Manning couldn't shake this label.
In 2004, they went 12-4, mostly because of Manning's league-leading 49 touchdowns and insane 9.9 percent touchdown rate. As near as I can tell from Pro Football Reference, that's the highest single-season touchdown percentage with more than 100 pass attempts in NFL history. In the playoffs, the Colts lost to the Patriots again.
In 2005, they went 14-2, with the second-ranked scoring offense and second-ranked scoring defense in football. With a chance to go undefeated, they instead rested many starters for the last two weeks of the season, and they lost to the Steelers in their first playoff game.
In 2006, the Colts won the Super Bowl.
Eli has taken a much, much rockier road to NFL success. While Peyton's chart was a nice smooth progression, with yards per attempt and touchdowns almost always higher than sacks and interceptions, Eli's is schizophrenic:
As a rookie, Eli was locked in a position battle with veteran Kurt Warner. Eli's inexperience and Warner's health kept either from playing at a high level.
Eli completed just 48.2 percent of his passes for six touchdowns (3.0 percent, a career worst) and nine interceptions (4.6 percent, tied for career worst). He was sacked 13 times, for a career-worst 6.2 percent sack rate. He averaged only 5.3 yards per attempt.
Fortunately, things got better. Eli took over as the full-time starter in his second season, leading the Giants to an 11-5 record. He got his completion percentage up above 50 (52.8 percent) and threw touchdowns (4.3 percent) more frequently than picks (3.1 percent). His yards-per-attempt average jumped up to a healthy 6.8, and his passer-efficiency rating climbed up to 75.9.
If none of these numbers sound impressive to you, that's because they aren't.
That season (2005), Tiki Barber had a monster year, racking up 1,860 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. He added 54 catches for 530 yards and two more touchdowns. Add in Brandon Jacobs' seven short-yardage scores, and you can see why Eli only needed to be good, not great, to lead the third-best scoring offense in the NFL.
The Giants came up against the Carolina Panthers in the playoffs, though, and a sophomore Eli was no match for their NFC Championship-bound defense. The Giants were shut out at home, 23-0. Eli went 10-of-18 for 113 yards, no touchdowns and three picks.
In Eli's third year, the Giants running game was as powerful as ever, with Brandon Jacobs getting some between-the-20s carries, too. Big Blue's defense dropped off, though, falling from the 14th-ranked scoring defense to the 24th-ranked scoring defense.
Eli's play mostly held steady that season. He had a slight dip in yards per attempt and sack percentage, with an equal rise in his touchdown and interception rates.
Eli's production regressed for the first time at age 26. His interception rate (3.8 percent) rose dangerously close to his dipping touchdown rate (4.3 percent), and his sack percentage (4.3 percent) went up while his AV took another hit. Eli actually led the NFL in interceptions in 2007, with 20.
Oh, and the Giants won the Super Bowl.
At age 27, Eli seemed to break through. On the way to leading the Giants to a 12-4 record, Eli's interception rate plummeted to a career-low 2.1 percent, while his touchdown rate went up by 0.1 percent. His sack rate rose, too, but so did his average yards per attempt.
Eli's passer-efficiency rating cracked 80 for the first time (86.4, in fact), and he earned his first Pro Bowl nomination.
Oh, and the Giants got bounced out of the playoffs in their first game again.
The disconnect between Eli's regular-season performance and the Giants' playoff success continued in 2009. Eli, aged 28, saw his sack and interception rates climb a little, but his touchdown rate and average yards per attempt took big jumps up. Eli's passer rating was a career-high 93.1 in 2009, and he made his first Pro Bowl.
The Giants went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
In 2010, Eli went gunslinger. He led the NFL with 25 picks, despite completing a career-high 62.9 percent of his passes, scoring touchdowns at a career-high rate of 5.8 percent and cutting his sack rate down to a career-low 2.9 percent. In the cutthroat NFC East, though, this performance was only good enough for a 10-6 record—and no playoffs.
Two years ago, Eli's performance returned to his usual profile: picks and touchdowns went way down, sacks and yards per attempt went way up. In fact, despite the drop, Eli's average yards per attempt hit 8.4, a career high.
As the last vestiges of the Giants running game fell apart (they finished dead last in the NFL in rushing yardage), though, and the defense ranked just 25th in the NFL in points allowed, Eli's return to calm, effective form was only good for a 9-7 record.
Oh, and another Super Bowl championship.
The Choke Artist and the Clutch Monkey
When Peyton clinched his first and only Super Bowl ring, he silenced the critics and secured his legacy—for a little while, at least.
Peyton's production has been so good for so long, and his playoff record so apparently poor, he's had that "choke artist" label affixed to him even after winning it all. After all, we're in the seventh season hence, and Peyton still hasn't won it a second time.
The perception is that Eli, with one more ring in six fewer seasons, is "clutch." He's had more postseason success with much less potent regular-season teams, so there's got to be something to Eli's postseason play that Peyton doesn't have, right?
Let's chart their playoff performances against the regular-season performances—and each other:
Pro Football Reference's playoff splits aren't quite as comprehensive as their regular-season stats, but we still have interception percentage and touchdown percentage. I've added in adjusted yards per attempt and NFL passer efficiency rating.
This chart uses a logarithmic scale, so the chart is quite compressed at the top. That's why the difference between Peyton's career regular-season passer rating of 96.0 doesn't look that much higher than Eli's 82.9.
The changes between regular-season Peyton and his playoff self are obvious: His passer-efficiency rating and completion percentage dip. His adjusted yards per attempt slips a little, and his touchdown percentage drops a lot. His interception rate goes up a tick.
All of this is to be expected. After all, facing only playoff-caliber defenses should drag on a quarterback's performance.
Eli, though, is the opposite story: His rating, completion percentage and adjusted yards per attempt all take big jumps up, his touchdown rate holds steady and interception rate falls off a cliff! In 11 playoff games, Eli Manning has played at a significantly higher level than in his 138 regular-season games.
Here's the raw data, in chart form:
The bottom line, of course, is that Eli is 8-3 in the playoffs, while Peyton is 9-11. I don't believe in "Wins" as an individual statistic, not even for quarterbacks. But all of the advanced stats prove it, too: Eli plays much better in the playoffs—maybe even a little bit better than Peyton.
Manning Bowl III
The "Manning Bowl" really shouldn't be billed that way. Eighty-eight other men will dress for this Sunday's game, and if Week 1 is any indication, the Broncos will beat the Giants, even if they put backup Brock Osweiler in.
This isn't the Super Bowl, or even the playoffs. Week 1 says the Broncos are the better team, and history says that Peyton is the better quarterback, no doubt about it.
If Eli and the Giants can eke out a home upset here, though, it'll be a fine feather in his cap—and a bigger chip on Peyton's shoulder come January.