Just about every eyeball in America will be on Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning when he takes the field in Denver on Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET. The best player in football and the man almost certain to be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player will be looking to prove all his doubters wrong.
Manning can’t win in the playoffs.
Manning is a great regular-season quarterback.
Manning hears the criticisms and knows what is at stake. He knows another playoff loss isn’t going to quiet the noise. If the Broncos lose to the San Diego Chargers, the story isn’t going to be how poorly the Broncos defense played.
Everyone—including Manning—knows another playoff loss would only add fuel to the already raging fire. All the pressure is on Manning to deliver, and he may have to play near-perfect football in the playoffs to hide a vapid defense.
Star pass-rusher Von Miller is on injured reserve, and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio alluded Thursday to the fact that cornerback Champ Bailey has become a role player for the team. The defense just isn’t as good as it was last season.
The fact that Denver’s defense hasn’t been talked about nearly as much as Manning’s playoff record is insane considering the actual in-game ramifications. The focus on Manning’s postseason success is way overblown, but it’s hard to ignore.
Manning wants nothing more than to shut up the critics like he did earlier this season. Manning threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns in 18-degree weather to put a lid on the cold-weather narrative that had been lingering since last year’s playoff loss.
Manning wants to tell all the critics to shove the "he can’t win in the playoffs" narrative where the sun don’t shine and then ride off into the sunset. At least that’s probably what Manning wants to do—even if he would never come out and say it until he does it.
On Wednesday, Manning addressed the question of whether last year’s playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens has entered his mind, via the team’s official website. Manning had a team-centric answer, just as you would expect.
I think we’ve kind of used it throughout the season. We talked about that into the month of April with our weightlifting and our offseason training. Using that to fuel you, make you do an extra set of squats, or whatever it may be. We’ve used it on the practice field. I don’t think you just get to this week and start thinking about it. I think you always want to have something to try to drive you and fuel you to make you better than the year before.
Manning wasn’t really talking about the team. Manning was talking about himself.
Every time Manning was in the weight room, he thought about that loss. He thought about it every time he took a practice rep. When Manning had his helmet on, his iPad playbook in hand and his sore ankle in the cold tub, he was thinking about the interception he threw in overtime (probably also wondering how the heck Rahim Moore let Jacoby Jones get behind him with 31 seconds to play).
Every player and coach still in the hunt is focused, but Manning is on a different level. For Manning, this is just another week of preparation. Manning can’t really prepare any more than he already does or focus any harder on beating his opponent than he does every week.
Pressure and Performance
The playoff losses fuel Manning—they have all season. Manning is like a combustion chamber that converts pressure into production, so pressure is not something that should impact him in the postseason.
For people who care to examine the numbers, Manning has a better quarterback rating than Tom Brady in the playoffs. That may not mean much, but it might once the rest of the numbers are examined.
|Player||G||COMP %||YPG||TD %||INT%||YPA|
Manning also has a better completion percentage, a higher yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt than Brady in the postseason. Manning has thrown for more yards per game than Brady, and his touchdown and interception rates are very similar.
Why is Brady considered the superior playoff quarterback? If the numbers even support it, it’s not by much. Quarterback wins isn’t a good statistic, but it’s even more flawed when every opponent is a good one.
Is it Brady’s four fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives in the playoffs? In those games, Brady has five touchdowns and seven interceptions combined. No one points that out, because no one points out poor performances when the team wins.
It’s hard to win in the playoffs, and it will take more than just Manning playing well to get the Broncos another Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“It’s going to be a team effort,” Manning said Wednesday via the team’s official website. “Offense, defense and special teams. That is what we’re working on getting ready for right now.”
Manning has been down this road before and knows he is going to need an assist from his defense at some point this postseason. The defense is going to have to make a big play, get a key stop or force a key turnover for the Broncos to win the next three games.
|Year||Points Scored||Points Allowed||Point Differential||Playoff Wins|
The Broncos finished 22nd in points allowed during the regular season. Manning has been to the playoffs only twice before with a defense so weak, but he won the Super Bowl one of those times.
The Chargers are a serious threat to the Broncos because of their ability to control the clock. The Chargers beat the Broncos in Week 15 doing just that. If the Chargers can run the ball, convert on third down and put the ball in the end zone when they get close, Manning is going to have to play near-perfect football for the Broncos to win the game.
Of course, Manning was historically great this season. He broke the touchdown record in 15 games and the passing-yardage record in 15-and-a-half games. The mistake we sometimes make is assuming that all of that production is going to carry over into the playoffs.
Manning is smart enough to know that he can’t do everything. Manning had a poor game against the Chargers—they happen even to the best. Manning can’t possibly remove every variable that would result in a loss, but that will not stop him from trying.
The Wes Welker Effect
The good news for Manning is that he’ll have the services of slot receiver Wes Welker, whose arrival in Denver sparked the Broncos offense this season. Welker missed the last three games with a concussion but has been practicing for the last two weeks.
Welker is Manning’s security blanket and bails him out when plays don’t go as planned. In the three games without Welker, Manning’s sack rate went from 2.8 percent to 3.8 percent. Manning’s average yards per attempt and touchdown rate also dropped without Welker.
|Games||Y/A||Sack %||INT %||TD %||YPG|
Manning’s production dipped even though the three games were against three of the league’s worst pass defenses. The Chargers allowed 8.0 yards per attempt in the regular season—31st in the league. The Oakland Raiders ranked 28th in yards per attempt allowed, 31st in touchdown rate and 31st in interception rate. The Houston Texans were ranked dead last in both touchdown and interception rate allowed.
It’s a small sample, but there is enough evidence to suggest not having Welker was a big reason the Broncos had trouble extending drives against the Chargers in Week 15. The Broncos only had nine opportunities, and five of them ended in five plays or fewer.
The Broncos had three three-and-outs in a row, followed by a drive that lasted just four plays before a punt. After a 12-play touchdown drive that pulled the game within a touchdown, Manning‘s third pass of a drive was intercepted when he was hit as he threw.
On third down on those drives, Manning threw incomplete for backup slot receiver Andre Caldwell, he was sacked, tight end Julius Thomas dropped a pass and wide receiver Eric Decker dropped a pass.
It’s hard not to believe that Welker would have helped the Broncos convert at least one of those key third downs to keep a drive alive. One long touchdown drive in place of a three-and-out can be the difference between a win and a loss in a tight game.
Over 67 percent on Welker’s catches resulted in a first down in 2013, the second highest percentage of his career. Despite playing in just 13 games, Welker also had a career-high 10 touchdown catches.
Having Welker gobble up those opportunities or create opportunities for his teammates is why the Broncos signed him. Welker forces defenses to account for him.
“That's going to be a challenge for us,” Chargers safety Weddle said via ESPN.com. “He didn’t play the second game there, and a lot of people forget about that. So that’s another element that we have to deal with.”
Manning is just hoping that he can carry the team like he has all season now that Welker has returned. If not, Manning is going to need a big assist from his defense. If neither is true, the Manning playoff narrative is only going to add another chapter.