Champ or Choker? Inside Peyton Manning's Complicated Legacy

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 1, 2016

Peyton Manning's legacy is a Facebook relationship status that is crying for attention. 

It's complicated. 

Manning is the NFL's all-time passing yardage and touchdown leader. On paper and empirically, he's undoubtedly one of the most dominant and productive players in football history. But he has also accumulated those numbers during an extremely long career—he's one of only two quarterbacks in NFL history with more than 250 starts—and in the midst of the most pass-happy era in league history. 

Further complicating Manning's prestige is the fact he and his teams have achieved substantially less in the playoffs and the Super Bowl, which is typically where legacies are established. 

Manning has won a Super Bowl—something only 30 other quarterbacks have done. And on Feb. 7, he'll officially become just the seventh quarterback ever to lead his team to four of them. Still, considering his incredible regular-season feats, some in the court of public opinion will forever hold Manning's playoff failures against him, especially if his Denver Broncos don't beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. 

It's tricky, though, because one can also argue it's unfair to blame an individual for his team's lack of success.

"It doesn't really matter if it's fair or not," New Orleans Saints All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees told Bleacher Report. "It's just kind of the reality. Bottom line is, as the quarterback, you have a tremendous amount of the responsibility. You're the only guy who touches the ball on every play, and therefore you have such a strong impact on what happens.

"There are so many elements to a gamethere's offense, defense, special teamsand things that happen in all of those phases that can really help a quarterback but can also put him in a really tough position. I think we all recognize that, but we also understand that the quarterback on the other side of the ball has that same responsibility. He's got those same pressures, those same challenges. Sometimes you get the breaks; sometimes you don't. But when you get the opportunities to make a play to win the game, you have to make them."

And there's evidence Manning hasn't made those career-defining plays as frequently as many of his peers, Brees included. 

Entering these playoffs—which many believe will be his last—Manning had a losing record in the postseason and just one championship despite making the playoffs 14 times in 16 seasons as a healthy starter. Thus, this might be his last chance to salvage a pristine legacy by becoming the 12th quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls.

Of course, some will tell you Manning's legacy has already been cemented—for better or for worse—regardless of what happens Sunday in Santa Clara, California.

"It's a very mixed bag," said Bob Kravitz, who spent more than a decade covering the Manning-led Colts for the Indianapolis Star. "When I used to write that you just don't know what you're going to get from Peyton once the postseason starts, the Peyton true believers would jump on your case and there was an equal number of people who could see with their own two eyes what I saw, which was a guy who, for whatever reason, just wasn't as good a playoff quarterback as he was in the regular season."

Whether or not the Broncos win Super Bowl 50, Manning's place among the greatest players of all time will likely be debated furiously until the day football dies. Here's why.


Legacies Are Manufactured in January and February 

Just ask Sonny Jurgensen, a Hall of Famer who is one of the best pure passers in the history of the game. Those who observed Jurgensen during his 18-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins will tell you he could do things few other quarterbacks ever could. And the numbers actually back that up. 

Jurgensen joined fellow Hall of Fame quarterbacks Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas on the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 1960s All-Decade Team, and his statistics actually frequently dwarfed the numbers registered by those legends. 

Among 13 Hall of Fame quarterbacks who threw at least 1,000 passes between 1956, the start of Starr's career, and 1974, the end of Jurgensen's career, Jurgensen ranked first with a passer rating of 82.6 and second with a completion percentage of 57.1.

Highest-rated Hall of Fame passers, 1956-1974
QuarterbackRatingComp.%Playoff recordSB record
Sonny Jurgensen82.657.10-00-0
Len Dawson82.356.75-31-1
Bart Starr80.557.49-12-0
Fran Tarkenton80.555.46-50-3
Roger Staubach80.456.813-72-2
Johnny Unitas78.254.66-31-1
Y.A. Tittle77.856.50-5N/A
Bob Griese74.053.77-52-1
Norm Van Brocklin72.953.53-4N/A
Joe Namath69.350.52-11-0
George Blanda63.748.62-1N/A
Bobby Layne63.349.73-1N/A
Terry Bradshaw53.248.014-54-0
Pro Football Reference

But we don't talk about him like we do Starr and Unitas. And we certainly don't talk about him like we do Terry Bradshaw, who ranked dead last on the above chart but won four Super Bowls. Nor even Joe Namath, who ranked in the bottom four in terms of rating, completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio but won one unforgettable Super Bowl. 

Why? It's simple: Sonny Jurgensen didn't win. He didn't win in the regular season, certainly didn't win in the playoffs and didn't come close to winning a championship. 

That's not to say Manning will one day be viewed the way we view Jurgensen, because Manning has experienced oodles of regular-season success and still won in the playoffs and the Super Bowl. But the extreme example does give you an idea of just how much we value postseason success when assessing quarterbacks.

And that's why Manning could have a problem. 

"The postseason is where you establish your legacy," Kravitz said. "That's not to diminish what he's done in the regular season, and he's had some success in the postseason, but look at the numbers and the record."

Manning's teams have made the playoffs 15 times but have lost in the first round on nine of those occasions. He's the only quarterback in NFL history to lose his first playoff game that often, and five of those losses came at home after the Colts had enjoyed a first-round bye. 

Amazingly, prior to beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in this year's divisional round, Manning's teams were 1-5 in home playoff games following first-round byes. We're talking about games that have historically been won by the home team 71.4 percent of the time, but Manning has only been victorious in 28.6 percent of them. 

By comparison, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger—the only two active quarterbacks in Manning's conference with multiple Super Bowl rings—are a combined 11-1 in home divisional-round games coming off of first-round byes. 

Winning when you're supposed to win
QuarterbackManningBradyBig Ben
Home div. playoff games2-58-13-0
When favored in playoff games10-1018-69-2
First playoff game in a 12-win season6-69-13-1
Pro Football Reference

Some examples of great seasons squandered in the playoffs: 

1999: The Colts win 13 regular-season games, ranking in the top five offensively in points scored and yards. But the sophomore quarterback completes under 50 percent of his passes as Indy scores just a single late touchdown in a 19-16 divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans. 

2005: The Colts start the season 13-0 and finish 14-2, ranking second in points scored as well as points allowed and in the top five in turnover margin. But Manning is sacked five times and they score just 18 points in a heartbreaking wild-card loss to the Steelers. 

2007: The Colts win 13 regular-season games, ranking in the top five in every key category. But Manning throws two interceptions in a 28-24 divisional-round loss to the San Diego Chargers. However, in his defense, he gets little support from his running game and defense. 

2012: The Broncos win 13 games, ranking in the top five on both sides of the ball. But Manning throws two picks while getting little help from his defense in a 38-35 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round. 

2014: The Broncos win 12 games, again ranking in the top five on both offense and defense. But Manning throws for only 211 yards in a dud of a divisional-round loss to the Colts. 

Worst playoff passer ratings from active All-Pro quarterbacks
Peyton Manning2002 vs. NYJ45.20-24.431.2
Peyton Manning2003 vs. NE48.91-45.035.5
Peyton Manning2006 vs. BAL50.00-25.739.6
Tom Brady2009 vs. BAL54.82-33.749.1
Aaron Rodgers2010 vs. CHI56.70-28.155.4
Pro Football Reference

His teams have failed to score more than 18 points in 11 of his 13 career playoff losses, including both of his Super Bowl defeats. In those losses, the Colts and Broncos averaged just 13.2 points per game. 

Manning compared to active multiple Super Bowl winners
QuarterbackPlayoff lossesWinning %Points/playoff loss
Peyton Manning13.50013.2
Tom Brady9.71016.5
Ben Roethlisberger6.64722.8
Eli Manning3.72710.3
Pro Football Reference

That last statistic is important because it indicates you can't merely suggest Manning has been victimized by poor defensive performances. 


Victim of His Own Success?

Active QBs with highest regular-season winning percentages
QuarterbackWin %
1. Tom Brady.771
2. Peyton Manning.702
3. Aaron Rodgers.672
4. Ben Roethlisberger.669
Pro Football Reference

No quarterback in NFL history has won more games than Peyton Manning. His teams have posted losing records just twice in his career and have won 12 or more games in 12 of his 17 healthy seasons.

"That guy has won wherever he's been with a lot of different players," Brees said. "And his play and his level of consistency has always been something to be admired."

Manning and Brady are the only active quarterbacks with career winning percentages above .700, but Manning's regular-season statistics have generally been superior despite less support. 

To get a feel for how valuable Manning has been, look at what happened to the Colts when he was forced to miss the entire 2011 season through issues with his neck. Indy had won at least 10 games in nine consecutive seasons, but without Manning, the Colts went 2-14, ranking 30th in the league on offense. 

That explains why Manning has won an NFL-record five MVP awards and will retire as the league's all-time leader in terms of yardage and touchdowns. 

But it's fair to wonder whether Manning's playoff shortcomings have been magnified at least partly because of the fact he's been so damn good in the regular season. 

"I think we're measuring it against a standard that's so high that it's hard," said Manning's former head coach, Tony Dungy. "People look at the touchdown passes and yards and prolificness and they just expect that with that you should have this many Super Bowls like Bradshaw and Montana and Brady. Playoffs are a different animal, and I do know that when you're playing against top defenses, it would be hard to match up to regular-season numbers that were so astronomical."

Half a century ago, that phenomenon plagued Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle, and it's likely Tittle's inability to live up to his regular-season reputation is a big reason why he's often left out of conversations that include Starr and Unitas.

Tittle retired in 1964 as the all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns by huge margins, and various organizations (AP, UPI, NEA and Sporting News) named him MVP in four different seasons. Yet he went 0-5 in the playoffs, losing three consecutive NFL Championship Games late in his career with the New York Giants. 

Statistically speaking, here's what happened to Tittle in the postseason:

Y.A. Tittle: Regular season vs. playoffs
CategoryRegular seasonPlayoffsDifference
Record78-52 (.600)0-5 (.000)-.600
TD-INT (ratio)242-248 (.976)4-14 (.286)-0.690
Pro Football Reference

Tittle, like Jurgensen, is an extreme example in order to establish how much a quarterback's legacy can be affected by postseason failures. The discrepancy between regular-season play and postseason play hasn't been as large for Manning, but it's still pronounced: 

Peyton Manning: Regular season vs. playoffs
CategoryRegular seasonPlayoffsDifference
Record186-79 (.702)13-13 (.500)-.202
TD-INT (ratio)539-251 (2.147)40-24 (1.667)-0.480
Pro Football Reference

And yes, of course most quarterbacks are worse in the playoffs, but it's not usually close to that dramatic. This is what has happened to Hall of Famers in the playoffs: 

Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era
CategoryRegular seasonPlayoffsDifference
TD-INT (ratio)1.2831.151-0.132
Pro Football Reference

And this is what has happened to the other three active first-team All-Pro quarterbacks in the postseason compared to Manning:

Difference between regular-season and playoff stats
QuarterbackWin %Comp.%TD-INT ratioYPARating
Peyton Manning-.202-1.9-0.480-0.5-8.4
Tom Brady-.054-1.2-0.853-0.8-8.4
Aaron Rodgers-.044-0.3-0.382-0.5-3.8
Drew Brees-.024-0.41.9120.14.9
Pro Football Reference

Amazingly, Brady's numbers actually drop almost as much as Manning's. Manning edges Brady in terms of passer rating by exactly 0.1 points in both the regular season and playoffs, and he fares better than Tittle and several others who have struggled in the postseason. Still, his numbers have dropped to much more of an extent than his peers, as well as most legends. 

If we take the 17 Hall of Fame quarterbacks from the Super Bowl era, the two potential Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have recently retired—Kurt Warner and Brett Favre—the four active quarterbacks who have been first-team All-Pros—Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers—and the two other active quarterbacks who have won multiple Super Bowls—Roethlisberger and Peyton's brother Eli—we wind up with a look at 25 pivots who most aptly compare to Manning in the modern era. 

Among that group, Manning ranks tied for 15th of 25 in terms of the gap that separates his regular-season passer rating from his playoff passer rating.

Notable modern-day quarterbacks: Season vs. playoff ratings
QuarterbackReg. seasonPlayoffsDifference
1. Bart Starr80.5104.824.3
2. Terry Bradshaw70.983.012.1
3. Kurt Warner93.7102.89.1
4. Troy Aikman81.688.36.7
5. Eli Manning83.589.35.8
6. Drew Brees95.8100.74.9
7. Warren Moon80.984.94.0
8. Joe Montana92.395.63.3
9. Brett Favre86.086.30.3
10. John Elway79.979.7-0.2
11. Len Dawson82.677.4-5.2
12. Ben Roethlisberger90.484.6-5.8
13. Aaron Rodgers104.198.2-5.9
14. Roger Staubach83.476.0-7.4
15. Tom Brady96.488.0-8.4
15. Peyton Manning96.588.1-8.4
17. Bob Griese77.168.3-8.8
18. Dan Marino86.477.1-9.3
19. Dan Fouts80.270.0-10.2
20. Joe Namath65.554.8-10.7
21. Steve Young96.885.8-11.0
22. Jim Kelly84.472.3-12.1
23. Fran Tarkenton80.458.6-21.8
24. Johnny Unitas78.254.9-23.3
25. Sonny Jurgensen82.631.2-51.4
Pro Football Reference

Not great, but not shabby considering he has set such a high bar for himself in the regular season. But it's a different story when it comes to the gap between his regular-season winning percentage and his playoff winning percentage. 

Ultimately, it does seem as though the biggest problem is that 13-13 playoff record, because even with the bar set high, it's far from ideal that he's one of only five quarterbacks without a winning record among that group of 25.

Notable modern-day quarterbacks: Season vs. playoff win %
QuarterbackReg. seasonPlayoffsDifference
1. Bart Starr0.5990.9000.301
2. Eli Manning0.5300.7270.197
3. Joe Namath0.4810.6670.186
4. Troy Aikman0.5700.6880.118
5. Kurt Warner0.5780.6920.115
6. Terry Bradshaw0.6770.7370.060
7. Len Dawson0.5910.6250.034
8. Johnny Unitas0.6380.6670.029
9. Bob Griese0.6090.6360.027
9. Fran Tarkenton0.5190.5450.027
11. John Elway0.6410.6670.026
12. Joe Montana0.7130.696-0.018
13. Ben Roethlisberger0.6690.647-0.022
14. Drew Brees0.5740.545-0.029
15. Tom Brady0.7710.710-0.062
16. Dan Fouts0.5030.429-0.074
17. Brett Favre0.6240.542-0.082
18. Steve Young0.6570.571-0.086
19. Roger Staubach0.7460.647-0.099
20. Jim Kelly0.6310.529-0.102
21. Dan Marino0.6130.444-0.168
22. Aaron Rodgers0.7080.538-0.170
23. Peyton Manning0.7020.500-0.202
24. Warren Moon0.5020.300-0.202
25. Sonny Jurgensen0.4690.000-0.469
Pro Football Reference


His Impact Isn't Completely Quantifiable 

Of course, few of those other legendary quarterbacks can stake a claim to changing the game the way Manning has. The majority of players and coaches Bleacher Report recently spoke to about Manning emphasized just how much of a difference he's made with his sheer presence.  

"He's forever changed the game of football as far as making adjustments and really being a coordinator on the field," said Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Julius Thomas, who caught 24 touchdown passes from Manning during their two seasons together in Denver. "That'll be his lasting legacy because it'll always be a part of football."

No other quarterback has controlled games on the fly the way Manning has throughout his career, so much so that former Colts offensive lineman Ryan Diem said No. 18 has "redefined the role."

But it goes beyond what we see on Sundays.

As former Colts general manager Bill Polian noted, he has raised the bar in terms of prepping for opponents. 

"I think he's the greatest of all time at preparation," said Polian, who drafted Manning in 1998. "He has literally changed the way quarterbacks prepare at every level. His film study, his historical study, his evaluation of personnel and matchups—combine all three in this day and age of voluminous information and you have a preparation routine that really has never been done before.

"He's the forerunner and everyone else is following suit. Before Peyton Manning, no one talked about the quarterback being the first guy in the building and the last to leave. That's Peyton Manning's contribution to the profession."

Polian also pointed out Manning's physical preparation took things to a whole new level, something former Colts tight end Marcus Pollard noticed right away when Manning was outworking him and his teammates in the offseason. 

"His concentration on mechanics, proper footwork, proper arm placement, accuracy, constant repetition of routes with his receivers is unsurpassed," said Polian, who now works as an analyst for ESPN. "Again, he's a forerunner in that regard. And very few in the media have ever seen that. He's made preparation an art, and a requirement for quarterbacks at every level."

You don't get fantasy points for any of that, though, which may explain why players and coaches might always revere Manning more extensively than fans do. 


Brady's Shadow 

It hasn't helped Manning's cause that Brady and the Patriots have been significantly more successful in the playoffs for the majority of his career. Even if Manning wins Super Bowl 50, Brady will have twice as many titles in three fewer healthy seasons, and he'll almost definitely retire with far more playoff wins and Super Bowl appearances than his rival.

It doesn't feel as though we hold Joe Montana's Super Bowl and playoff edge over Dan Marino, at least not to a large extent, but the major difference might be Brady has experienced so much success against Manning head-to-head.

Manning has lost nine of his 12 regular-season meetings with the Patriots, and he lost each of his first six games against Brady, including two in the postseason. 

Manning has since beaten Brady in three consecutive AFC Championship Games and has a 6-5 regular-season/playoff record against him dating back to 2005. Their head-to-head numbers from that 11-year stretch favor Manning:

Manning vs. Brady, 2005-2015 (including playoffs)
Completion %63.763.6
Passer rating94.890.7
Pro Football Reference

The head-to-head numbers in general aren't as lopsided as you might expect, especially considering Brady has typically received more support from his running game. 

Manning vs. Brady, all time (including playoffs)
Completion %62.064.7
Passer rating87.592.8
Pro Football Reference

This might be a case in which Manning has been penalized for a bad first impression. He threw three interceptions in a blowout loss to New England in what was Brady's first career start, and Brady's Patriots manhandled the Colts in playoff games en route to Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004.

In those two postseason losses, Manning completed just 56 percent of his passes and threw one touchdown pass to five interceptions. But Colts running back Edgerrin James averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in those two matchups. Manning was sacked four times behind a struggling offensive line in the first game, and the Colts fumbled three times in the second one. 

New England had the league's No. 1 defense in terms of points allowed in 2003, and in '04 they ranked second. Both years, the Indy defense finished in the middle of the pack. What's more, the Pats had six defensive Pro Bowlers in that span compared to only two for the Colts. 

Manning simply wasn't as well-supported at that stage. That has since changed, and as a result, the matchups between the two have been relatively even. 

But it seems like the stink from those early games won't go away. Will it fade over time? Gary Myers, who wrote a book on the rivalry entitled Brady vs Manning: The Untold Story of the Rivalry That Transformed the NFL, thinks Manning's latest victory over Brady could help change the narrative. 

"Three in a row will certainly help the way he's portrayed in this rivalry," said Myers. 

Manning will always trail Brady when it comes to championships, but it might not be entirely fair to hold that against him.

"After you win one and go to the playoffs a few years and don't make it, you just realize how hard it is to get there and win one," said Brees. "There are a lot of things that have to fall into place."

Just because that happened for Brady doesn't mean we can dock a large number of points from Manning's legacy. 

"Sometimes the team falls short, not Peyton Manning," said former wide receiver E.G. Green, who came into the league alongside Manning as a Colts third-round pick in 1998. "Tom Brady is a great quarterback, and he's had a Hall of Fame coach. They have put together some great teams with some great players. They have a great culture. So I'll never take anything that Tom has done in order to downplay Peyton's accolades."


Signature Moments (or a Lack Thereof)

Manning's legacy might also suffer due to his lack of numerous flashbulb moments. While he's been featured in prime-time and nationally televised games about as frequently as Brady and Roethlisberger, we typically remember close playoff games more than anything else. 

Manning's two Super Bowl losses came by a combined 49 points, and his victory came by 12. Brady has never won or lost a Super Bowl by more than four points, and Roethlisberger's last two championship appearances were decided by a maximum of six points. 

Again, it's not totally fair to blame Manning for winning in convincing fashion more often than his peers, but that does impact the amount of buzz that surrounds a quarterback. And in addition to frequently winning big, Manning has frequently lost big. 

Playoff win/loss margins, Manning vs. Brady/Roethlisberger
CategoryManningBradyBig Ben
% of losses by one score46%56%67%
% of wins by one score38%55%55%
% of one-score games42%55%59%
Pro Football Reference

Nothing begets a memorable moment quite like a close Super Bowl game. That is something Manning has yet to participate in, which is why, using this measure, it's almost tough to separate him from never-winners such as Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly and Warren Moon. 

Manning's biggest moments have come when he's reached milestones, but few outside of Indy remember where they were when he broke certain individual records. He doesn't have a moment such as Elway's helicopter runRoethlisberger to Holmes or Eli to Tyree. He doesn't have an epic upset like Brady over the Rams or Namath over Baltimore. 

The majority of Manning's most memorable plays have come in the regular season. The only one from a big playoff game most of us will never forget was his Super Bowl XLIV-sealing pick-six

In three Super Bowls, Manning has three touchdown passes, four interceptions, a yards-per-attempt average of 6.5 and a passer rating of 81.0. In those games, he's completed just three passes beyond 25 yards. 

His one championship will always give him a certain leg up on Tarkenton, Marino and Kelly, who went a combined 0-for-8 in Super Bowls. But there are quite a few similarities to those guys, as well fellow one-time Super Bowl winner Brett Favre. 

In fact, when Tarkenton, Marino and Kelly retired, they led the NFL in career yardage and touchdowns, just as Manning does now. All were statistical juggernauts who won quite frequently in the playoffs, but none fared particularly well in Super Bowls (although Favre was still 1-1 with decent numbers). 

One thing we cannot do is compare their Super Bowl stats at par since the game has changed so much over the last half-century. Instead, it's best to compare these quarterbacks by seeing how their Super Bowl stats stack up against the rest of the pivots who started Super Bowls during their respective careers. 

For instance, during Manning's career, 21 quarterbacks have started Super Bowls, and his 81.0 Super Bowl passer rating ranks 11th among that group of 21. In the same category, Tarkenton ranks 10th out of 14, Marino ranks 13th out of 23 and Favre ranks an impressive sixth out of 27. 

Prorating the rankings so every player is rated among 25 quarterbacks, here's how each of those current or soon-to-be Hall of Famers—with Kelly thrown in for good measure—fares. 

Where they rank among 25 Super Bowl peers
QuarterbackComp.%TD-INT ratioYPARatingAverage
Rankings prorated for a sample of 25 Super Bowl quarterbacks from same era

Favre had five touchdowns, one pick and a 97.6 passer rating in his two Super Bowl appearances. So while Manning has made more Super Bowls, they both have just one win and Favre has better numbers, both in the playoffs (at least when accounting for the passing explosion in Manning's era) and in the Super Bowl.

Favre put together two stellar Super Bowl performances and posted a winning record (13-11) in the postseason. Plus, he won just as much in the regular season and finished with the same two major records Manning now holds. So while it's probably safe to conclude Manning's legacy trumps those belonging to Tarkenton, Marino and Kelly—as well as old-school kin Jurgensen and Tittle—Favre puts up a fight. 

But if we're looking at signature performances, it'll be impossible for Manning to join the Super Bowl elite. Montana had 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his four Super Bowl victories, and he, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman were a combined 11-0 in the Super Bowl. Brady has a superb 95.3 rating and a record 13 touchdowns in his six Super Bowl starts. Even one-time winners such as Brees, Warner, Rodgers, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson have big championship numbers. 

Those who have failed in the Super Bowl on even a semi-consistent basis are inevitably stigmatized along with those who have failed to even get there. That's something Manning might have to live with. 


The Clutch Factor

Manning had an opportunity to create the ultimate signature moment when his Colts took the field down seven points with 5:35 remaining in Super Bowl XLIV. On the sideline, a helpless Brees was sure it would happen.

"I'm anticipating that he's going to go down the field and score, they tie the game and we get the ball with, whatever, two or three minutes left and we're in a position where we need to go down the field and get a field goal to win the game," recalled Brees. "So my mind was already on what we needed to do to win. In my mind, I was resigned to the fact that they're going to go down and score because Peyton Manning is their quarterback."

He did complete four of six passes to move Indy to the New Orleans 31-yard line, but then Saints cornerback Tracy Porter stepped in front of a throw intended for Reggie Wayne and sprinted 74 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. 

"That's a great example of the difference in how a quarterback's legacy is viewed by people who only look at winning Super Bowls," said Atlanta Falcons tight end Jacob Tamme, who spent six seasons with Manning in Indy and Denver, losing two Super Bowls with him.

"Tracy Porter guessed, and guessed right. He made a great play. Peyton threw that ball where he was supposed to throw it and on time. Porter made a great play and took it back, and there were a million other things that happened in that game. If we win that, people talk about him different."

That's true, but Manning's quarter-by-quarter situational stats indicate he's struggled at some rather important times.

Peyton Manning in the playoffs
CategoryFirst 3 quarters4th quarter/OT
Pro Football Reference

Late in close playoff games, active multiple Super Bowl winners and/or first-team All-Pros have typically fared better. 

Notable active QB in the 4th Q/OT of one-score playoff games
Aaron Rodgers65.14-010.0119.0
Drew Brees61.95-07.5104.9
Eli Manning64.44-07.2104.2
Ben Roethlisberger60.63-27.987.9
Peyton Manning58.54-37.180.9
Tom Brady59.08-56.079.4
Pro Football Reference

It's interesting that, based on those numbers, Brady has been just as ineffective, yet it should be noted the four-time champ has still technically led six fourth-quarter comebacks and nine game-winning drives in the playoffs, while Manning has led just two of each.


It's Still a Team Game

It also hasn't helped that while his quarterback counterparts had several opportunities to pick on an up-and-down Colts defense during most of Manning's time in Indy, he was forced to spend his time battling some of the best defenses in the game.

Manning's prime probably spanned from 2003 through 2010, when he won four of his five MVPs. That basically coincided with Brady's prime and Roethlisberger's rise. During that eight-year stretch, the best three defenses in football in terms of points allowed per game were as follows:

1. Pittsburgh (17.2)
2. Baltimore (17.3)
3. New England (17.6)

Roethlisberger had to face Baltimore and New England, Brady had to face Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but only Manning had to consistently go up against all three of those defenses while never getting to play against his own, less heralded D.

Meanwhile, NFC pivots Brees, Rodgers and Eli Manning hardly ever had to play those defenses during the regular season and never in the playoffs. 

"His defenses were good but they weren't great," said former cornerback Bryant McFadden, whose Steelers upset Manning's Colts en route to the Super Bowl in 2005. "Even the year they won the Super Bowl, they weren't a very stout defense. Even though we played with a great quarterback in Big Ben, we felt like it was our job to make sure we won the ballgame. Peyton just didn't have that luxury of an outstanding defense."

And during the same stretch between 2003 and 2010, you couldn't find a franchise quarterback who had less support from his running game. 

Where their running games ranked, 2003-2010
Pro Football Reference

And it's not as though things have changed much in Denver. During Manning's four years there, the Broncos have averaged a mediocre 4.01 yards per rushing attempt. Yes, the defense has become an asset, but Pittsburgh and New England still gave up fewer points than the Broncos during Manning's first two seasons in Colorado.

"Too much was on him," said Manning's former backup in Indy, Brock Huard. "It was too much about one guy. And some of that was Peyton's doing—some of it was his own talent and success. Some of it is just the confidence that everybody felt to put everything on him. The one Super Bowl he did win, it was really about the team."

Indeed, Manning threw only three touchdown passes to seven interceptions in the 2006 playoffs, posting a playoff passer rating of just 70.5. But his defense, which struggled during the regular season, surrendered a maximum of 18 points in three of Indy's four playoff games and just 14 in their first two postseason games, against the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore. Plus, backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes averaged a combined 150 rushing yards per game.

Outside of that particular run, Manning rarely benefited from that type of support. 

Run support in playoff games
QuarterbackYPA in winsYPA in lossesYards/game overall
Pro Football Reference

"The quarterback gets too much credit when you win, and they get too much blame when you lose," said veteran pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, who spent 10 years with Manning in Indy. "It's not just him out there. People feel like quarterbacks can overcome anything, and that's not the case. Peyton does not play special teams. Peyton does not play defense."

Points allowed in playoff games
QuarterbackSuper BowlPlayoffs
Points scored by opposing defenses excluded (Pro Football Reference)

None of these quarterbacks are perfect. Brady has thrown three picks three times in the playoffs, and yet he won two of those games, both against San Diego, thanks to his defense and running game. The difference is Manning's margin for error has been smaller. 

But it doesn't help that Manning has four postseason pick-sixes while Brady has zero—yet another indication he could be carrying too much of the load. 

"How many plays a game did he have to make compared to other winning quarterbacks?" asked Huard. 

Throws per playoff victory among SB-winning QBs since 2003
1. Peyton Manning36.4
2. Tom Brady35.8
3. Eli Manning35.3
4. Drew Brees34.5
5. Ben Roethlisberger26.7
6. Aaron Rodgers29.5
7. Russell Wilson24.4
8. Joe Flacco27.1
Pro Football Reference

He certainly has had to make more throws, and it's worth noting his one Super Bowl win came in the most balanced of Indy's three Super Bowl efforts. He had to do too much work against the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans. 

Roethlisberger threw only 51 total passes in his two Super Bowl victories, getting plenty of help from his defense and running game. And Wilson threw just 46 total passes in back-to-back competitive Super Bowls. Manning threw a total of 94 passes in his two Super Bowl losses. 


Wrong Places, Wrong Times 

Manning has also run into some freight trains in the Super Bowl.

The 2009 Saints started 13-0 and were the definition of a team of destiny. They had by far the league's best offense, a defense that ranked second in football with 39 takeaways and what felt like home-field advantage in South Florida. Yet Manning and the Colts still almost beat them. 

Then, in 2013, they ran into a Seahawks defense that dominated the league in every major category—one Football Outsiders ranks as the 16th-best in history. Were the Seattle teams Brady and Roethlisberger beat as good as the one that Manning lost to? On paper, no way.

"I don't know if they had any chance that day against the Seahawks," said Huard. 

It won't get any easier Sunday against a 17-1 Panthers team led by surefire MVP Cam Newton, and it's only fair to consider stiff competition such as that when pondering Manning's legacy. 

"Sometimes you just come up short against good teams," said Thomas. "And if you can't win that final game, that's just a product of an entire team not doing what it takes."


Pulling an 'Elway'

Of all the comparisons made in this space, the most apt of them might be the one we've saved for last. It's almost too perfect because John Elway and Peyton Manning have so much in common. 

They're the two oldest quarterbacks ever to start a Super Bowl, and both have done so with the Denver Broncos. They're two of seven quarterbacks who have been to four or more Super Bowls, and Manning is trying to emulate his boss by squashing that stigma with a last, legacy-salvaging Super Bowl. 

Manning has become more of a game manager at this stage of his career, but the same could have been said of the 38-year-old Elway when he went out on top with back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998.

Elway lost the first three Super Bowl starts of his career and still finished with a Super Bowl passer rating of just 59.3, throwing three touchdown passes to eight interceptions. But does anybody hold any of that against him these days?

If Manning can ride into the sunset with a second Super Bowl just as Elway did, don't be surprised if we begin to forget about that poor first impression against the Patriots, those many one-and-dones and the fact he's no longer the surgical passer he once was.


To be Determined

Industry people don't tend to care too much about championships when assessing individuals. 

"Is Dan Marino any less a Hall of Fame quarterback because he didn't win a Super Bowl?" Polian asked. I don't think so. That's nonsense."

"Would John Elway have been any different had he retired before those two Super Bowls?" Dungy said. "Obviously his legacy would be different, but the type of player he was and his greatness I don't think is just measured by Super Bowl wins."

It's also true our sports culture has a habit of never being satisfied. 

"In this league, you're constantly getting criticized for the smallest things and the biggest things," said former defensive end Brett Keisel, who battled Manning often during his 13 years with the Steelers. "Anything that someone can bring a statistic up on, believe me they will do it in the National Football League.

"Peyton has the one ring, but he's been there and done it. And there have been a lot of great quarterbacks who haven't even gotten a chance at that."

If Manning were one of those quarterbacks without one, how many of us would be claiming a single championship would secure his legacy? And if he had two, many of us would surely be arguing a third title would do the same. 

So long as you're active, your legacy is a moving target. 

But it's no coincidence most of the best quarterbacks from an empirical and statistical standpoint have also won multiple Super Bowls, which is why it's important to some that Manning separates himself from Joe Flacco, Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer and Jeff Hostetler by winning one more. 

"I do recognize the fact that winning multiple Super Bowls puts you in a different category," said Brees. "That's something that very few guys have had the opportunity to do, so it's a very special accomplishment."

"He's still one of the top five or six quarterbacks who have ever played the game," added Kravitz. "But I think in that mythical view of things he can be viewed through a different prism if he can win one more.

"I think that would alter the conversation."

Then again, so would another loss. 

It's complicated.


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.


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