Clash of the Titans: Who's Better, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?

Jeremy Alpert@@pyroman1acSenior Analyst IINovember 20, 2010

Clash of the Titans

Growing up just outside of Chicago in the late 1970s, I was part of an entire generation of children who would fall asleep at night to the recurrent fantasy of one day becoming the next Walter Payton. 

I would dream of charging my way to a goal line stacked with bucktoothed defenders, then finding the ugliest SOB I could find so that I could look him straight in the eye just before vaulting myself up over the pile into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. 

That’s just the way it was for boys that age.  We fantasized we were our favorite star athlete doing things only a handful of people in the world could do.  Sure, I could have dreamt I was Terry Bradshaw tossing up four TDs in the Super Bowl or Steve Largent making one of his many miraculous catches or maybe even Mean Joe Greene busting through the line to flatten an oncoming running back…but I didn’t, because Payton was my guy. 

The world we live in today has changed in countless ways since then, but some things will always stay the same.  Children still fall asleep at night dreaming they are their favorite athlete, pulling off spectacular feats and impossible victories every time they close their eyes.  Yet no doubt these days, kids likely wake up and go to a warm PS3 to perform their tomfoolery from the night before instead of going to the park and trying out some of these Mickey Mouse stunts with their friends. 

Over the past decade, I’m guessing there are two players in particular who have dominated the common childhood football fantasy…Peyton Manning and Tom Brady

And why shouldn’t they?  Their rivalry has been as epic a battle as the NFL has ever seen, with every dimension of the sport and its primary position coming into play.  It’s nearly impossible to say which one has been better, as there are so many facets factoring into the argument that it’s likely even the Supreme Court would have trouble coming to a decision. 

Nevertheless, no matter how rabid or spicy the topic may be, we’ve never been the type to skirt a subject here at Pyromaniac.com.  So with as little bias as possible, we set about to answer this decade-long question by carefully examining every angle, assessing every contention, inspecting every nook and cranny while combing through mass amounts of data until our sanity was pushed to the edge. 

In the end, with the blood still fresh on the floor, we finally take a stab at solving the riddle of "Who is the best quarterback of the 21st century?" 

First and foremost, it must be stated that no matter which sport you are talking about, there has never been (and never will be) a specific formula that determines with any certainty whether one player is better than the next.  All such determinations are purely a matter of opinion, and the discussions that tend to follow are what keep us captivated with a sport throughout our lives.  That said, everybody has an opinion, and by the end of our examination here, you’ll have ours, whether you like it or not.

Where To Start?

There are so many doorways that lead into this discussion, it’s tough to figure out which one to walk through first.  So why don’t we start with where every player eventually wants to end up…the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl

Many people believe that when it comes to gauging a player’s degree of excellence, there is one barometer that holds more value than the others—Winning.  Not just winning during the regular season but winning the whole hog, the big one—basically, winning the Super Bowl. 

Both Manning and Brady have taken their teams to the big game multiple times, but Brady leads the battle in both appearances (four to two) and wins (three to one). 

However, since football is a TEAM sport, it’s tough to say that this element of the discussion means more towards a player’s greatness than any of the other factors that will be discussed here.  Yes, the quarterback usually plays a larger role in a team’s success than the other positions on the field, but it would be unfair to judge a QB primarily on this aspect.  Individual players can win individual games, but teams win championships.  Everyone makes a difference in a team making the playoffs or not and eventually winning a Super Bowl.  The coaches, the defense, the special teams, the trainers—everybody. 

Tom Brady did not win those three Super Bowls alone.  The Patriots won those three Super Bowls.  Just as it wasn’t Tom Brady who lost the 2008 Super Bowl to the Giants, it was the Patriots who lost that game. 

Some people would say that the Pats defense is the reason the Giants beat them that day.  If that is true, then those same people must then credit the defense for the three wins.  You can’t pick and choose, because football is a team sport.

However, we won’t pretend that winning the Super Bowl doesn’t matter, because it does.  When people talk about the greatest quarterback of all time, many times you’ll see that Dan Marino is left out of the conversation because he never won the big game.  Is that his fault?  No, of course not. 

Everyone understands that the teams/players Marino had surrounding him were never quite as good as those who surrounded, say, Joe Montana.  But the fact remains, Marino does not have a coveted Super Bowl ring wrapped around his finger like Montana does (four fingers, to be exact), which is probably the main reason Montana is consistently mentioned in the “best quarterback ever” discussion and Marino is not. 

Having a Super Bowl victory does not make any one QB decisively better than the next, as no one in his right mind would ever claim Trent Dilfer is better than Dan Marino, but it certainly does make its mark on the discussion, and having three rings compared to one puts this aspect in favor of Brady over Manning.

Edge:  Brady       Brady 

(All of the above also applies to the playoffs in general, as it is still a team sport and playoff games are both won and lost by entire teams, not individual players.  In addition, there is also a widely regarded myth that Manning chokes when it comes to the playoffs.  Take a look at the statistics we provide later in this article, and you’ll see that both players’ numbers in the playoffs are nearly identical, except for the wins and losses, which we’ve already stated should be attributed to the team, not individual players.)


Surrounding Talent

As long as we’re on the subject of teammates and such, we might as well address how the players and coaches who have surrounded both Manning and Brady throughout their careers have affected each of their rises to the top of the QB hill.


Tom Brady has played for just one head coach, Bill Belichick, his entire career. 

After many years of serving under and learning from surefire Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, Belichick is now widely considered one of the greatest coaching minds the NFL has ever seen.  His defensive game plan from the Giants' upset win over the Bills in Super Bowl XXV (Belichick was the defensive coordinator there at the time)  is now sitting in the Hall of Fame. 

It’s impossible to predict if Brady would still have won Super Bowls had he played for a coach other than Belichick, but there is no doubt it’s been nice having him roaming the sidelines the past 10 years.

Peyton Manning has played for three head coaches during his tenure, each a little bit different than the other. 

First there was Jim Mora, for whom Manning played his first four years in the league.  Mora was a relatively decent regular-season head coach, but he lacked the football acumen it took to get his team over the hump (0-4 playoff record with the Saints, 0-2 with the Colts).  On top of that, he was also regarded as being just a little bit loopy. 

Manning’s second coach was Tony Dungy, probably the best of the three.  Even though Dungy was very much a defensive-minded coach (he was a defensive backs coach or defensive coordinator for 15 years in the NFL prior to becoming a head coach), Manning would end up going 85-27 in the regular season (winning the AFC South five times in seven years) and 7-6 in the playoffs under Dungy, while also winning Super Bowl XLI. 

The last coach Manning has played for is his current coach, Jim Caldwell.  Caldwell was a first-time NFL head coach this past year, though he did work as the assistant head coach to Tony Dungy from 2002-08. 

It is yet to be determined how good a coach he is, but he certainly has started out well, going 14-2 and taking the Colts to the Super Bowl in his rookie campaign.  His philosophy is much along the lines of his predecessor.

Though Manning has by no means been bereft of good coaching, Brady has had the privilege of working with a football genius his entire career.  He’s also had the added bonus of never having to gel with a new coach, whereas Manning has had coaches switched on him a couple times.  Playing for the best coach in the NFL the past 10 years gives Brady an advantage Manning could only dream of having, which makes what Manning has done over his career that much more special.

Edge:  Brady


During the eight full seasons Brady started at QB (we’re not counting 2000 or 2008), the Patriots defense ranked in the Top 10 four times and averaged a 13.75 ranking (out of 32).

In the 12 seasons Manning has been running the show, the Colts defense has ranked in the Top 10 just twice, coming in with an average ranking of 17.17.

Defense is a major factor when it comes to winning games in the NFL and can play an even larger factor come playoff time.  Some of the defenses that the Colts have put out on the field over the past 12 years have been downright atrocious. Again, as it was with the coaches who surround these two players, Manning’s achievements have to be considered a little more impressive than Brady’s seeing that, more often than not, Manning has had to go above and beyond to take his team to victory.     

Edge:  Brady

Skill Position Players (RB/WR/TE)

Patriots (2001-07, 2009)

RB/FBs: Kevin Faulk, Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, Heath Evans, Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, BenJarvus Green-Ellis

WRs: Troy Brown, David Patten, Deion Branch, David Givens, Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Donte’ Stallworth, Julian Edelman

TEs: Jermaine Wiggins, Cameron Cleeland, Daniel Graham, Ben Watson, Chris Baker

Colts (1998-2009):

RB/FBs: Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Dominic Rhodes, James Mungro, Joseph Addai, Kenton Keith, Donald Brown

WRs:Jerome Pathon, Marvin Harrison, Torrance Small, Terrence Wilkins, Reggie Wayne, Qadry Ismail, Troy Walters, Brandon Stokley, Anthony Gonzalez, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie

TEs: Ken Dilger, Marcus Pollard, Dallas Clark, Ben Utecht

While the players Brady has worked with aren’t as good as what Manning has had, as a whole, they really aren’t that bad.  However, the edge must go to Manning here.  Brady's career stats aren’t as gaudy as Manning's, but he's clearly done more with lesser talent around him.     

Edge:  Manning

When we measure the fact that Brady has had both the best coach in the NFL plus a superior defense throughout his career against the fact that Manning has had better offensive weapons to work with, we’d have to steer towards giving the nod to Manning. 

Having a first-rate coach cannot be underestimated, and if the saying “defense wins championships” holds any water, then Brady most definitely had it easier in that department as well. 

Both Manning and Brady make the players around them better, as evidenced by guys like Deion Branch and Pierre Garcon, but when it comes down to it, they can only do so much as quarterbacks.  Like anyone else, they depend on everyone around them to do their jobs well for the team to be successful as a whole, and the Patriots have been much more dependable in those areas throughout their respective careers.

Edge:  Manning       Manning



Peyton Manning consistently puts up statistical seasons that most quarterbacks can only dream of having.  He has never thrown for fewer than 26 TDs and/or 3,739 yards in any one year and has a 95.2 QB rating over the course of his career. 

On the other hand, in 2007, Tom Brady put up possibly the best statistical season in the history of the NFL, throwing for 50 TDs (to only eight INTs) and 4,806 yards.  However, he has only thrown for over 4,000 yards three times (to Manning’s 10) and 30 TDs or more just once (to Manning’s five). 

Manning’s 10 seasons of 4,000-plus yards is by far the most of all time, with Brett Favre and Dan Marino tying for second with six seasons.  His 12 seasons of throwing for 26-plus TDs is also the most all-time, with Favre coming in second with 11 seasons while Dan Marino and Joe Montana sit tied for third with six apiece.

By no means is Brady a slouch when it comes to the numbers, but he simply does not reside in the same class as Manning.  In fact, we would be hard-pressed to find ANY other quarterback in history who can hang with Manning statistically.  This is one area Manning has a firm grip on and won’t be giving up anytime soon.

Edge:  Manning       Manning


This is one of the tougher categories to assess, as both these guys have just about everything you would want in terms of what it takes to win a game.  However, we’ll take a look at a few questions here to see if we can come to a decision on who has the better intangibles, Manning or Brady.

Who Is a Better Field General?

No one is better at coming up to the line, reading the defense and calling his shots on the fly than Peyton Manning.  And with the way that he obsessively studies the game, both during the season and in the offseason, he’d better be the best at it. 

Brady is more than adept in this area as well, but Manning could very well be the biggest student of the game the NFL has ever seen.     

Edge:  Manning

Who Is the Better Leader?

Not since Joe Montana has a player had the confidence of his teammates more than Tom Brady—and for good reason.  His cool demeanor under pressure is his most defining characteristic, as proven by his history against teams with a winning record.  Over the course of his career, including playoff games, Brady has gone 52-25 against teams with a W/L record over .500, which comes out to an otherworldly winning percentage of 67.53 percent. 

Manning hasn't done too shabby against winning teams either, as his record currently stands at 62-42 (59.62 percent).  However, Brady is on another level when it comes to rising to a challenge, so he has to get our vote here.   

Edge:  Brady

Who Is Better in the Clutch?

This one would have to go to Tom Brady. 

Manning may have amassed more comebacks over his career than Brady has, but he’s also been in position to do so many more times.  In his 192 regular-season games starts, 88 of those games have ended in a score within seven points of each other, with Manning and the Colts winning 59 of them (67 percent). 

In the 127 games Brady has started, 49 of the games ended within seven points, with Brady and the Patriots winning 36 of them (73.5 percent). 

However, the best way to evaluate this question is by looking at what Brady has done on the biggest stage…the Super Bowl.  Strangely enough, all four of the Super Bowls that Brady played in ended with a three-point difference, with Brady and the Patriots coming out the victor in three of them. 

We can also look at the playoffs in general and show that in games decided by seven points or fewer, Brady and the Patriots have a 7-2 record while Manning and the Colts have a lowly 2-5 record.     

Edge:  Brady

Who Has a Bigger Chip on His Shoulder?

Everyone knows that Manning was taken with the No. 1 overall pick back in 1998, and by now, everyone also knows that Brady was taken in the sixth round with the 199th overall pick back in 2000. 

The question is, which QB has more to prove because of it? 

Coming out of college, Manning was one of the most sought-after players in history, which also happened to include the added pressure of having to live up to almost impossible expectations.  However, Peyton took the challenge head-on and has handily exceeded those expectations over his career. 

In an altogether different manner, after being selected with the 199th pick, Brady essentially had no expectations on him whatsoever.  He has had to fight, scratch and claw for every accolade and ounce of respect he has earned, which is a direct testament to the type of player and competitor that Tom Brady is.

In the end, both players have proven to have more drive within than anyone ever imagined.     

Edge:  Even



The Arm

There are numerous ways in which to judge the arm of a quarterback, but for this discussion, we’ll focus on three:  Accuracy, arm strength and style (i.e., touch and spiral).


We’ve all heard a zillion different opinions on accuracy when it comes to Manning vs. Brady, and it seems the vote is split down the middle.  The best way we can look at it is by addressing the facts, and the facts do tell a tale here.

To properly deliver an assessment, we decided to break the stats down into six sets of numbers:  Passes completed and attempted behind the line of scrimmage, from 1-10 yards, 11-20 yards, 21-30 yards, 31-40 yards, and 41-plus yards.  We were only able to uncover the splits for these numbers from 2002 on, but that should be a large enough sample size to show which QB truly has the more accurate arm.


As you can see, Manning is the more accurate quarterback from every throwing distance except for the long ball.  Brady has always been known for having one of the best long-ball arms in the league, maybe of all time, so it wasn’t surprising to see him beat Manning in that regard.  However, we were a bit bewildered to see that Manning was more precise than Brady concerning every other pass on the field.  Because of these findings, we have to give the nod to Manning here.     

Edge:  Manning

Arm Strength

Again, this is another subject where everybody seems to have an opinion, yet the vote remains split down the middle. 

Coming out of college, Manning’s arm strength was considered to be above average, but would not rank among the elite arms in the NFL.  This assessment was found to be accurate and continues to be the case today. 

As for Brady, many people have come to the conclusion that Brady must have one of the stronger arms in the NFL because of his ability to have such precision on his long ball.  However, when he came out of Michigan, one of the main reasons he fell so far in the draft was due to the concern that he didn’t have a strong enough arm to succeed in the NFL.  At the time, this was also an accurate assessment, but it also fueled his fire to gain the strength necessary to compete at a top level.  Brady would begin a workout regimen that would eventually give him that arm strength and put him in the same class as Manning. 

As it is today, both quarterbacks have above-average arms, with neither one being any stronger than the other.     

Edge:  Even


This is one facet where there really is no argument.  It’s Brady.  Manning, for all his accuracy and ability to slide a ball into the tightest of spots, has never been known to be pretty.  His spirals tend to come apart mid-flight, especially on his long tosses, even though he does have a smooth, quick release. 

Brady, on the other hand, has one of the tightest spirals in the league and can float the ball into a receiver’s hands from any distance on the field.  Manning is as fun to watch as any player in the league, but Brady’s game seems effortless and is always pure poetry in motion.   

Edge:  Brady

In the end, what counts more in a game is not how you get it done, but simply that one way or another, it does get done.  Because of this, we have to consider Accuracy as being a bit more important than Style, in which case Manning gets the nod.

Slight Edge:  Manning       Manning


In head-to-head games, Brady holds the regular-season edge with five wins to three, as well as in the playoffs with an edge of two wins to one.  Overall, however, some of the numbers would suggest that the losses might not be square on Manning’s shoulders, as he does seem to outdo Brady in a few statistical categories.  But wins are wins, and Brady has Manning beat on that level.  One thing Manning has going for him here is if you were to take a “what have you done for me lately?” approach, as Manning won both their last regular-season and playoff matchups.  Nonetheless, this discussion addresses the whole package, not just their last season or game.

Edge:  Brady       Brady

The Answer

When you tally up all the various particulars, in the end, neither Manning nor Brady accrues more points in their favor than the other.  Manning may have twice as many Pro Bowls under his belt than Brady (10 to five) and was a First-Team All-Pro five times compared to Brady’s one, yet Brady has twice as many Super Bowl MVPs as Manning (two to one) and had a longer road to the top coming in as a sixth-round pick compared to Manning’s No. 1 status. 

At this moment, nothing in the overall scheme of things says that one QB is better than the other.  However, we will avoid copping out and say this:  If we were forced to choose one quarterback to lead us through a 16-game season, our answer would have to be Peyton Manning. 

At the same time, if we were forced to choose one quarterback to lead us through a postseason, our answer would be Tom Brady. 

If both their careers were to end today, each player would have no problem being inducted as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  If each were to play in the NFL for five more years, Manning winning or losing more Super Bowls would not change his Hall of Fame status, and if Brady never returned to the big game, his status would go unchanged as well. 

Who was better, Bird or Magic?  Gretzky or Lemieux?  Mozart or Beethoven?  At some point, you might have to say the answer to this ongoing question is simply a matter of opinion or perspective, and being from Chicago...I would have taken either one.

Manning   Brady

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