One inevitable side effect of another playoff matchup between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady is that we get to hear (ad nauseam) that Brady is clutch in the playoffs, and Manning always chokes. Their reputations were earned early in each of their respective careers. However, more recent (and, in my opinion, more relevant) history has shown that neither one deserves their reputation anymore.
Fun Fact: Manning has a higher QB rating in the playoffs than Brady (88.6 to 87.2)
Manning and Brady had distinctly different starts to their careers. Manning was drafted first overall by a Colts team that had just gone 3-13 and hadn’t been to a Super Bowl since 1970. Brady was drafted in the 6th round by a Patriots team that had just gone 8-8 (just one game shy of what would have been their 4th consecutive playoff appearance) and had been in the Super Bowl as recently as 1996. Manning was supposed to be the savior of the franchise. Brady was supposed to be a 3rd or 4th string QB who might eventually become the backup to Drew Bledsoe.
Both Manning and Brady led their teams to the playoffs in their second year (Brady in his first year as a starter). Since then they have both missed the playoffs only twice: once early in their careers and once due to a season ending injury. But their early playoff success couldn’t have been more different.
Fun Fact: In their first playoff appearances, Manning and Brady both led their teams to 16 points, and both of them ran for their team’s only touchdown.
Another Fun Fact: The next year in which their respective teams made the playoffs, they both led their teams to 17 points in the opening game.
In Manning’s first three playoff appearances, he went 0-3 capped off by a game where he threw for 137 yards and 2 interceptions and the Colts lost to the Jets 41-0. Meanwhile, in Brady’s first three years in the playoffs he went 9-0, won 3 Super Bowls and two Super Bowl MVP awards.
Now, much of Brady’s early success was due to the strength of his team. In his first playoff run, for example, the Patriots scored 6 touchdowns. Only 1 was a Tom Brady pass. 1 was the afore-mentioned Brady rushing touchdown. 1 was a pass by the afore-mentioned Bledsoe (who led the Patriots to their AFCCG win in place of an injured Brady). The other three were defensive and special teams touchdowns.
In the years Brady won the Super Bowl his defenses were ranked 6, 1, and 2. By comparison, in the years of Manning’s first 3 playoff appearances his defenses were ranked 17. 15, and 7. Still, Brady deserves a great deal of credit. He never had a game with a passer rating below 70 and had a passer rating above 100 in 4 of the last 5 games of that streak (in the other one his rating was 92.2). And he led his team to winning field goals in two Super Bowls. Meanwhile Manning’s QB ratings in his first three years in the playoffs were 62.3, 82, and a horrible 31.2. In other words, Manning was worse than Andy Dalton except for the turnovers.
So I readily concede that Brady’s first 3 years in the playoffs were miles above Manning’s. As far as I know they were the best first three playoff years ever. And Manning was downright bad. So Manning’s reputation as a choker and Brady’s reputation as being clutch in the playoffs were well earned.
Fun Fact: In Manning’s 11 playoff losses, his team has had a lead with less than a minute to go 4 times. (O.K. This is not a ‘fun fact’, but it is more fun than being diagnosed with Parkinson’s.)
What Has Happened Since
The problem is, once you get a reputation, it is difficult to shake it. Every time Brady wins a playoff game it adds to his reputation, and every time he loses, it is seen as an anomaly. Similarly, every time Manning loses a playoff game, it adds to his reputation, and every time he wins, it is seen as an anomaly. But the fact is, after those first three years, Manning and Brady have been remarkably similar in the playoffs.
Manning’s playoff record since then: 10-8 (soon to be 11-8) and 1-1 (soon to be 2-1) in Super Bowls.
Brady’s playoff record since then: 9-7 (soon to be 9-8) and 0-2 in Super Bowls (not changing anytime soon).
Fun Fact:After starting his career with 12 straight playoff games without a QB rating under 70, Brady has been under 70 in 5 of his past 13.
Much of the conversation about Brady and Manning (by those who argue for Brady) centers on who would you rather when the game is on the line, or who is more clutch. Well I decided to try to quantify who is more clutch.
I decided to focus on how successful each drive was during crunch time. I considered a drive successful if it resulted in a score (or a missed field goal), or if the team started the drive with a lead and ran out the clock (I didn’t count drives consisting only of kneel-downs). The problem with focusing on drives is that it doesn’t directly compare the play of the quarterbacks. A bad quarterback could look good if he were supported by a strong running game. But I did it this way because I know Manning has a great deal of discretion and can check into and out of running plays. I assume it is much the same for Brady. And a quarterback who can makes the decision to run at the right time deserves credit for that. Besides, there are many places you can find direct comparisons of QB ratings and stats. I wanted to try something different.
As I alluded to above, I am really interested in what each player has done after establishing their reputations. So, to start with, I ignored each player’s first three years worth of playoff games (but see below). I arbitrarily decided that a clutch situation was when the teams were within one score of each other in the last half of the fourth quarter (the last 7:30) or at any time in overtime. I looked at each drive that occurred in clutch situations, including drives that started earlier, but didn’t end until clutch time.
I divided the drives into three categories.
1. Drives when behind by a touchdown or less
2. Drives when tied
3. Drives when ahead by a touchdown or less.
Fun Fact: Manning and Brady each have 3 rushing TDs in playoff games.
In the seasons I focused on, Manning has played 18 playoff games and had 21 clutch drive opportunities. He had 11 drives where he started out behind by a touchdown or less. He was successful on 5 of those drives (45%). He had 3 drives where he started out tied, and was only successful on 1 of those drives (25%) (Fun Fact: All 3 of those drives were in last year’s Baltimore game). He had 7 where he started out ahead by a touchdown or less and he was successful on 3 of those drives (43%). Altogether he was successful on 9 of his 21 clutch drives (43%).
Brady has played 16 playoff games but only had 13 clutch drive opportunities. He had 5 drives where he started out behind by a touchdown or less. He was successful on 2 of those drives (40%). He had 2 drives where he started out tied, and was successful on both of them (100%). He had 6 where he started out ahead by a touchdown or less and he was successful on 2 of those drives (33%). Altogether he was successful on 6 of his 13 drives (46%).
So in the most pressure packed situations, being down late in a playoff game Manning has been slightly better than Brady (45% to 40%). When the game was tied, Brady has been more successful (100% to 33%) albeit with a small sample size. And when trying to hang on to a lead, Manning has been more successful (43% to 33%). Overall Brady edges Manning 46% to 43%. With such a small sample size, numbers this close are a wash. You can’t say either one has really been more successful in clutch situations.
Now, after confirming my suspicions (or my bias) that Manning and Brady have performed remarkably similar (even in clutch situations) after establishing their reputations, I decided to see what difference it would make to include those earlier years. Was Manning really any worse than Brady earlier in his career?
Fun Fact: Over their careers, Manning and Brady have each had 23 clutch playoff drives.
Well Manning only had two clutch drives in his first three years. Both were in a loss to Miami, and Manning was successful both times. On the first drive he led his team to a field goal that extended the lead to 7 points. Unfortunately, Miami drove down and tied the game in the final minute. On the second, he drove led his team to what should have been a game winning field goal in overtime, but his kicker missed.
Adding Brady’s clutch drives was a bit more work because he had nine games most of which were close. All told, he had 10 clutch drives, and he was successful on 7 of them.
Even though Manning had a higher percentage of success in his first 3 years than Brady (100% to 70%) his was such a small portion of his overall success that it didn’t change his overall numbers as much as Brady’s. Factoring in these early years, Brady moved ahead of Manning on drives when behind (50% to 45%). Manning actually increased his lead on drives when ahead (57% to 43%). And although Manning’s success rate when tied increased Brady, remarkably, retained his 100% success rate when the game was tied. Overall Brady has been successful on 13 of his 23 clutch drives. Manning has been successful on 11 of his 23.
Fun Fact: Every time Brady has had the ball with the score tied in a clutch situation, he has led his team to a field goal. No touchdowns, no punts, no turnovers, six field goals.
Another Fun Fact: Brady has never led his team to a game winning touchdown in the playoffs.
The difference between Manning’s and Brady’s success in clutch situations has been negligible, even when including Brady’s remarkable early performance. Since those early years there has been virtually no difference. I am a biased Bronco fan so, given the choice between the two, in a clutch situation, I would go with Manning. I can justify that pick with the fact that Manning has had more recent success in clutch situations. A can respect that others would prefer Brady. But there is no justification for continuing to see Brady as more clutch or to see Manning as a choker.