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Peyton Manning's play becoming a legitimate reason for concern in Denver

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Peyton Manning's play has dropped off significantly in the last four weeks, and he's been far worse in the clutch in 2014 than he has been in the rest of his career. Is there legitimate reason for concern heading into the playoffs?

Manning hangs his head during the second half of the Broncos' 37-28 loss to the Bengals.
Manning hangs his head during the second half of the Broncos' 37-28 loss to the Bengals.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Peyton Manning is fine, they said. There's nothing wrong with his game, they said. It's just a focus on a running offence, they said.

They said all of these things (editor's note: I said all these things), but after the Broncos' Monday night loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, everyone can agree that something is not right with Peyton Manning's game. The Broncos quarterback threw four interceptions in Denver's loss, in a game where the team could have clinched a first-round playoff bye for the third straight season. This was not the first time his play has come into question as of late.

It's still assumed that the Broncos will win next week's game against the Oakland Raiders, but this week's loss was a concern simply because Manning continues to not look like the prolific quarterback that he is known as. For the third straight week, Manning has given his team below average play, even though this was the first week that it resulted in a loss.

Yes, the Broncos are winning in spite of Manning, and that's a great sign for Broncos fans, who have become all too accustomed to relying on an other-worldly performance from Manning to win games. That being said, the good sign has turned into a bad omen, now that the team is having to over-perform in other areas and positions in order to make up for poor quarterback play. It has come to the point where the Broncos' legend is now losing them games, and at the worst possible time.

Over the last four games, Manning has been far less efficient in all major passing categories, posing a sharp contrast to his great numbers over the first eleven games of the season.

First 11 games of 2014

  • 323 passing yards per game (8.05 yards per pass attempt)
  • 3.09 TDs per game (1 TD/ 13 pass attempts)
  • 0.82 interceptions per game (1 INT/ 49.1 pass attempts)

Last four games

  • 224 passing yards per game (7.59 yards per pass attempt)
  • 1.25 passing TDs per game (1 TD/ 23.6 pass attempts)
  • 1.5 interceptions per game (1 INT/ 19.7 pass attempts)

Over the last four games, Manning has averaged fewer passing attempts per game, which undoubtedly accounts for much of the yardage contrasts between the two time periods; however, the TD/INT numbers are alarming, and they point to a quarterback who's making poor decisions behind a shaky offensive line. The touchdowns have nearly been cut in half, meaning almost 10 more passing attempts on average between touchdown passes. Meanwhile, Manning's interception rate is more than double what it was at the start of the season, with the veteran QB throwing an interception once every 20 passing attempts, as opposed to once every 49 in the first portion of the season.

The Broncos have rarely trailed in the fourth quarter this year, but when they have, their star quarterback has been alarmingly bad

The contrast in play over the last four games is concerning, but what is more concerning is the extreme drop off in play during clutch situations. In situations where the 2014 Broncos have been trailing in the final four minutes of the game, Manning's play has dropped off significantly in comparison to his career numbers in these situations.

Throughout his career, Manning shares similar numbers in these situations with other elite quarterbacks such as Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Luck, Roethlisberger (interestingly, Tony Romo ranks much higher than all other QBs on the list). Manning's career QBR of 77.7 in situations where his teams trail in the final four minutes is on par with almost all of today's elite quarterbacks, despite having many more snaps in these situations than the remaining QBs. The elevated number of snaps in concurrence with similar efficiency indicate a high level of consistency over his career; however, Manning has been far from consistent to his career numbers in these situations in 2014. In situations where the Broncos have trailed in the final four minutes of games in 2014, Peyton has a QBR of just 51.0. There was an efficient comeback against the Seahawks which favourably influenced these numbers, where Manning threw a last minute touchdown to Jacob Tamme. Since then, Manning has had a hard time doing anything productive in these situations, with a staggering 12.0% interception percentage that is over two times higher than all other elite quarterbacks' INT % (including his own career numbers).

Down with 4 minutes left
Year Attp Comp Comp % Yards Y/A TD's TD % INT's INT % Rating
1998-2013 422 243 57.58% 2881 6.83 24 5.69% 20 4.74% 77.7
2014 25 13 52.0%
193 7.72
4.0% 3 12.0% 51.3

For comparison, other QB's career numbers in the same situations

Name Attp Comp Comp % Yards Y/A TD's TD % INT's INT % Rating
Romo 301 189 62.79% 2344 7.79 18 5.98% 7 2.33% 97.1
Brees 447 267 59.73% 3170 7.09 28 6.26% 25 5.59% 79.0
Rodgers 139 75 53.96% 975 7.01 7 5.04% 3 2.16% 84.1
Roethlisberger 328 185 56.40% 2358 7.19 20 6.10% 16 4.88% 79.0
Brady 289 159 55.02% 1798 6.22 18 6.23% 8 2.77% 83.1
Luck 90 49 54.44% 655 7.28 5 5.56% 4 4.44% 77.8
Wilson 72 34 47.22% 357 4.96 5 6.94% 3 4.17% 67.9

Against the Bengals, it was more of the same. Trailing in the waning moments of this week's Monday Night game, the Peyton worked the ball up the field slowly, completing passes for a  few yards at a time, eventually ending both drives in the last four minutes with interceptions to Bengals' cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. Both interceptions were to the same player, and both were essentially a product of Manning forcing something that wasn't there in a situation that he had caused himself with another poor interception. The Bengals never would have had the lead if Manning had not been picked off deep in Denver territory earlier in the fourth quarter. The poorly thrown ball was intercepted by Adam Jones, and eventually turned into the game-winning field goal on which the Bengals took a two-point lead in the fourth quarter.

The Broncos are lucky to have rarely trailed in the fourth quarter all season, but in the times that they have, their star quarterback has been alarmingly bad. Games are not easily won in the playoffs, and Peyton will need to show up in the clutch for this team at some point or another. It's a matter of fact that once the playoffs roll around, the Broncos are going to need strong quarterback play if they hope to book a trip to Arizona, regardless of what the rest of the team does.

Rather than winning games in spite of relatively poor quarterback play, Denver needs to be able to count on their legendary quarterback to be able to win them games again.