In what is certain to be the highest-rated pro football game of the year, the Denver Broncos host the New England Patriots Sunday in the AFC championship game. The winner goes to the Super Bowl, but to real football fans, this game is the Super Bowl, the matchup of the two greatest quarterbacks of this generation, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
To pro football fans of previous generations, the Brady-Manning face-off is reminiscent of the rivalry between the Green Bay Packers' Bart Starr and the Baltimore Colts' Johnny Unitas, whose teams played for the NFL championship 10 times in 11 years from 1958 through 1968, winning eight titles between them. Brady and Manning haven’t been quite that dominant, but in the 12 full seasons they’ve both played since Brady entered the league in 2000, their teams have played in seven Super Bowls and won four.
It’s safe to say that they are the best-known players in the NFL, and combined pull in more endorsement money in a year -- according to Forbes last year just under $20 million -- than Starr and Unitas made in their entire careers. They both hosted "SNL." Peyton got slightly higher ratings, but you can judge for yourself who was funnier.
Fans, commentators, analysts and NFL coaches and players have argued for years about who is the greatest, Peyton or Tom. But what does the record say?
Even if you’re a fan, you’re probably not sure whether to trust most football statistics, but bear with me for a minute.
Manning has started 53 more games than Brady, 240 to 193, and, if you want to attribute wins and losses to QBs, Brady has an edge in won-lost percentage, .767 to .696. Peyton has far more passing yards (64,964 to Brady’s 49,169), more TD passes (491 to 359), and more interceptions (219 to 134).
It’s hard to draw any conclusions from these numbers; while the quarterback is certainly the most important player on the team, attributing wins and losses solely to his performance seems likes a lazy way to analyze. Same thing with the yards, TDs and interceptions; all they prove is that Manning threw more often, not better.
Instead of totals, let’s try some quality stats. Peyton’s career NFL QB rating is slightly higher, 97.2 to 95.7. Edge to Manning, at least if you put stock in the NFL’s rating or even understand it, which I don’t. (Check out the NFL's own explanation of QB Rating here.) Manning edges Brady again in completion percentage, 65.5 percent to 63.4 percent
But, to get down to the most important passing stat, the one that correlates most with winning, Manning has averaged 7.7 yards per throw to Brady’s 7.5, while Brady has a lower interception percentage – 2 percent of his passes have been picked off to Manning’s 2.6 percent.
To borrow a phrase from another sport, I’d have to say that all these numbers add up to jump ball; I can see no clear edge for either man. Where Brady has the advantage, at least in the eyes of his fans, is in the postseason. Tom has started 25 playoff games, and his record is 18-7. Peyton has started 21 games and is 10-11.
At first glance, that pretty much settles the issue. But let’s look a little closer: Manning’s postseason passer rating is 88.6 to Brady’s 87.2, and he has a solid advantage in yards per throw, 7.41 to 6.74. This is where it gets tricky; if you simply want to conclude that Brady is the better quarterback because he’s won more playoff games and is 3-2 in Super Bowls --while Manning is 1-1 -- then that settles the issue for you.
The problem is that we don’t know how much credit for those wins should go to the quarterback. And here’s where we get subjective. My own feeling is that if Manning had better postseason numbers – and it looks to me like he does – and his teams still lost more games, then it’s not much of a stretch to say that if they had switched teams, Manning would be recognized as the superior quarterback. In other words, start from the beginning of their careers, put Manning on New England and Brady on Indianapolis. Then, I think, there’s no question that Peyton is better.
Brady’s Patriots have won 10 of 14 games against Manning’s Colts and Broncos, but in most of those earlier matchups – such as the 2003 AFC championship game, won by the Patriots 24-14 at New England, and the 2004 divisional playoff won by the Pats 20-3, also at New England -- the Patriots won not because Brady was better than Manning but because they had a much superior defense. In nine of their 14 playoff games, the Pats had home field advantage, usually worth about three points in an NFL game and that’s what they had this year, in Week 12, when at Foxborough Manning got the Broncos up 24-0 only to see Brady lead a spectacular rally to put the Patriots ahead, after which Manning threw a game-tying TD pass forcing overtime. Then, former Patriot Wes Welker, of all people, muffed a punt in front of his former hometown crowd. New England recovered, ran three plays, and kicked the winning field goal from the Broncos’ 14-yard line.
New England won’t have home field advantage Sunday afternoon; in fact, Denver probably has the biggest home field edge of any team in the NFL due to the benefits of high-altitude training. Probably no team in the league is as comfortable playing at home as the Broncos, who won seven of eight home games this year, losing only to the San Diego Chargers 27-20. Denver led the NFL in point differential, outscoring their opponents by 207 points. At home, though, they were even more potent, outscoring eight teams by a whopping 136 points. The Patriots were just 4-4 away from home.
The Broncos have other advantages. This time it’s Manning who has the better pass protection: He was dropped just 18 times in 667 throws while Brady was dumped 40 times in 668 tries. And this time Peyton has the better receivers – Brady will be without his ace tight end, Rob Gronkowski, who is injured. This season the Broncos have their own great young tight end. Julius Thomas didn’t play at Foxborough in the Week 12 loss, but he’ll be available on Sunday, and he’s become Manning’s favorite target, with 65 catches and 12 TDs.
A victory Sunday doesn’t really put a cap on Denver’s season. If Manning wants to put in a bid for the unofficial title of All Time Greatest Quarterback – or at least Greatest Quarterback of the 21st Century – he’ll still have to win Sunday and then win the big one in two weeks in New Jersey against either the San Francisco Forty-Niners or Seattle Seahawks, both teams better than the Patriots.
But you can expect this: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will play as if they believe this is the game we will remember them by.