For someone who may be the greatest quarterback in NFL history, the picture isn't quite befitting. You probably imagined something like Peyton hanging his head in the snowy Foxboro winter, or slumped over following his pick-six against the Saints in the Super Bowl. Or perhaps just a general expression of chagrin, like the hilariously petulant "Manning Face."
Yes, Manning does have a losing record in the playoffs for his career (though only eight have had more wins, but who has time to split hairs?). The next time Manning loses a playoff game will give him the record for most career playoff losses, and fairly or not, that will always be a part of his legacy.
Most rational fans realize that Peyton has only thrown up a handful of postseason clunkers, and that such a small sample size should not significantly affect his standing as an all-time great. They might defend by saying, "Yeah, Peyton's been a bit worse in the playoffs, but his regular-season numbers are so great that it doesn't matter."
Actually, even that statement would be false. What people fail to realize is that Peyton has not been any worse in the postseason. In fact, one could make a fairly convincing argument that he's been one of the two or three best playoff quarterbacks of this generation.
To illustrate this point, let's take off our "Embrace Debate" hats and let the numbers tell the story.
Postseason Peyton vs. Regular Season Peyton
First, let's consider Manning's EPA and WPA on a per game basis in both the regular season and postseason. Excluding this season, Peyton has played 207 regular season games, compared to 20 playoff games. When you consider he had some early-career clunkers in January, you would probably expect his EPA/G to be lower because of the small sample size.
In fact, that does turn out to be the case, with Manning's minus-8.0 disaster against the Jets in 2002 weighing down the overall total. However, the difference isn't as big as it looks; for context, the rough equivalent this year would be the difference in EPA between seventh-ranked Andrew Luck and 10th-ranked Joe Flacco.
Moreover, the 41-0 loss to the Jets is such a massive outlier that it almost warrants exclusion. That's not to say the game didn't happen and that Manning did not play extremely poorly, but it's the only game that sits more than two standard deviations away from his average. It represented the absolute furthest outlier, even more so than his best games. Without it, his EPA/G rises to about 7.7, still below his regular-season standard, but not too far off. That's about the difference this year between third-ranked Phillip Rivers and fifth-ranked Matthew Stafford.
But even including the Jets loss, Manning's postseason WPA is almost identical to his regular-season WPA. This would seemingly debunk the notion that he is somehow not clutch in the playoffs. If Manning truly did choke all the time, then we would not expect his WPA to remain constant despite less raw statistical production, as reflected by his lower EPA.
If you're still not convinced, let's dig deeper into Manning's postseason crunch-time stats. Since 1999, eight quarterbacks have thrown more than 100 passes in the second-half of one-possession playoff games. Per Pro-Football-Reference, here they are:
Brees stands out as the clear star in this, but Peyton's numbers are better are in line with everyone else on that list. The sample size of throws is quite small given the parameters, but it repudiates the notion that Peyton chokes under postseason pressure. The skeptics might point out Manning's isolated stinkers as a counter, but even in postseason losses, his numbers are again better than just about every quarterback with a reasonable sample size besides Brees. In particular, Manning has been a tick better than his greatest nemesis.
Peyton vs. Peers
At this point, it is axiomatic to say that Manning has the stats, and Brady has the rings. Yes, Brady does trump Manning in the latter department, but it's not as if Peyton has has performed significantly worse than Tom Terrific in the playoffs. Just take a simple side-by-side glance at their regular season and postseason WPA and EPA:
Manning has actually been a little better in the playoffs, even in the WPA department. Brady may have two more Super Bowl-winning drives, but in the larger scope, he hasn't performed better. This confirms Bill Barnwell's salient "Bizzaro John Elway" theory: If you look at Brady's postseason results in reverse, they essentially mirror Elway's early struggles and final breakthrough. But simply because of the timing of Brady's successes, he's developed a reputation as the most "clutch" quarterback of his generation.
This is not intended to tear down Brady, but rather to correct Manning's standing. It's not just against Brady that he compares favorably. If we look at the quarterbacks of this era with the highest WPA, there are six names that jump out: Peyton, Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, Rodgers and Eli. Matt Ryan and Tony Romo are also in the neighborhood, but neither have played enough playoff games to meaningfully evaluate the difference.
Let's take a look at their respective performances in the postseason. All the aforementioned QBs have played in at least eight postseason games since 1999, giving us enough data points to at least reasonably compare their playoff and regular-season performances. Moreover, all have won at least one Super Bowl, so we would expect them to put up excellent numbers.
And for the sake of clarity, here are the numbers in chart format:
Again, the narrative from the previous section holds up, as Peyton has performed better than all his peers besides Brees. Rodgers does have a significantly higher EPA, albeit in fewer games and in an era when passing numbers are significantly more inflated. When Manning made his first playoff start in 1999, the famed "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams were the only team with a passing EPA over 100. Compare that to Rodgers' playoff season debut in 2009, when nine teams exceeded the century mark.
Much like LeBron James and Michael Jordan in the NBA, Manning was subject to the linear progression of postseason success, experiencing failures against superior teams before finally breaking through. When an athlete with special gifts fails to translate their talent into an immediate tangible payoff, fans and media have a tendency to make foolish assumptions about abstractions like "makeup" and "clutch factor" as an explanation for their failures.
In reality, it's just really freaking hard to win a championship. As a Pats fan, I've seen the 2013 Denver Broncos movie before, and it hasn't ended well. The Broncos are certainly capable of winning the Super Bowl with a historically great passing game and little else, but they'll need plenty of breaks in the randomness that defines single-elimination postseason play. Whether or not they catch those breaks will shape the mainstream judgment of Peyton Manning, but it really shouldn't.