Pages Navigation Menu

Manning vs Brady, The Ultimate Comparison Part I: The Defenses

Manning vs Brady, The Ultimate Comparison Part I: The Defenses

by Stephen Caronia

After each leading their respective teams to victory this past weekend, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are stepping into the ring to square off in the AFC Championship Game in Denver on Sunday afternoon.  This will be the 15th meeting of these two quarterbacks, with Tom Brady’s Patriots sporting a 10-4 record against Peyton Manning led squads throughout their illustrious careers.  They’ve met in the playoffs 3 times, with Brady’s Patriots leading 2-1.

Manning and Brady have been linked to one another throughout their careers and will forever be linked in NFL folklore.  Entering the league 3 years apart, they’ve been leading their teams to the top of the AFC standings year in and year out.    They’ve played most of their carer side-by-side and have exceptionally remarkable resumes.  Both are in the discussion for the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.

So who’s better?

We’ve all debated this at some point.  Many people have written about it.  I keep hearing and seeing the same crap over and over again, to be honest.  We compare their numbers.  Their MVPs.  Their win-loss record.  At the end of the day, there are a handful of tenets that people espouse with certainty:

Manning has better numbers, but it was because of his superior weapons.

Brady is much better in the clutch, Manning has a tendency of choking.

Wins are all that matter, and Brady has the most wins.

Manning controls the game more than any QB of this generation and maybe more than in any generation.

Well, we know for sure who has better hair.

Valid points all.  But there’s got to be more to it.

Believe it or not, the wins argument is the weakest to me.  The idea of attributing wins to quarterbacks is a creation of fans and the media.  Teams win football games, and this is true in football more than any other major sport.  In the NBA, a superstar and 11 scrubs can make it to the finals.  In baseball, a dominant pitcher can essentially win a game by himself.   Try playing at an elite level at the quarterback position with a porous offensive line, no running back, and receivers who can’t catch.  Try winning games with a defense who can’t make any plays.  I don’t care how good you are, it is not happening. Ask Adrian Peterson.  Ask Dan Marino.

This is not meant to say throw wins in the garbage.  QBs obviously impact the outcome of the game more than any other player on the field (unless, maybe, you’re Lawrence Taylor).  But what I’m saying is this: there are thousands of events in a single football game that blend together to determine the outcome.  Sometimes one event that has NOTHING to do with the quarterback can swing a game.  How can we compare two players based solely on wins when so many other factors come into play?  Even for pitchers, where wins and losses are actually an “official” stat and the game is way more individualized, more educated fans know that W-L record is a poor way to evaluate a pitcher.

So why the hell would we do it in football?

Having said all that, I’ve set out on a mission to determine the truth about Peyton Manning vs Tom Brady.  I’m weighing the things that matter and asking a lot of questions.  How good have each QBs defenses been? What about the o-lines? Running games? Coaches? Opponents in the playoffs? What’s the truth about individual playoff performances?  If a handful of balls bounce the other way, how would that effect the outcomes of the game?

One element that I’m leaving out of this entire argument: receivers.  For the most part, Tom Brady has had to do more with less at receiver.  Sometimes, he has not, especially as the Patriots have evolved their offense to rely more on Brady than early in his career.  But the relationship between QB and WR is too symbiotic for me to know for sure who is affecting who more.  Manning probably wins in this department, and it is a typical crutch for Brady sympathizers.  But how do we know how good Marvin Harrison would have been without Manning? What about Reggie Wayne? Randy Moss joined the Patriots and set the record for TDs in a season.  Brady was good enough to make him better, but the reverse was true as well. It’s impossible to know the precise truth.

So I’m going to spend more time talking about the things that are less reliant on the QBs themselves.  I’ll also look at individual playoff game performances and point out a few things that people forget about Manning and Brady.  For the most part, I’m going to look at how they’ve performed since both entered the league. I’m excluding the number from the 2 years each didn’t play because of injury.

Who would you have rather gone with to prom?

I want to know once and for all: who is better?


As I mentioned before, lots of things happen in a football game that have nothing to do with the quarterback but have a tremendous impact on the outcome of the game.  There’s no better example of this than a team’s defense.  So, if we want to talk about who won more games, we need to talk about defenses.

Manning people love to talk about how Brady always had superior defenses helping him along.  He had evil genius Bill Belichick running his teams and masterfully filming the other team’s practices coming up with stellar game plans.  Manning’s defenses didn’t quite stack up.  Is this true for their entire careers?  Who really has had the support of a better defense in the larger sample size?

Let’s look at a few defensive stats and figure this out. First, let’s look at points allowed.

2001 17 30.4 6 31
2002 21.6 19.6 17 7
2003 14.9 21 1 20
2004 16.2 21.9 3 19
2005 21.1 15.4 17 2
2006 14.8 22.5 2 23
2007 17.1 16.4 4 1
2008 18.6 7
2009 17.8 19.2 5 8
2010 19.6 24.2 8 23
2011 21.4 15
2012 20.7 18.1 9 4
2013 21.1 24.9 10 22

As you can see from this table, Brady has had to do a little less work in this career to put up enough points to win.  The Patriots have never finished lower than 17th in points allowed.  They’ve had 9 top ten finishes and 5 were in the top 5.  Even in recent years, where the defense was not perceived as being as stout as in the early 2000′s, the Pat’s numbers look pretty solid. Manning’s teams, on the other hand, haven’t been abysmal, but they aren’t the Patriots.  They’ve got 6 top ten finishes and have finished as low as dead last.  If you count back to Manning’s rookie year, he’s played for 5 teams who didn’t crack the top 20. Overall, Brady’s teams have averaged 8th best in the NFL in points against.  Manning’s teams have averaged 15th.

So what, you say?  There are better ways to measure a team’s defense than mere points against.  What about turnovers?  Some teams let up a few more points and get more takeaways.  This is true.  Let’s take a look:

2001 28 25
2002 29 27
2003 41 30
2004 36 36
2005 18 29
2006 32 25
2007 31 37
2008 26
2009 28 26
2010 38 21
2011 34
2012 41 24
2013 29 26

Judging from these numbers, you can see that the Colts/Broncos aren’t too shabby in this department, but again the Patriots are ahead.  They force more turnovers in 8 of the 11 years since 2001 and average 5 more each year.  That’s a lot of short fields.

Let’s get a little more intense and look at DVOA, Football Outsiders’ metric for measuring efficiency.

2001 13 29
2002 14 16
2003 2 13
2004 7 19
2005 27 5
2006 7 25
2007 11 2
2008 11
2009 14 16
2010 21 24
2011 30
2012 15 5
2013 21 15

Very interesting results.  The picture looks a little muddier now.  In fact, Manning’s teams actually have a slightly better average than Brady’s, 15 to 15.16.  DVOA takes the opponents into account and adjusts the number accordingly.  I guess it’s meaningful that the Pat’s played a lot of games against some rough Jets, Bills, and Dolphins teams during this era.  Taking opponents into account, it’s a dead heat.

I’m somewhat a believer in advanced metrics, but I don’t like to throw out traditional statistics.  DVOA is attempting, in a nutshell, to count every single play that occurs throughout a season.  It weighs and balances each play according to importance and opponent.  It speaks to the falsehoods that Manning was always carrying a crappy defense and that Brady was always supported by a great one.


It’s still no accident that the Patriots let up way less points and force way more turnovers.  This, I attribute to the brilliance of Bill Belichick.  His teams are rarely in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They (often) make plays when needed.  They bend but don’t break.   Belichick makes outstanding mid-game adjustments, better than any coach in football and as good as anyone all-time.  This all adds up to more turnovers and less points.  We can see this in many playoff games where the Patriots make fantastic offenses look ordinary (the only bigger surprise than the Greatest Show On Turf scoring 17 in the Super Bowl against the Pats was…the Pats juggernaut offense scoring 14 against the Giants).  Brady has played his entire career alongside an in-game defensive master (you can ask Manning himself if this is true).  The closest Manning has come to that was 7 years with Tony Dungy, who, as good as he was, was no Bill Belichick.

Indirectly, this may point to why Brady didn’t have the same great weapons for the first few years in his career.  The Patriots identity was a blue-collar, workhorse team.  It wasn’t for a few years that they built an offense around Brady that was truly formidable.  Which, by proxy, means that they didn’t ask a ton from Brady.  He was a happy accident.  He just showed up and was awesome.  The Colts planned to make Manning their focal point from day one.

All in all, Tom Brady has gotten more help from his defenses over the years than Peyton Manning.  Less points, more short fields, better game planning.   In the debate on who’s a better QB, score this one for Manning, even if its by a slimmer margin than many people thought.

Tomorrow, come back and take a look at Part II: The Offensive Lines and Running Games as we forge ahead and learn the truth about Manning vs Brady.

Steve Caronia is a New York City based physical therapist. He is trying to remain objective despite his flagrant, demented hatred of the New England Patriots.