Whereas it has been easy to criticize Peyton Manning in the past for his playoff failures, his performance in Sunday’s AFC championship will, at least for the time being, silence those who have long questioned his stomach for the big moment. Unlike previous playoff matchups against Belichick-designed gameplans, Manning picked apart the New England secondary, including a handful of passes that were nothing short of remarkable. The two-point floater to Marvin Harrison, the seam route to Dallas Clark, the sideline throw to Bryan Fletcher — Manning was at his best on Sunday.
However, what remains even more impressive is the Colts improbable run to the Super Bowl, one that has already become historic. Manning has single-handedly led his club to the brink of a championship and quite frankly, he hasn’t received much help along the way, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Statistically, the Colts rush defense ranks dead last in the NFL, allowing a horrifying 173 yards per game, nearly 30 more than the next worst unit in the league. When placed in a historical context, however, Indianapolis’ road to Miami has been downright shocking. In fact, if Manning can engineer just one more victory on February 4th, the Colts will go down as the worst Super Bowl champion defense of all-time.
In what has continually been described as a copycat league, the Indianapolis’ blueprint for success has been quite different than what has traditionally worked. Since 1972, 28 of the 34 Super Bowl winners have ranked in the top-10 in the NFL during the regular season in rushing defense — with 21 of those finishing in the top-5. In terms of rush yardage allowed per game, only the 1975 Steelers and the 1976 Oakland Raiders have even topped 130, good enough for 8th and 10th in the league respectively. As offenses have gradually relied more and more on the passing game, rushing averages have plummeted, with each of the last four Super Bowl champions holding their opponents to under 100 yards per game. And yet still, with a victory over the Bears, the Colts will go down as the worst of them all.
Further, Indianapolis ranks No. 21 in the league in total defense (332.2 yards per game), with only four championship squads giving up more yards per contest and just two, the 1987 Redskins and the 2001 Patriots, finishing worse relative to the competition. However, the latter is remembered as a stout unit by employing a bend-but-not break strategy that led to a sixth place ranking in scoring defense. In contrast, the Colts finished 23rd in that statistical category, allowing a whopping 22.5 points per game. Only one other Super Bowl winner, the 1983 Raiders, has even broken the 20-point threshold (21.1), while all but two champions since 1972 rank in the top-10 in the league.
What does it all mean? Well, for one, if any other quarterback were orchestrating the 2006 Colts, they would in all likelihood be watching the Super Bowl instead of playing in it. And that includes Tom Brady. In fact, when comparing Manning and Brady’s playoff numbers, the disparity is not as sizeable as one might imagine. In 14 career playoff games, the Pats quarterback has averaged 229.8 yards passing with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Manning, in just 12 contests, has thrown for an average of 270.7 yards with 17 touchdowns and 14 picks. For a guy who is frequently referred to as the “worst playoff quarterback of all-time,” his numbers are fairly solid. And this coming from a guy who has had to face Bill Belichick three times (accounting for six of his interceptions), while Brady has had the luxury of picking apart a porous Colts unit.
In addition, Manning can ill afford to manage the game and rely on his defense to keep it close. He is under enormous pressure to put up huge numbers week in and week out, for if he fails his team will — more often than not — be headed home. Given just an average defense, Manning would be headed to the Super Bowl.
Oh wait, that’s exactly what he has received and to no surprise, that’s exactly where the Colts are headed. In three postseason games, Indianapolis’ defense has allowed an average of only 73.3 yards rushing and 16 points per contest. With a similar effort in Miami, the Colts will be hoisting the Lombardi trophy by day’s end. If Manning and Brady were able to switch places, it would be interesting to see which quarterback would own three Super Bowl trophies.
What it ultimately boils down to is that it takes more than one player — as good as he may be — to win a championship. To say that Manning is a choke is downright preposterous. While he has yet to approach Brady’s playoff accolades, a Super Bowl victory in less than two weeks will certainly be a step in the right direction, while forever vindicating himself for past playoff disappointments. In fact, his play this season may go down as one of the greatest efforts in the history of the league — especially when considering the team that has been constructed around him.
Bryan Pepper is a Sun Staff Writer. Raising the Apple will appear every other Wednesday this semester.