Manning, Brady and the Broncos pass defense

Kevin Cole digs deeper into the stats behind the Manning-Brady rivalry, and the defenses they've played with over the years.

| 9 months ago
(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

Manning, Brady and the Broncos pass defense

The Conference Championship matchups this Sunday feature a game between two of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. These familiar foes face off for the 17th time, fifth time in the playoffs.

The narrative surrounding the Manning-Brady rivalry is that Manning has been the better regular season quarterback — perhaps the best ever — but Brady has been the better performer when it mattered most, in the playoffs. It is surprising that a quarterback as great as Manning would only only have one Super Bowl ring, far fewer than Brady’s four. But is it all his fault?

Ed Feng of The Power Rank has shown that the differential between passing efficiency on offense and defense is what truly matter for winning Super Bowls, but looking just at Manning and Brady only focuses on one side of the equation. Let’s dig deeper into Manning and Brady’s passing efficiency through the years, but also look to see how their pass defenses have performed.


Above I charted Manning and Brady’s pass efficiency over the years in the regular season and the playoffs. I chose to use adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) to measure pass efficiency because it’s probably the best descriptive stat, incorporating touchdowns, interceptions and yards lost on sacks.

You can see that Manning was consistently the better regular season quarterback during the 13 years they both played, other than 2007, 2010, and 2015. In the playoffs, both quarterbacks had more volatile performance (as you’d expect on smaller samples), but it still looks as though Manning was generally a more efficient quarterback in the playoffs, with Brady more consistently good of late.

But we don’t want to focus solely on offensive pass efficiency to help explain a team’s success at winning or losing, you also have to look at the defensive side of the ball.


Above we have the same chart used to visualize Manning and Brady’s performance, but now looking at the defenses they played with through the years. Again, the regular season performance is much more consistent through the years, and it doesn’t look as though either quarterback benefited from better defensive play relative to the other (remember, lower is better for defense). While volatile, you can clearly see that Manning’s defenses were consistently worse during the playoffs. Three of Brady’s four Super Bowl rings came pre-2005, where the Patriots defense was consistently holding opposing passer to sub-5 ANY/A.

For a more complete look at the data, here are the aggregate pass efficiency stats for the regular season and playoffs.

Regular Season Playoffs Diff
Manning (ANY/A) 7.32 6.44 -0.88
Brady 6.97 6.14 -0.83
Manning DEF 5.19 6.00 -0.81
Brady DEF 5.28 5.41 -0.13

You’ll notice that Manning’s efficiency worsened during the playoffs, but not much more than Brady’s. Plus, you’d expect that quarterbacks would generally have tougher matchups in the playoffs. The pass defenses Manning played with all were worse during the playoffs, but you can see that hasn’t been the case for Brady.

Despite our desire to heap excessive praise on winning quarterbacks and blame on losers, you can see that Manning has actually been a more efficient quarterback than Brady during the regular season and the playoffs. The numbers show that Manning’s pass defenses must share in the blame for his disappointing post-season results. Brady, on the other hand, needs to share much of his success with his pass defenses that stepped up against stronger competition.

What Does It Mean For This Sunday?

Manning’s 2015 ANY/A of 4.52 is lower than any year since his rookie season, and Brady’s 7.49 ANY/A is the fourth highest of his career. So do the Broncos have a chance?

There are a few reasons the Broncos and Manning could be victorious on Sunday. Manning’s performance could improve from such a low level. It’s difficult to assess how much a foot injury was bothering him earlier this year, but it couldn’t have helped.

More importantly, Manning has the support of one of the league’s best pass defenses, as only the Carolina Panthers’ help opposing passer to a lower ANY/A this year. The consensus opinion is that the Broncos don’t stand a chance, but the Vegas lines have the Broncos as only three-point home underdogs — not a drastic mismatch. If the Broncos defense can continue their strong regular season performance through the playoffs, the Broncos could make it to the Super Bowl.

Kevin Cole is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Cole_Kev

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