NFL Conference Championship Predictions

Part of me is happy the AFC game is on first Sunday, but I also feel like…wait, wasn’t this how I started the preview from two years ago? If you were hoping for an update to that one, then you’ll be disappointed. I did not write nearly as much today, though don’t worry. We’ll tackle some of this stuff very soon where anyone can read it.

New England at Denver

Naturally, I already wrote a 5,000-word preview for this game at FO, so please check that out. Read Aaron’s NFC preview here.

As for my personal thoughts on the game, I agree with the Patriots being a slight road favorite, but I really do not buy into the thought that they’re just going to walk all over the Broncos in Denver.

“Given the injuries both teams have had, the Patriots have to feel good about a rematch with Denver — but not so much if that rematch takes place in Mile High, their house of horrors.” – My words after Denver’s Week 12 overtime win. If we know anything about the NFL playoffs, it’s that home field and a top defense matter. That does not mean you win just by showing up, but I have a hard time seeing New England breeze by a Denver team that has three comeback wins from 14 points down this year and went 11-3 in close games. Even down 17-0 in Indianapolis, the Broncos made that 24-24 in the fourth quarter. The defense rarely let down outside of playing Pittsburgh, and that offense is built much differently from this New England attack.

I know it won’t happen, but if I was Wade Phillips, I would shrink the field and dare the Patriots to run the ball and throw deep passes. Focus the attention on Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. If they beat you with Steven Jackson, James White, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola, then hats off to them, but I don’t think they can. Where defenses have problems is with the way the Patriots attack your weaknesses with their best players, getting them in favorable matchups with linebackers and safeties. That’s why I would shadow Edelman with Chris Harris, assuming he’s healthy enough for this matchup. I would use Aqib Talib at times on Gronkowski just to get a better athlete on him. I’d make the ball go elsewhere, and I don’t think the Patriots can do their ultra-pass happy attack on the road as well as they do it at home. I hate Denver’s “IN-COM-PLETE!” chant, but the crowd noise is a factor and the altitude tends to become a factor later in the game. Denver also could use a really huge (legal) hit early in the game on someone like Edelman just to set a tone for the day. Tackling well is going to be key.

We know Peyton Manning is 5-11 in the games against Brady, but nothing would be more satisfying than to retire with a 3-2 playoff record given we’ve heard for the last 12 years how only the playoffs matter. The problem is Manning had to play his ass off in those five wins against Bill Belichick’s defense. He threw for 321, 326, 349, 327 and 400 yards in those games with his teams scoring 40, 27, 38, 35 and 26 points. If you’ve watched Manning since December 2014, he just does not seem capable of having those games anymore. This offense also isn’t good enough to get those types of performances from him anymore, which is why they have to scrap with the running game, take what the defense gives them and protect the ball. This game could only get out of hand with a multi-turnover day.

I compared this to a role reversal of the 2003 AFC Championship game where it’s now Manning leaning on his great defense while Brady leads the prolific passing game. We could see that, or it could be like the 2004 AFC Championship Game, the only time in nine tries that Tom Brady had a great game in this round. That year the Steelers beat New England in the regular season, but Deion Branch and Corey Dillon were out that day. In the rematch in Pittsburgh, those two players were big and Ben Roethlisberger (rookie year) made some costly mistakes early with interceptions. New England won 41-27. Maybe the return of Edelman and some other players out from the Week 12 matchup leads to a similar turnaround, but these teams are both as healthy as they have been in a while.

The Bill Belichick vs. Gary Kubiak matchup just does not sit well with me, and while I expect the Denver offense to be sharper than last week’s sloppy seven-drop effort, I’m not sure it can score enough points without a New England turnover fest. The Patriots have not had more than two turnovers in any game this year while the Broncos have oddly only forced seven takeaways at home (21 on the road). But if the top-ranked pressure defense can get after Brady enough, this one should be close and winnable for Denver like most games this season.

Carolina at Arizona

As nice as a third meeting between Arizona and Seattle could have been, this is the right NFC Championship Game for this season. These teams last met in the 2014 NFC Wild Card, but you can burn that tape since it’s infected with Ryan Lindley disease. These teams are much better than they were that evening.

I was nervous about Arizona more than any other team last week, and sure enough they had a very shaky game against Green Bay, but deserve credit for pulling it out behind a monster effort from Larry Fitzgerald. I hate to say a guy raises his game in the playoffs since it infers he’s not giving full effort the rest of the year, but Fitzgerald’s postseason resume has been incredible. He’ll need to be big again here, but this game really comes down to how well Carson Palmer is protected and his decision making. Palmer and Cam Newton are two of the most blitzed quarterbacks in the league in 2015, but Palmer actually had better stats under pressure and was pressured a little more often than Newton. The problem is he does not have a track record of doing well under pressure like a Ben Roethlisberger does. You saw him throw some really questionable passes last week against Green Bay, and he should have had multiple red-zone interceptions in the fourth quarter alone. His first go-ahead touchdown was a lucky deflection. If you saw the way Carolina’s front seven — and it sucks that Jared Allen got hurt, but I don’t view him as a big-time player anymore — lived in Russell Wilson’s face early last week and forced some big interceptions, I definitely fear for what Palmer might do this week. David Johnson has also been shut down against Seattle and Green Bay, and the Carolina front seven is arguably better than both. Throw in a field that may be crappy and the fact that it’s Palmer’s first road playoff start (and the biggest game of his career), and you could have a struggling passing game.

Fortunately, Carolina has a problem in the secondary after some late-season injuries, and has struggled to keep some big leads this year. As Indy, Green Bay, Giants and Seattle showed, if you have a good quarterback and some receiving talent, you can rally against this defense. The Cardinals have that with the three wide receivers to attack this secondary. Fitzgerald spends a lot of time in the slot, which means he won’t see much of Josh Norman. That’s a great matchup for Arizona to exploit this week, but Palmer must be sharper and they have to get more out of the running game for sure. But even if Carolina goes up big again, don’t count out this offense. It can score in bunches quickly.

On the other side of the ball, this is a matchup where Arizona will really miss versatile safety Tyrann Mathieu. He’s one of the few guys athletic enough to keep up with Newton as a blitzer, and we know Arizona blitzes an NFL-high 45.1% of the time this year (source: ESPN Stats & Info). The Cardinals may want to dial it back this week, though definitely get an athlete like Deone Bucannon after Newton. This is not a deep receiving corps. Patrick Peterson should be able to shut down his assignment, whether it’s Ted Ginn, who may be compromised by a Week 16 injury, or the likes of Jerricho Cotchery and Devin Funchess. Greg Olsen could be a problem, though Arizona ranked 7th against tight ends.

Carolina is the most run-based offense left, and that includes Newton’s rushing contributions. Seattle kept him under wraps pretty good last week, and I would expect the same from Arizona. The problem lately has been standard runs as Christine Michael and Eddie Lacy (should have had more yards) played well the last two weeks against Arizona. You know the Panthers will feed Jonathan Stewart the ball and he just broke a season-long 59-yard run last week against Seattle. I think the weather and field will favor the more physical team, and by no means is Arizona soft, but I think Carolina may just come out more physical after getting pissed about last week’s 24-0 second half from Seattle. This team needs to finish a game strong for a change. We know Arizona can as Bruce Arians is 31-1 in games where he has to protect a one-score lead in the fourth quarter.

Newton can bait a defense with the read-option and play-action, so if Arizona blitzes, they better not hesitate at the mesh point or you might see some receivers running wide open down the field. But I really would not blitz much in this one, making Newton hold the ball and think about it as this secondary should hold up against these receivers. The Panthers are not a high-efficiency passing offense. Newton is looking for big plays and has generally avoided the turnovers this year.

I would pick Arizona on a neutral field, but that’s not how this works.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Another 3-1 week, though I actually nailed the PIT-DEN score.

  • Patriots over Broncos, 23-17
  • Panthers over Cardinals, 27-21

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6
  • Week 2: 6-10
  • Week 3: 14-2
  • Week 4: 11-4
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 8-6
  • Week 7: 10-4
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 4-10
  • Week 11: 9-5
  • Week 12: 8-8
  • Week 13: 11-5
  • Week 14: 10-6
  • Week 15: 11-5
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 8-8
  • Wild Card: 3-1
  • Divisional round: 3-1
  • Season: 162-102 (.614)

NFL Conference Championship Predictions: “Manning Is Better than Brady, But So What?” Edition

Part of me is happy the AFC game is on first Sunday, but I also feel like I’m going to miss some of the NFC game afterwards for reasons still in my control, but I just can’t help myself. The endless Peyton Manning-Tom Brady debate grabbed me again on Saturday and I really didn’t even plan to write much about it this weekend.

There’s a good chance the best quarterback on Sunday won’t win, but the better quarterback should at least prevail in one of the games. I actually think it’s more important in the NFC game where two similar teams built around the model of physical defense and running game will meet for the third time. I don’t think it will be a blowout like San Francisco’s last two trips there. Jim Harbaugh won in Seattle in 2011, but the offense’s struggles to get the play called in on time does worry me with the 12th man’s noise.

Still, I think the game is decided by which quarterback makes more plays and fewer mistakes. Colin Kaepernick has been playing better and has more weapons, but Russell Wilson has home-field and the better overall defense. While the Seattle offense (passing game) does concern me, I have to side with the home team here to pull out a close one thanks to that defense.

Final prediction: 49ers 17, Seahawks 20

See, I barely gave the game any attention with a week to prepare, so who knows what Sunday will bring. If you want to read a detailed preview of the NFC Championship, read Aaron Schatz’s preview, which I did contribute to for one part.

Manning vs. Brady: Just the Facts

So after Tom Curran accidentally sent the latest Patriot brigade my way on Twitter on Saturday, I did not bother trying to fight them off one-by-one. I instead stood back and lobbed my own Twitter grenade with this line:

Tom Brady is the most overrated playoff QB in NFL history. Period.

Now some wanted me to prove that statement, which I think I can eloquently do without even making a 100% effort. Simply put, for the people who fawn over Brady as the best playoff quarterback ever or one of the top two or even just “wayyyyy better” than Peyton Manning, what I’m about to go through should show just how silly that notion is.

In fact, I do think Manning is a better playoff quarterback than Brady. Factors out of his control just tend to work against his teams more than Brady’s, but more on that later.

Let’s begin with some help from a fictional (but realistic) character that I’m going to call BRADYGUY.

BRADYGUY: Scott, this is asinine. EVERYONE knows Tom Brady raises his game this time of year and Manning falls off from his high regular-season perch.

Oh yeah? Then explain this comparison of performance in the regular season against playoff teams (teams who made the playoffs that season) compared to actual postseason performance:

pmtbdapr

Note: I haven’t fully explained DAPR yet, but it’s a simple calculation of passing stats that adjusts for opposing defense. The higher the DAPR the better.

We could start with the obvious that Manning’s playoff stats are more than respectable, if not outright better than Brady’s. But there’s something more interesting than that here.

Somehow Manning remains within one tenth of his winning percentage, completion percentage, YPA and passer rating against playoff teams from the reg. season to the postseason. One tenth. His DAPR gets even better as he’s played tough defenses in January and February. Meanwhile Brady is the one who suffers the bigger declines in his performance, including half a yard per pass attempt.

Overall, Brady’s 6.74 YPA in the playoffs ranks 39th all time (min. 150 attempts). One of the best statistical indicators of success, YPA does not suddenly become irrelevant in the playoffs.

Brady’s DAPR also dips well below normal levels. Now in the bottom half of the table where games from non-playoff seasons are excluded (as are the games Manning rests in Weeks 16-17 and usually watches his team lose), Manning does experience decline. That’s natural when you’re not playing the 4-12 Raiders or Bills in January.

Still, Brady’s decline is steeper with a 7-point drop in passer rating and going down even more in the other categories compared to the top half. So no, there’s zero evidence Brady elevates his game in the playoffs, and Manning certainly does not decline more.

BRADYGUY: Come on, Scott. Brady’s been to seven AFC Championships and five Super Bowls! He’s playing better competition in the playoffs than Mr. Eight Times One-and-Done Manning.

Are you sure? I can’t see Manning losing to Eli’s 9-7/10-6 squads, nor do I believe playing the Jaguars at home (2005 and 2007) was harder than starting with the 2005 Steelers and 2007 Chargers. Hell, what would have happened last year if Manning got a slumping Houston team and Brady had to start with the champion Ravens that often make him struggle? But we have objective measures for team quality like DVOA to look at.

For quarterbacks with at least 5 playoff starts since 1989, here are the averages for their playoff opponents in Team DVOA, Defensive DVOA and Pass Defense DVOA (average season ranks also included as well as rank [Rk] on the list):

posos

There are actually 41 quarterbacks compared here, but I’m showing 30 so it’s easier to read (click to enlarge).

Manning’s played teams with an average DVOA of 20.1% (8th), -6.6% Defense DVOA (20th) and -6.5% Pass Defense DVOA (14th). Brady’s ranks are 26th, 31st and 22nd, respectively.

So yes, Manning has played better overall teams, better defenses and better pass defenses. He’s also played two-thirds (14/21) of his playoff games on a home/neutral field compared to 80% (20/25) for Brady, which does matter this time of year.

BRADYGUY: Fine, Scott. Teams who make the playoffs are usually pretty good. But you can’t overlook the biggest part: Tom Brady is 18-7, Peyton Manning is 10-11. THAT’S HUGE. How can you justify Manning only being 10-11?

What I can do is ask the proper question. Why is Manning 10-11 and Brady 18-7 when their level of play is not that different in the playoffs?

BRADYGUY: Heh, but IT IS MUCH DIFFERENT. Brady puts up more points to help his team win.

Brady averages 2.13 points per drive in the playoffs; Manning averages 2.10 points per drive.

This meager difference comes despite Brady starting his average drive nearly four yards closer to the end zone than Manning. It also comes despite other factors out of the QB’s control like missed FGs (7 for Manning, 6 for Brady) or fumbles on completions (6 for Manning, 3 for Brady). It also includes two one-play touchdown drives from last week where LeGarrette Blount just took the handoff from Brady for a touchdown.

Speaking of missed field goals, Manning is the only QB in NFL history to twice watch his last possession in a playoff game end with a missed FG (2000 Dolphins in OT, 2005 Steelers at end of regulation down 21-18). That was Mike Vanderjagt and those kicks were as wide right as they come.

BRADYGUY: Brady got his kickers closer.

No, Adam Vinatieri had to kick a 45-yard field goal in the snow after the Tuck Rule just to get to OT against Oakland. In the Superdome in Super Bowl 36, he kicked a 48-yard field goal on the last play of the game. In 2003 against the Titans on a -10 wind chill night, Brady completed one pass on a drive in a 14-14 tie, forcing Vinatieri to nail a 46-yard field goal for the game-winner. He did.

Meanwhile, Vanderjagt missed a 49-yard attempt in Miami — one he told the coach he could make and had made a 50-yard kick moments earlier in the game — and a 45-yard attempt in the RCA Dome against Pittsburgh.

Switch those kickers and ask Vanderjagt to make those kicks in Foxboro. Might be looking at an 0-2 start in the playoffs for Brady (both losses at home).

BRADYGUY: Manning knows best about losing at home in the playoffs. He’s done it five times (NFL record). How can you defend that?

Yes, Manning has five home playoff losses…by a combined 14 points — the smallest margin for the 30 quarterbacks with multiple home playoff losses.

HPOL

“See, the luck I’ve had can make a good man turn bad”

Brady lost by 15 points at home to the Ravens in last year’s AFC Championship and by 19 points to the Ravens in 2009. He played very poorly in those games as well. Notice how Manning had some of the very best statistics in those home playoff losses.

That’s the common theme. Manning can play well, but still lose. Brady can do anything and still seemingly get a win.

BRADYGUY: Brady puts his teams in better position to win because he makes fewer mistakes than Manning in the playoffs.

Both quarterbacks have 22 interceptions in the playoffs. Brady has 115 more attempts, but studying all 44 plays show some key differences.

Brady has 18 bad throws and 4 tipped balls. On the tips, one was tipped at the line, one hit Donte Stallworth in one hand, one hit Sam Aiken high in one hand and another practically got Ben Watson killed in 2009. Two picks were thrown desperately in the fourth quarter with the Patriots trailing 27-13 (2005 Denver) and 28-13 (2012 Ravens). That’s still not garbage time yet as one score sets up an onside kick opportunity in a one-score game either way. Brady was at the Baltimore 22 on last year’s pick.

Manning has 15 bad throws, two QB/WR miscommunications with Marvin Harrison (both vs. Ty Law/2006 Chiefs) and five tipped balls. On the tips, one hit Marcus Pollard’s hand too high, one hit Reggie Wayne in the hands high, one deflected right off Kenton Keith’s hands deep in the red zone, one hit Eric Decker and the refs missed the defensive pass interference and one last week hit Decker in the chest and was deflected and caught in the end zone by San Diego. Three of Manning’s picks were in obvious garbage time: down 34-0 vs. Jets (4Q), down 41-0 vs. Jets (4q), down 20-3 vs. 2004 Patriots (12 seconds left). Against the 2006 Ravens, he threw a bomb on 3rd-and-17 with a 12-6 lead that was intercepted by Ed Reed. That served as a punt.

Each quarterback has had one interception fumbled back to them. Manning’s came in 2009 (BAL) with a 17-3 lead in the 3rd quarter. Brady’s came in 2006 (SD) with the Patriots down 21-13 and 6:16 left in the 4th quarter.

Luck Advantage: Brady

Each quarterback has had a turnover on the field reversed to an incomplete pass. Brady’s was the fumble that introduced us to the Tuck Rule against the Raiders in 2001. Without the call, the game would have been over with Rich Gannon taking knees. Manning’s was in 2005 against Pittsburgh on a Troy Polamalu interception overturned to an incompletion. Manning still trailed 21-10 with 5:26 left. Manning also lost a fumble last season against the Ravens on a very similar play to the Tuck Rule, but did not get that call in the last possible case it could have been used before the NFL removed it this offseason.

Luck Advantage: Brady.

Brady turned the ball over three times at home in the first quarter alone in an ugly 2009 loss to the Ravens. Manning threw three interceptions at home against the 2006 Chiefs, but still completed 30-of-38 passes (including a spike and one drop) in a 23-8 win.

Oh, and which quarterback threw four interceptions in the 2003 AFC Championship? When watching the game, felt like both, but only one defense took advantage.

Brady has four red-zone interceptions. All four were bad/forced throws. Manning has five red-zone interceptions. The last three all deflected off his receiver and the very first came when he trailed 41-0 in 2002 (Jets) and had the ball at the 19.

Manning has thrown three pick-sixes in the playoffs, including last year’s botched no-call. Brady has none, because Ben Watson tracked down Champ Bailey to the 1-yard line and prevented a 100-yard return in 2005.

Brady has 10 fumbles (3 lost) in the playoffs. Manning has 5 fumbles (2 lost). Fumble Luck Advantage: Brady

Manning’s first lost fumble was a handoff on a running play to Joseph Addai in Super Bowl XLI. The Bears recovered. Brady is credited with a botched handoff fumble in the 2006 AFC Championship in Indy. The Patriots recovered it for a touchdown. Fumble Luck Advantage: Brady.

Brady only had 3 INTs when he started 10-0 in the playoffs, but clearly that part of his game has changed and he’s always been as or more likely to have a bad turnover in a close game or in the red zone than Manning in the playoffs.

BRADYGUY: Scott, maybe you didn’t hear me. 18-7 vs. 10-11…

No, I heard you. I’ve just yet to find anything compelling that shows why there’s such a difference in record based on what the quarterbacks and not their teammates and coaches have done.

BRADYGUY: Isn’t it obvious? CLUTCH. Brady’s oozing with IT, and Manning’s just a choker. That’s where you need to look.

Third downs are pretty important situations. In the playoffs, Manning has converted 43.41 percent of his third downs compared to 40.78 percent for Brady. That rate for Brady is about average for prominent active quarterbacks in the playoffs.

BRADYGUY: I bet Brady’s better on tougher situations like third-and-long that are harder to convert.

Not quite…

pmtb3dpo

Manning faces a longer third down on average and converts more often on the medium and long situations. Brady is a hell of a lot better on the quarterback sneak, regular or post. That is one area I will give him over anyone.

BRADYGUY: Meh, that’s just one down. What about the WHOLE game?

Well we have stats like Win Probability Added (WPA) and Expected Points Added (EPA) that can account for how much the quarterback is contributing to his team scoring and winning the game. Credit to Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats for these stats, which I’ve collected for quarterbacks with 5+ playoff starts since 1999:

POWPA

Once again, Manning comes out near the top, ahead of Brady, who looks somewhat pedestrian given his lofty winning record. Manning’s the only player in the top 8 with a losing record. These stats also control for garbage time, so there’s no point in bringing that up. Obviously Manning hasn’t played in many blowout games in the playoffs to compile meaningless stats.

BRADYGUY: Can’t Manning boost his EPA by throwing short touchdown passes like last week, while Brady loses out when his team rushes for six scores against the Colts?

The EPA gained from a short touchdown pass is actually quite minimal since you’re already expected to score a touchdown that close to the goal line.

Besides, if anyone has padded their postseason TD total on short touchdown passes, it’s Brady by a HUGE margin:

POTD

So out of 25 QBs all time with 15+ TD passes in the playoffs, no one throws them shorter than Brady, who has a staggering 29 scores from 1-9 yards out. Oh, and Manning has the deepest active TD pass among the active quarterbacks. Go figure.

These next two facts also fit the “Manning gets screwed, Brady has great luck” idea quite well.

Brady has the most playoff wins ever without a touchdown pass (4). Manning has the most playoff losses without an interception (5).

And no, if you remember from earlier, Manning did not have a fumble in any of those games without an interception. No other quarterback has more than 3 playoff losses without an interception.

This is the kind of stuff I pointed out last Saturday night with this table:

GQB

C and D are especially telling in how impotent Brady has been in half of his playoff wins, while Manning doesn’t look bad at all in comparison for the times he went one-and-done.

BRADYGUY: The difference has to be Brady gets it done when it matters most, and that’s when Manning folds. It’s WHEN they make their mistakes.

Well, for starters, the WPA would already pick up on a lot of that, but sure, let’s get silly.

How about when it’s a one-score game in the fourth quarter/overtime in the playoffs? Surely Brady’s going to show his superiority there, right?

1scopo

Oops, that didn’t work. Pro-Football-Reference shows neither guy can feel too good about what they’ve done in those situations, though they do have the most attempts by far. Yet there’s Manning doing better than Brady, who dips under 6.0 YPA again.

I didn’t even point out all the dropped passes yet, but we need to save something for next year’s edition.

BRADYGUY: But Scott, it’s when those mistakes happen that matters. Manning’s BURIED his team against the Saints and Ravens and…teams.

Of course you’d bring those two plays up. They’re the only two times Manning’s done that in crunch time in the playoffs, yet the stigma of him always doing that existed even before Super Bowl XLIV. Brady did it in back-to-back weeks in the 2006 playoffs.

  • Fourth quarter or overtime, down by 0-8 points in the playoffs: Brady and Manning have each thrown TWO interceptions in this situation.
  • Fourth quarter or overtime, down by 0-16 points in the playoffs: Brady has thrown FIVE interceptions compared to THREE for Manning.

So enough with the “Manning throws killer picks” thing. Brady has too and they came on days he played worse overall.

BRADYGUY: Okay, I think I got it. Brady has 7 game-winning drives in the playoffs and Manning is 1-9 at game-winning drive opportunities in the playoffs. I GOT YOU! Checkmate! Why can’t Manning finish in the playoffs like Brady?

He can’t? I think the numbers in the previous table show Manning’s just as adequate (or inadequate) as Brady in crunch time in the playoffs. It’s what happens around those quarterbacks that has created that 7-1 split in playoff GWDs, which I guess would be 8-0 if Brady’s defense came through for him (again).

You tell me how much of this is on Manning in GWD opportunities:

1999 Titans – Down 16-9, Manning threw a perfect pass downfield to Marvin Harrison, who dropped it on 3rd-and-22. Titans added a field goal and Edgerrin James later dropped a fourth-down pass.

2000 Dolphins – In overtime, Manning set up the field goal, but as mentioned, Vanderjagt shanked it badly and Manning never got another chance.

2003 Patriots – Despite his worst playoff game ever (4 INTs), Manning had the ball down 21-14 with 2:01 left. But we didn’t even get to see what he’d do on the drive thanks to some illegal defense from the Patriots that helped lead to reinforcement of illegal contact. The NFL quietly admitted both incomplete passes on third and fourth down should have been penalties on New England.

2005 Steelers – Getting one last chance from a Jerome Bettis fumble, Manning set up Vanderjagt for another classic shank in a 21-18 loss that would have sent the game to OT. Manning trailed 21-3 to start the fourth quarter.

2006 Patriots – Down 34-31, Manning drove the Colts 69 yards in 24 seconds — that’s pretty efficient — to let the running game finish off the game-winning TD drive with a minute left.

2007 Chargers – Manning threw a go-ahead touchdown pass to Anthony Gonzalez in the fourth quarter, but the Colts’ No. 1 defense allowed backup QB Billy Volek to drive for the game-winning touchdown. On his last drive, Manning threw good passes to Reggie Wayne (3rd down) and Dallas Clark (4th down), but both were dropped, including an embarrassing flub by Clark to end the game.

2008 Chargers – What GWD opportunity? Manning needed two yards to end the game on a third-and-2, but his rookie tight end forgot the snap count and didn’t get out of his break until it was too late. Manning was sacked and the Chargers tied the game late. Manning never got the ball in OT as the Chargers drove for the winning touchdown.

2009 Saints – Notice the lack of Manning mistakes? Here we go for a change. Manning threw the pick-six to Tracy Porter and that’s mostly on him. I’ll still say Reggie Wayne’s route was poorly run (just watch the feet), but Porter did a good job to jump the route and make the play.

2010 Jets – Manning only had three second-half possessions and ended each with a field goal, including the last one to take a 16-14 lead with 0:53 left. That usually holds up, but one big kick return by Antonio Cromartie crushed that idea and the Jets got the 17-16 win in Manning’s last game with the Colts.

2012 Ravens – Manning led a go-ahead 88-yard TD drive with 7:11 left, but obviously the Rahim Moore disaster stands out there.  In OT, the Broncos dropped Joe Flacco’s picks, but the Ravens made sure to hang onto Manning’s bad throw and bad decision.

So that’s all of them. Still want to say it’s the quarterback?

  • Manning’s lost 6 playoff games after leading in the fourth quarter. No other quarterback has more than 4 (Warren Moon).
  • Manning led in the last 40 seconds of the fourth quarter in four of those losses.
  • Manning’s led a go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter of his last three home playoff losses.
  • Manning is the only QB in NFL history with two lost comebacks in the playoffs. Brady has one (SB XLII). These are games where the QB did everything to meet the requirement for a 4QC except win the game.

Brady’s GWDs mostly consist of long field goals just like the ones Vanderjagt missed, a fumbled interception on fourth down in San Diego, missed FGs by the opponent, Drew Bennett not catching a pass in 2003 and other unbelievable failures like the Lee Evans-Sterling Moore play in the 2011 AFC Championship.

Isn’t that the crux of this whole thing? Joe Flacco throws a pass to knock Brady out of the playoffs, yet Sterling Moore defends it away in the end zone and Billy Cundiff chokes on the FG. The next year, Flacco throws a TD pass over Rahim Moore to force OT and Justin Tucker delivers on the 47-yard FG in cold conditions to end Manning’s season and make his INT his last throw of the game. Manning and Brady were helpless in these situations, yet Brady won despite playing an inferior game and Manning lost despite playing very well. Same old story.

Brady’s celebrated for his playoff GWDs, yet when it comes down to one guy stepping up and making that game-deciding play, more often than not we see someone not named Brady do it for New England and someone not named Manning screw it up for Indianapolis/Denver.

So when I say Brady’s the luckiest QB in playoff history and Manning’s the unluckiest, this is exactly what I’m talking about. No quarterbacks have more close wins (Brady) or close losses (Manning) in the playoffs than these two, yet all the stats (advanced or not) and tape show there’s no significant difference in how they played in these situations.

If anything, you’d think Manning would be the one with a 18-7 record and Brady would be under .500.

BRADYGUY: But Scott, isn’t a loss a loss? Manning has tied Favre for the most playoff losses (11) ever.

Well aren’t we talking about being the best? Do you want a guy that’s going to lose by 15-19 points at home and play like crap, or do you want someone who can give his team a chance to win every single playoff game? Sometimes that’s going to lead to some losses with perhaps a late-game turnover. Play long enough and that can happen to anyone. Is that really worse than the guy who shits the bed in the first quarter and never gives his team a chance? Manning also set a record with his 13th playoff berth this year.

Manning has had a fourth-quarter lead in his last 12 playoff games. No one else in NFL history has had a streak longer than 10 games.

Not even Brady.

BRADYGUY: Isn’t Brady just more consistent in the playoffs? Manning has a few huge games, but Brady is more likely to give you a solid performance each week.

No. Brady started his playoff career with five mediocre performances, five very good games to get to 10-0, but since then, he’s a mixed bag that hasn’t put together two good performances in back-to-back playoff games since Super Bowl 39 and January 2006 (Jacksonville).

Meanwhile Manning’s done this:

80pr

Not a passer rating fan? Understandable, but an 80, especially in the playoffs, is usually the indicator of an okay game.

I did see this from ESPN on best cumulative playoff Total QBR since 2006: Colin Kaepernick (85.4), Aaron Rodgers (77.2), Kurt Warner (75.3) and Peyton Manning (72.2).

Familiar names at the top, right? And Brady’s missing again. That doesn’t even factor in defense, like how Manning had a 60.6 QBR in the 2006 playoffs (yes, even with 3 TD and 7 INT). That year, Manning became the only QB in NFL history to beat the top three defenses in the same postseason.

BRADYGUY: …but 18-7 and 10-

I have to cut you off there, BRADYGUY, or else we might keep going until kickoff. I didn’t even crunch the numbers on Brady’s superior running game and defense in the postseason.

So taking this all in, seeing where Brady stacks up relative to Manning and other quarterbacks, there’s really nothing more misleading in the NFL today than 18-7 and 10-11. For that matter, Aaron Rodgers being 5-4 and Drew Brees being 6-5 also makes little sense relative to Brady.

Well, it makes sense to people who can see it’s a team game and no team has played better than the Patriots since 2001, but that doesn’t mean the QB is always deserving of the credit.

People don’t like to hear it, but at some point you have to chalk up the record to better team play and downright good fortune. You know, it’s a team game after all, but for some reason every Marvin Harrison dropped ball or Edgerrin James fumble is overlooked because god forbid Deion Branch or Kevin Faulk could make those plays for Brady. (They did)

They weren’t high draft picks, they can’t possibly be great. Manning lost the playoff game, he can’t possibly have played well.

S.O.S. for a decade-plus now.

Now some will say I put a jinx on Manning today by putting this out there. That’s impossible. The guy’s had a playoff jinx on him his whole career. I’m not adding anything to it. I’m just pointing out the facts instead of dropping to my knees for Brady and Belichick in the playoffs like too many other writers and fans have done.

And I’m still picking the Patriots to win this game.

Oh, About the AFC Championship…

Do I still have the energy to go past 4,000 words? Sure, but I’ll keep this preview relatively short.

When the Patriots won aforementioned game in San Diego in the 2006 playoffs, that was the last straw for me. I said I wouldn’t pick against the Patriots in a big game again. Something ridiculous always seems to happen for them. So I picked them to beat the Colts and they choked away an 18-point lead the following week. They blew a perfect season at 18-0 in 2007. “We’re only going to score 17 points?” No, 14. Despite going 16-0 in the regular season at home in 2008-09, the Patriots went one-and-done in back-to-back years against the Ravens and Jets, teams they beat in the regular season including a 45-3 smacking. They should have lost to the 2011 Ravens and did lose again to the Giants in SB 46, despite being favored. They were the favorites again last year when a Ravens team I thought had a great chance to go in there and win did just that, holding the Pats to 13 points (second-half shutout).

(Note: a lot of this further applies to why Brady is the most overrated playoff QB).

All seven of the playoff losses under Belichick/Brady have been rematches. This game with Denver is a rematch. The last game really doesn’t apply too much in that the venue is different, the weather will be much better, there’s no Rob Gronkowski and Von Miller (among others) and John Fox is back on the sideline.

While you probably think I’m dying to pick Denver (and I am, and I like, but not love, their chances), I’m not going to do it.

Can’t.

A depleted Jack Del Rio defense that has a tendency to leave guys wide open on third and fourth down? Uh-oh. For as much talk as there’s been about NE’s running game, and the run will be huge for both teams, I wouldn’t be surprised if they come out throwing with Brady early and often. This isn’t a “do what we do every week” team. They adjust for each opponent and the weakness in Denver is the pass defense. The run defense has been solid all year with and without Miller, so it would be a surprise to see them gashed there. The pass is the problem without Chris Harris and without Miller, who played great in NE, rushing Brady.

Quentin Jammer and Kayvon Webster may just combine to Rahim Moore another season for Denver. Somehow Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola continue to get open underneath when it’s painfully obvious Brady is going to them with the ball. Do I trust Del Rio to adjust? Of course not. New England’s offense should do fine. Shaun Phillips has to have a huge game against Marcus Cannon in Miller’s absence. That’s a matchup to watch.

On the other side (both sides, but moreso on this matchup), I’ll be curious to see how much contact is allowed in the secondary. That’s NE’s best hope to jam these receivers and throw off the timing routes. Manning needs to work on the 8-15 yard range in this game and not try to bomb it out. Wes Welker will want to have a huge game, but I think this is about Thomas & Thomas again.

I have been getting a lot of Patriot fans talking out of both sides of their mouth this week. On one end, it’s “Manning has the best weapons ever!” On the other, it’s “Talib and Jamie Collins will shut down Thomas & Thomas, Eric Decker is super soft and Julian Edelman could cover Welker AND outplay him at receiver and punt returner!” Okay, so which is it?

I think the Patriots can get some stops in this game, but it’s going to be hard to shut down the passing game that never got going last time due to the crazy start with fumbles. Manning should have a much better game this time, but any 400 yards/4 TD expectations are lunacy. The Patriots rarely give up 30+ points of offense in 13 years under Belichick. I think they have to hold Denver under that to win this one. I still think Demaryius is the key guy that makes this offense go, so he can’t be under 50 yards for Denver to pull this one out.

This is Manning-Brady XV, but remember, these games have never been a shootout. Maybe we’ll get that for an instant classic, but I’d sooner expect Denver to fall behind by 17 points and make a dramatic comeback again. Denver’s constant ball security issues bother me. Last week they had a lot of bad plays with drops, fumbles and stumbles, but maybe that was a little rust and they’ll be sharper this week.

They’ll have to be. The Patriots are not the Chargers. Belichick won’t mail in a conservative gameplan like new job-seeking Whisenhunt did and the Patriots will capitalize on every little mistake. New England hasn’t been impressive on the road, though their best road game was their last (at Baltimore).

At the end of the day, I see a Denver team with a better QB and better receivers, but the Patriots hold the other advantages. Well, except for home-field this time. What do you think historically wins more of these big games?

I’ll call my shot here. In the nature of what I’ve presented above, this game clearly has two possible endings: a game-ending Brady interception or a dropped pass by Wes Welker on fourth down.

Either way, we already know which QB will get more credit for a win and which will get more blame for a loss. I hope to enjoy a potentially historic Sunday and do what I do every week: watch the games, write later what actually decided the outcome and who to hold accountable. Isn’t that the easiest way to do this job? Why do some feel the need to continue a decade-old narrative, facts and new information be damned?

Final score: Patriots 30, Broncos 27

And I am rooting for Denver-Seattle, because I want to see the best offense play the best defense. “So for once in my life, let me get what I want…”

NFL Conference Championship Predictions and Writing Recap

Only three games left in the NFL season, excluding the Pro Bowl. Actually the Pro Bowl would probably count as -0.5 games, because that’s how bad it has become. A drawback to writing for multiple sites is that you have to avoid repeating information when writing a preview for the few games left, but my early week broke up the monotony with a much-needed trip down memory lane.

Part of what makes this the best time of the (NFL) year, also makes it the worst when people overreact to playoff results.

This Week’s Articles

Captain Comeback Divisional: Last-Minute Shockers by Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens – Cold, Hard Football Facts

One of the more epic playoff games ever, Baltimore at Denver, deserved an epic-sized recap. See what the refs screwed up, how Chris Kuper disappointed in his return, Joe Flacco’s big-play postseason, the worst defensive mistake in NFL history, and whether or not the Broncos played it too conservatively late. Also, the Falcons and Seahawks play one of the most exciting fourth quarters in playoff history, and Matt Ryan finally gets a chance for a game-winning drive in the playoffs. He only had 0:25 to do so. Finally a look at more dominant wins by the 49ers and Patriots.

Peyton Manning’s 9-11 Playoff Record Is a Call for Help – Cold, Hard Football Facts

If you think Peyton Manning’s playoff career should be defined by 11 losses and eight one-and-done seasons, then you have some cold, hard facts to read up on. A game-by-game recap of Manning’s eight early playoff exits, looking at the real reason his teams lost that day, and the unique circumstances that have produced such a record. Stats, tables, GIF images, the whole nine yards this week.

One example: Two yards away from beating the Chargers, and your rookie TE forgets the snap count and gets beat for a sack.

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Joe Flacco Eyeing an Elite Contract, But Is He an Elite NFL QB? – Bleacher Report

Can you believe Joe Flacco is going to start as many AFC Championship games (3) in five seasons as Peyton Manning and Dan Marino each started in their career? But that says more about the Ravens than Flacco, and even though he said he was the best quarterback back in April, he’s still not an elite player. A look at what kind of long-term contract Baltimore should offer Flacco.

The Thinking Man’s Guide to NFL Conference Championship Games – Bleacher Report

An information-filled preview for each game on Championship Sunday. Find out how the Falcons not only own the fourth quarter under Matt Ryan, but are also the top scoring differential team in the first quarter since 2008. With Ravens/Patriots, a look at Baltimore’s fatigue, the bad news for rematches in this round, the great runs by No. 4 seeds since 1990, and New England’s absurd home-field advantage.

nehfa

Ravens Want to Win, But Patriots Need to Win – NBC Sports

Previewing the AFC Championship again, this time focusing on how the Patriots need a Super Bowl win to validate historic success since 2007.  Despite a 76-20 regular-season record since 2007, these teams have come up empty in the playoffs despite being the favorite each time. There is still plenty to play for with the Ravens as well, making their third AFC Championship since 2008, and looking for the Hollywood ending for Ray Lewis before he retires.

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NFL Conference Championship Predictions

For all the people who went 1-3 or worse last week, going 2-2 doesn’t sound so bad, though the AFC, my favorite conference, had my two wrong picks.

  • 49ers over Falcons, 23-17
  • Patriots over Ravens, 27-23

Please, no game-deciding special teams plays this year. Last year was brutal enough.