Wilson's Word: Peyton playoff theory lives on

In the beginning, it was easy to defend quarterback Peyton Manning's playoff record. But more losses against lower seeds as well as eight one-and-dones makes defending him difficult.

When the Indianapolis Colts suffered disappointing playoff losses during the Peyton Manning Era, right or wrong, the quarterback received his share of the blame.

That’s how the NFL works. He made the most money and played the most influential position, so it was easy to suggest there was something wrong with Manning when it came to playoff games.

When Manning finally won a championship in Super Bowl XLI, critics shifted their perspective to how the quarterback needed to win another title to be considered among the greatest to ever play the game.

He’s won five NFL MVPs, two more than any other player, and set enough passing records to make your head spin. But some will always point to his career playoff record — 11-12 — as well as eight one-and-done playoff appearances in 16 seasons. He was 9-10 with the Colts in the playoffs and has been 2-2 with the Denver Broncos.

The “Manning struggles in the playoffs” debate is being mentioned again this week. And isn’t it ironic now that many Colts fans are hoping there’s something to it with their team heading to the Mile High City for Sunday’s AFC Divisional playoff game?

Some media analysts have labeled Manning as “the best regular-season quarterback in NFL history.” Another popular contention is that Manning made so much money, it became difficult to assemble enough quality players to give him a solid defense and special teams. Some said general manager Bill Polian focused too much on giving Manning weapons instead of drafting enough players for defense.

Manning has been in 23 playoff games. Exclude two Super Bowls, when both teams were No. 1 seeds, and his team has been the higher seed 15 times. He’s 10-5 in those games. His team has been the lower seed six times, and he was 1-5 in those games.

When I’ve taken Manning’s side, the argument in his favor is he often lost to better teams. It’s fair to say that losing to the New York Jets 41-0 as well as to the New England Patriots on the road twice were obvious examples.

But it became more difficult to defend his playoff record when considering other outcomes. In what proved to be his last game in a Colts uniform, his team lost 17-16 to the New York Jets in an AFC Wild Card playoff game on Jan. 8, 2011, at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts were the third seed, the Jets the sixth seed. But the Jets also had a better record, 11-5 to 10-6.

In his first season with the Broncos, Manning’s team was the No. 1 seed and coming off a bye when it lost to fourth-seeded Baltimore 38-35 in overtime at Denver. Manning threw a key interception in overtime.

Perhaps the toughest playoff loss the Indianapolis Colts have ever endured came on Jan. 15, 2006, when the sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers prevailed over their No. 1-seeded hosts 21-18 at the RCA Dome. Manning was hounded by the Steelers’ blitz. Former Colts head coach Tony Dungy and other players have said that was the best Colts team of the Manning Era.

Manning earned criticism afterward when he stated the obvious about a lack of sufficient pass blocking from his offensive line, that the team had “protection issues.” Critics screamed that he threw his teammates under the bus.

There are other frustrating setbacks. Two one-and-dones against the San Diego Chargers. An overtime loss at Miami, when kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal that would have won it. And there was Manning’s first playoff game, when the second-seeded Colts were knocked off by the fourth-seeded Tennessee Titans 19-16 in an AFC Divisional playoff game on Jan. 16, 2000, at the RCA Dome.

Colts owner Jim Irsay repeated Tuesday what he has said in the past of the Manning Era, how he was disappointed the team didn’t win more than one Super Bowl. He was asked if he ever bought into the theory that Manning struggles in the playoffs.

“I really didn’t,” Irsay said. “I think that, again, we obviously had a lot of opportunities and when we were on the road in ’03 and ’04 in New England (during the regular season), we said, ‘We’ve got to get this game and get it in Indianapolis and play these playoffs at home.’ Obviously in ’05 that happened and we didn’t advance and then ’06 the magic happened after we all know about the Jacksonville game (allowing 375 rushing yards in a lopsided loss) and that sort of thing.

“But I really think Peyton plays at such a high level and plays so great that people put expectations that are unrealistic because I really think whether you get one, two, three championships, a lot more is involved. I think you look at Peyton’s dad and that’s the case. Archie (Manning) was maybe better than any of these guys we’re talking about potentially. I mean he was a great player but wasn’t surrounded with the right things.”

Irsay further dismissed the theory that a great quarterback always translates to double-digit victories.

“I’ve heard it before sometimes, it’s mentioned when you guys talk about it that you get someone like Peyton or Andrew Luck, it’s an instant 10 wins. That’s not the way it is,” he said. “You guys were here in 2001. Peyton was young, healthy and in his prime; we won six games. That’s because you have to surround, it’s a team game. You can’t expect to just get a quarterback and then your problems are over. You have to combine getting that quarterback with wise decisions and great coaching and a great surrounding cast because you need that all to get to the top.

“So I think, of course I’m disappointed we didn’t get more than one when we were in that era but everyone that was part of that era is disappointed in that. I mean, of course you are, but you’re so proud of what you accomplished. Us winning 12-or-more games seven years in a row, I don’t know if that will be duplicated again in this league. It’s tough to win once you get to this level. You want a chance, that’s all you want. So I don’t see that with Peyton. I think he’s one of the greatest players ever to play the game at his position; he’s going to be in that conversation when you talk about it. When you talk about (Tom) Brady, you talk about him, you talk about (John) Elway, how many ultimate championships they get and those things depend on a lot more than just those guys alone.”

The debate rages on, and won’t end until he retires.

If Peyton Manning doesn’t win another Super Bowl, some will say it’s because he didn’t have the teams around him to accomplish that.

But others will insist his playoff performances, which didn’t match up to the regular-season statistics, were the reason that didn’t happen.

 

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.


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