Solving the Peyton Playoff Puzzle: Part II
by Scott Kacsmar
In Part I of this piece on Wednesday, we solved the puzzle of how Peyton Manning became a .500 quarterback in his postseason career despite the highest standard of regular-season play and an underrated individual playoff resume. His ability to carry many flawed teams to the playoffs was one problem. The record six losses after leading in the fourth quarter show that he could have easily been above .500. The biggest problem was the distribution of those blown leads: five times in one-and-done situations. Had the blown leads still happened, but been more evenly distributed throughout the playoffs, Manning would have that precious winning postseason record.
The distribution of stats is an area where I feel we could be doing a better job as analysts. If a defender sacked a quarterback on three consecutive plays, it would be a great spectacle to watch, but those three sacks would have only destroyed one drive in the game. Unless it was the last drive of a tight game, that is not ideal. Had the defender been able to sack the quarterback on three different drives, he would have helped his team more by impacting three drives instead of one.
This can be applied to most counting stats, or even a concept like luck, which we defined in the context of events that work for or against a quarterback that were out of his control. The good luck in Manning's playoff career often came in bunches, but some was also offset by some of the worst moments for his best teams.
Below, we are going to experiment with the frailty of playoff win-loss records for Manning and four other Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks from this year's divisional round. The goal of this exercise was never to try to inflate Manning's playoff record to an incredible level. It was to show just how misleading any quarterback's playoff record can be.
Note: parts of this article previously appeared on ESPN Insider. References to win probability are from Brian Burke's calculator, formerly at AdvancedNFLStats.com.
Why So Many Close Losses for Manning's Teams?
Most games can be grouped into four categories: big wins, big losses, close wins, and close losses. You could also work in a "comfortable" category for games that stayed at a two-score margin for the fourth quarter without ever turning into blowouts.
Manning's postseason results are different from those of most quarterbacks in that he has a lot of comfortable or big wins. For example, nine of his 13 playoff wins were wire-to-wire, while only two of the other four were fourth-quarter comebacks. Ten of his 13 losses, though, have been close. Compare that to his current boss, John Elway, who had 14 wins with six game-winning drives and five wire-to-wire wins. Out of the six losses he finished as a starter, only the first one was a tight game in the fourth quarter. While the Super Bowl losses were routs, Denver's defense was 7-0 in Elway's era when holding a one-score lead in the fourth quarter.
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Before these last two games when Manning's Denver defense held up leads of 7 and 8 points, his teams were an abysmal 5-6 when having to defend a one-score lead. That includes a stop against the 2003 Chiefs, who trailed 38-31 and only had eight seconds left to drive 73 yards. That also includes stopping the 2009 Jets, who were within one score for one drive before Manning extended the lead to a comfortable 10 points with another touchdown pass.
A blown fourth-quarter lead does not guarantee that the offense should be free of criticism, nor does it always mean the team should have won. We expected that Indianapolis' 1-point lead in Super Bowl XLIV would not hold up against Drew Brees and the Saints, but that was the only blown lead for a Manning team that did not come in a one-and-done scenario. The leads were usually more solid than that. While most offenses turn towards the run in these situations, we can look at playoff stats for a select group of quarterbacks to see how they did with a one-score lead in the fourth quarter. The sample sizes are small as you would expect, but the results are still interesting. Success rate (SR) is included, though failed completions actually hold a little more value here than usual since these teams wanted to run clock.
|Playoffs: Leading by 1-8 Points in the Fourth Quarter|
It still usually falls on the defense to protect a lead, and these numbers certainly do not instill much confidence in the offenses to close things out. They also do not fit the narrative, with Manning having the best statistics. His interception did not hurt much, as it served as a 49-yard punt on third-and-17 against the 2006 Ravens. The missed play of significance from a loss was the sack Manning took on third-and-2 with a chance to ice the game in San Diego in 2008. However, tight end Gijon Robinson (among others) botched the snap count on the play and left an easy path for Tim Dobbins to get Manning down. San Diego tied the game, leaving Manning only 24 seconds to answer, and then he never got the ball in overtime. You just do not see games like that too often.
Whether it was the defense having to come up with the key stop, or Mike Vanderjagt needing a big kick, or Marvin Harrison needing to make a catch on third-and-22, or when you expected to get a penalty call go your way, those plays often backfired against Manning's teams. Those mistakes will usually catch up to you in tight games.
A Play to Glory; A Play to Ruin
Most quarterbacks are going to win some playoff games that they easily could have lost, and lose some games that they easily could have won. When I wrote about this glory vs. ruin concept for ESPN Insider, a commenter (he's not getting any name pub here) complained that I only focused on the former for Tom Brady, and the latter for Manning. But that's because these are the types of playoff games these two specific quarterbacks have in abundance. If we're going to talk Brady and Manning, this is what we're going to get, and that ESPN article was very much a comparison between the two. It is hard to take away from Manning's wins, but it is pretty easy to take away from Brady's (and those of some of these other quarterbacks we will be looking at). This goes back to Brady getting breaks in the earlier rounds to which allowed for longer playoff runs, while most of Manning's bad luck happened in first-round playoff games.
(Ed. Note: Why only Brady and Manning? Because that was the AFC Championship matchup: Scott was writing the AFC for ESPN, and I was writing the NFC. A further exploration of the concept that would include other quarterbacks was planned for Football Outsiders from the beginning; we all know ESPN has space considerations that FO does not. -- Aaron Schatz)
I came up with the idea of glory vs. ruin as looking at what happens when you change the significant plays that have had the most impact on the quarterback's playoff win-loss record. The most important idea is that the play you select to change must be something out of the quarterback's control. We are not going to give Manning a retry on the Tracy Porter pick-six. As discussed in Part I, we focus on plays that came late in the game, since that left the quarterback with the least time to overcome the failure of teammates. We usually focus on low-probability events such as return scores, drops, or difficult field goals, so nobody can say "boy, [quarterback] sure is lucky his defense didn't give up a 90-yard touchdown pass on the last play!" No, he would be extremely unlucky if they did give up such a play. A stop there is expected.
If you tried to do this with Cam Newton's five playoff games, you wouldn't be able to change any of the outcomes. You would basically have to restart the games from scratch. It just so happens that Manning and Brady are the easiest quarterbacks to use in this analysis since they have the most (and most close) playoff games. Another rule I put in was to limit changes to no more than three plays in either direction, though it's hard to change even one for some players.
Obviously we can play the "what if?" game all day, but I like to think it can be done sensibly. Scott Norwood made the field goal to win the game, or he didn't. Earnest Byner fumbled at the goal line, or he didn't. Sure, we can say Rex Grossman had the ball in a 22-17 game against Manning's Colts in Super Bowl XLI, but it is too far into fantasy land to say "instead of a crushing pick-six, the Sex Cannon throws a 62-yard touchdown to take a lead with 11:44 left and Manning never wins a ring!" For one, that's a lot of time left for Manning to have the ball to come back from a 23-22 or 25-22 deficit. Two, we can easily watch this game today. The only way a Chicago touchdown is coming out of that Kelvin Hayden interception is if he had fumbled it. Grossman threw a terrible jump ball. Again, the less you have to distort the reality of the play, the better.
Let's start with Manning. When I did this for ESPN, my choices were to basically swap the playoff fates of Manning and Brady. I wanted Adam Vinatieri to shank two field goals from 45 and 46 yards away in brutal kicking conditions the same way Mike Vanderjagt shanked kicks from 49 yards away in Miami and 46 yards away in the RCA Dome. There is a lot of equivalency there, and lest we forget, Vanderjagt was one of the most accurate kickers in history. Even better, I wanted the two to switch defenders named Moore and how they defended a crucial Joe Flacco pass. Sterling Moore knocked the ball away from Lee Evans in the end zone with the Patriots nursing a 23-20 lead in the 2011 AFC Championship Game. Rahim Moore had that terrible judgment on the deep ball for Jacoby Jones with Denver ahead 35-28 in the 2012 AFC divisional round. If Brady's Moore had failed to make a play and Manning's Moore had done his job, voilà, you have two quarterbacks with similar playoff records now.
What was interesting to me was how the two best teams of Manning's career, the 2005 Colts and 2012 Broncos (yes, DVOA agrees), suffered two of the most devastating playoff losses this century. Had they come through in those games, you had to like their chances of going the distance with some favorable matchups in the next two rounds. But they blew it, and we now see another parallel in that the two weakest Manning teams to make the playoffs (the 2006 Colts and 2015 Broncos) may be in the best positions to win titles.
The other thing about the 2005 Colts and 2012 Broncos is that Manning had some damn good fortune going into those games. Against Pittsburgh, he erroneously got an overturned Troy Polamalu interception from the referees with 5:26 left, and he got a massive gift when his defense forced Jerome Bettis to fumble with just over a minute left. This was going to be Manning's Tuck Rule game, a controversial finish headed to overtime. But Vanderjagt embarrassingly shanked that field goal, and that was the end of Manning's best Indianapolis team. Like I said earlier, even when he got lucky, he still got unlucky in the end and lost.
The same thing happened with the 2012 Broncos. Manning got two return touchdowns from Trindon Holliday on special teams. In 26 playoff games, Manning's teams only have three return touchdowns, and here were the last two. That's great, but Denver never really took advantage with some questionable calls (and a no-call) on pass interference leading to two Baltimore touchdowns. But nothing was bigger than the epic letdown by Moore in coverage when it looked like the Broncos had it wrapped up (win probability: 0.94).
In the ESPN article, I still gave Manning a loss for the Pittsburgh game, because I did not want to speculate on overtime had Vanderjagt made the kick. Having gone through the games of the other quarterbacks, I say give him the win now, and make it on Nick Harper's fumble return going down the sideline for a touchdown instead of getting tackled by Ben Roethlisberger. It would be one of the cheapest, most controversial, and memorable outcomes ever, but any other player would take it. Did we not just see this year where Roethlisberger got a very similar Jeremy Hill fumble break, followed by those two moronic penalties from Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones? Did Carson Palmer's first playoff win not come after another dropped interception in the red zone and a deflected pass going for a touchdown?
Some teams double down on luck in the playoffs. Remember when the 2000 Ravens beat Tennessee by returning a blocked field goal for a touchdown, and Ray Lewis snagging a pick-six after Eddie George tipped a pass? By the way, in this alternate universe where Vanderjagt comes through in Miami, the 2000 Colts would have gone to No. 1 seeded Tennessee that week instead of the Ravens.
Here is what Manning's playoff career looks like with the ruin-to-glory (R->G) and glory-to-ruin (G->R) plays changed. Some other noteworthy plays are in red. The "Breaking Point" is the play out of the quarterback's control that would change in this scenario. You can see what the records would then look like whether it was a path to glory or ruin, along with the range. I do not speculate on any of the additional games that would have been earned with these wins.
We spent enough time on the R->G plays, so let's look at which win we took away from Manning. I say win, because upon further review, I could not find a breaking point from the 2006 AFC Championship Game that makes sense. Luck is really not a proper term to describe that final quarter. More than anything, it was the Patriots failing to take advantage of the Colts' incompetency.
There are three plays worth mentioning from that quarter. Some would say Dominic Rhodes fumbling at the 1-yard line with 13:24 left was a breaking point with the Colts down 28-21. Center Jeff Saturday recovered for a game-tying touchdown. However, the Patriots scored on a similar fumble in the first quarter, so we can consider the two teams even there. Later, with the scored tied at 28, the Colts left Reche Caldwell completely uncovered for at least 10 seconds. By the time Brady got the pass to him, Antoine Bethea was in a good position for the tackle. Caldwell dropped the ball anyway.
For years I have mis-remembered this as a third-down play that would not have scored, but would have extended the drive. However, this was first-and-15, and Caldwell at best would have made it second-and-medium. That's not a breaking point. The Patriots kicked a field goal on the drive, and you can definitely argue the Colts got away with some pass interference in the end zone on third down.
Finally, in the last two minutes Reggie Wayne was running well after the catch and lost control of the ball in the air. Manning and company talk a lot about this play in the America's Game for the 2006 Colts, but it was really a moot point since the Patriots were penalized for a (weak) roughing the passer call. Still, I find it odd that this is not credited as a fumble in the play-by-play.
So to recap, Manning's running back fumbled at the 1-yard line, his defense did not even bother to cover the leading receiver on the field, and Wayne got loose with the ball in scoring territory in a 3-point game. Had the Colts lost for any of those reasons, it would have just cemented Manning as the unluckiest quarterback ever, and this game was nine years ago. I thought Caldwell gave us a reason to credit this win away, but he just gave us an incredible facial expression.
It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. pic.twitter.com/2go3p6CkTu
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) February 4, 2016
Glory-to-Ruin Play No. 1: 2015 AFC divisional round vs. Pittsburgh
I fundamentally disagree with taking away this win too, but that just shows that even Manning's closest wins are on steadier ground than most. Pittsburgh was driving with a 13-12 lead when Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled and Denver recovered. Manning turned that into a 65-yard game-winning touchdown drive and a 20-13 lead. If Pittsburgh had recovered the fumble that went backwards, it would have been third-and-medium, slightly out of field-goal range. Let's just say that Toussaint had not fumbled and set up third-and-1 at the Denver 31 with just under 10 minutes left (win probability: 0.72). Maybe Pittsburgh would have gotten a touchdown to go up 20-12 or a field goal to go up 16-12. Maybe the kick would have been no good. Maybe Roethlisberger would have thrown a pick-six to Aqib Talib on the next play. The uncertainty is rather high here, but it was definitely a big blow for the Steelers to lose that fumble.
If you think about it, this could go down as the biggest break in Manning's playoff career that he was actually able to capitalize on.
Tom Brady: Should Trade Last Names with Andrew Luck
Take your pick. The most important application of the controversial Tuck Rule ever? Check. Beneficiary of only the second missed field goal in a do-or-die situation in championship game history? Check. In fact, no quarterback has benefited from more clutch field goals going his team's way in the playoffs than Brady. (Early-game extra points are now a different story.) You want to start a game-winning drive in the Super Bowl after the opponent's kickoff goes out of bounds? Brady did it. How about throwing a fourth-down interception that gets fumbled back to you in good field position late in the fourth quarter? Only Brady. What about when the team with "Beast Mode" in the backfield throws a pass at the 1-yard line to Ricardo Lockette with the Super Bowl on the line? Brady celebrated that interception, the costliest in NFL history.
Those moments did not make our list of changes either. I won't detail Brady's ruin path, since we know it as basically Manning's real path. If Vinatieri misses his two big clutch field goals, then Brady starts his playoff career possibly at 0-2, depending on the result of overtime with Tennessee in 2003, instead of 6-0. Then the Sterling-turned-Rahim Moore defense fails to slap the ball away from Lee Evans, keeping Brady out of Super Bowl XLVI, which is a game I refuse to add to his glory path. Even if Wes Welker had made that (rare) deep catch, there were more than four minutes left and the Giants had two clock stoppages. Eli Manning's pass to Mario Manningham was a beautiful throw and catch. At worst, had it fallen incomplete, that would only have made it second-and-10, as it was the first play of the drive. There is a far easier change to make from the other Super Bowl loss here.
Ruin-to-Glory Play No. 1: Super Bowl XLII vs. New York Giants
My play is not the Asante Samuel "dropped" interception, because I am not sold that Samuel would have gotten both feet in bounds even if he had managed to catch the ball. More than that, the pass hit off of his fingertips while his arms were fully extended and he had both feet off the ground. It would have been an incredible pick, but not one you would even chart as a dropped interception. I go to the David Tyree helmet catch, which probably would have best served the Patriots if "in the grasp" had been called by Mike Carey (yes, him), setting up a fourth-and-13 or so. If the pass had been incomplete, then it is hard to say the Giants would have lost for sure, because fourth-and-5 would have been a favorable conversion. It is still hard to say which part was more unbelievable: Eli escaping the sack or Tyree pinning the ball to his helmet. But both happened, and that is why it is one of the all-time breaking points in playoff history.
Aaron Rodgers: Sideline Viewer Extraordinaire
It sounds hard to believe now, but there was a time when Aaron Rodgers got the ball last in a playoff game. It was his first game, and he caught a huge break too, when Arizona's Neil Rackers missed a 34-yard field goal with nine seconds left in the 2009 NFC wild-card game. However, in overtime Rodgers missed a wide-open Greg Jennings for a deep touchdown before coughing up the only strip-six in playoff overtime history. Rodgers would look better if Rackers had just made the kick. The next year, Rodgers started watching Green Bay's pivotal playoff moments from the sideline. The defense was fantastic at creating takeaways and return scores in the 2010 Super Bowl run, but not much has gone right for Green Bay in the playoffs since, outside of drawing a home game against Joe Webb.
Rodgers is the only quarterback in NFL history to lose two playoff games in overtime without getting a possession. Those are two out of the eight times it has ever happened, and those are Green Bay's last two postseason losses (in Seattle and Arizona). Rodgers also watched a last-second field goal by the 49ers in 2013. In that one, Colin Kaepernick got away with an interception dropped by Micah Hyde with 4:09 left. That might have led to the Packers taking a late lead, but it was not decisive enough to include here. When A couple weeks ago, I published a table of Rodgers having five "never got ball back (NGBB)" losses in his career, and three of them are his last three playoff losses. That is pretty incredible, though we still see the problem where Green Bay has not done a good job when the chance to win the game was there. Rodgers is good at getting the team a tie, but when it was 17-13 in Arizona this year, he short-hopped a pass on fourth down, basically gifting the Cardinals a field goal. That is why his incredible Hail Mary only forced overtime instead of winning the game.
I only changed one play either way for Rodgers, and it was not the Dez Bryant catch in the 2014 NFC divisional round. Sure, I still think a play like that should be a catch, but it would have given Dallas a first-and-goal from the 1 with just over four minutes left. Maybe the Cowboys would have gone up 29-26 or 27-26 and won, or maybe Green Bay would have come right back for the winning drive. Or maybe DeMarco Murray would have fumbled at the 1-yard line. Dallas' win probability was just about 0.50 had that been ruled a catch, so we'll just leave it as is.
Glory-to-Ruin Play No. 1: 2010 NFC wild-card game at Philadelphia
There have been some really huge passes thrown into the end zone in the last few postseasons, and the offenses are rarely ever catching them. Michael Vick, trailing 21-16 with 44 seconds left, had a chance to be the hero in his best season for the Eagles. From the 27-yard line, he might have gotten a little greedy in going for it all, but there was single coverage from Tramon Williams on Riley Cooper, who could have fought more for the ball.
There is the game-ending interception to prevent the Packers from a quick wild-card exit. Vick needed to get more air on that ball towards the back pylon to give Cooper a great shot. The 2010 defense still remains by far Dom Capers' best work with Green Bay.
Ruin-to-Glory Play No. 1: 2014 NFC Championship Game at Seattle
The Packers had a lot of chances to put away Seattle, but recovering an onside kick with 2:07 left could have been enough. Brandon Bostick blew the recovery and Seattle had life, down 19-14. Amazingly, it was Green Bay that had to score again just to force overtime, and Rodgers led a drive for a field goal. He just never got the ball back again as Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown to Jermaine Kearse in overtime. Assuming Rodgers would have gotten healthier for the Super Bowl, Green Bay would have had a decent shot to beat New England again in a rematch from the regular season that year and from Super Bowl XXXI.
Ben Roethlisberger: The Running Back Fumbles
Trailing 17-10 just two plays into the fourth quarter of his first playoff game, Roethlisberger handed the ball off to Jerome Bettis, only to see him fumble at the Jets' 23. Little did the rookie quarterback know how big a role running back fumbles would play in his postseason career. Since 2004, there have been 34 total lost fumbles in the fourth quarter or overtime in the playoffs within a 16-point window. The Steelers have been involved in 11 of those 34 plays (five on offense, six on defense).
Oddly enough, perhaps the two most egregious playoff fumbles since the aforementioned Byner play came in two wins for the Steelers, both occurring in the final 100 seconds: Bettis fumbled in Indianapolis in 2005 and Jeremy Hill lost the ball this year in Cincinnati. Roethlisberger was able to save the day with a tackle the first time before seeing Mike Vanderjagt miss a game-tying field goal. Roethlisberger was the hero again this year, coming off the bench to lead a game-winning drive that was helped tremendously by two unbelievable penalties on the Bengals. Chris Boswell did not miss his field goal.
But two more running back fumbles did hurt Roethlisberger in losses. We already went over the Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble in Denver this year. In Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers trailed 21-17 to start the fourth quarter and had a second-and-2 at the Green Bay 33. Clay Matthews forced Rashard Mendenhall to fumble and the Packers recovered, going on to score a touchdown. We do not want to use this as a breaking point, though, since the whole quarter remained and the Steelers were still more than 30 yards away from the end zone. But that was definitely a big play.
It was extremely hard to find extra wins for Roethlisberger. I could not even throw him a bone for the "Tebow 3:16" game. A Willis McGahee fumble set up Pittsburgh's tying touchdown drive, and Roethlisberger took a horrible sack when he had a chance to put the Steelers in position for the win. That is why the game went to overtime where Demaryius Thomas went 80 yards for the walk-off touchdown. We split hairs by giving him the latest Denver loss back.
Glory-to-Ruin Play No. 1: 2004 AFC divisional round vs. New York Jets
Roethlisberger overcame Bettis' fumble by leading a game-tying touchdown drive. Jets kicker Doug Brien hit the crossbar on a 47-yard field goal with 1:58 left. At Heinz Field, that is definitely a tough kick. However, Roethlisberger threw a terrible interception on the next play that should have sunk the Steelers. Incredibly, Brien was wide left from 43 yards away as time expired. The Jets punted in overtime and Roethlisberger led a game-winning drive. By giving Brien his redemption, Roethlisberger loses out on a 4QC/GWD and picks up a home one-and-done.
Glory-to-Ruin Play No. 2: 2005 AFC divisional at Indianapolis
Obviously, Roethlisberger did nothing wrong on the famed Bettis fumble. The handoff was good, but the tackle was right on the ball to pop it out. Roethlisberger's tackle was fantastic and saved Bettis' Hall of Fame bust, but the most common reaction to the play is, why didn't Nick Harper just go down the sideline? He kept looking to his left before actually cutting right into the path of Roethlisberger instead of going to the right for what could have been a most devastating touchdown with just over a minute left. Without this early Super Bowl run on his resume, Roethlisberger might still be looking at an uphill battle for Canton.
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Ruin-to-Glory Play No. 1: 2007 AFC wild-card game vs. Jacksonville
Roethlisberger led an 18-point comeback in the fourth quarter, but Pittsburgh only led 29-28. Jacksonville faced a fourth-and-2 at the Pittsburgh 43 with 1:56 left. A failure to convert would have ended the game. David Garrard scrambled for a 32-yard run, setting up Josh Scobee for a 25-yard game-winning field goal with 37 seconds left. Months after the game, Mike Pereira oddly admitted that officials missed a holding call on the run that would have set up fourth-and-12 (win probability: 0.17). Gee, nice timing. Maybe Jacksonville still would have pulled out the 31-29 win, or maybe Roethlisberger can say he led the largest fourth-quarter comeback in playoff history. Either way, the Steelers likely would have been annihilated in New England the following week.
Glory-to-Ruin Play No. 3: 2015 AFC wild-card game at Cincinnati
Don't the Bengals deserve a break? This one looked over with Roethlisberger's injured shoulder and Landry Jones having just thrown a terrible pick with 1:36 left. But the Steelers had three timeouts. You would never have expected Hill to fumble right away, but he did thanks to Ryan Shazier. Had Hill not fumbled, the Bengals could have just run out the clock or at least kicked a field goal to take a 19-15 lead with barely a minute left. Good luck to Roethlisberger driving a long field with no timeouts and an aching right arm. We could also just go right to the foolish Vontaze Burfict penalty for a cheap shot, which directly led to the Adam Jones penalty, gifting the Steelers a 35-yard field goal to win the game.
Ruin-to-Glory Play No. 2: 2015 AFC divisional round at Denver
Again, we are not too sure what the outcome would have been without Toussaint's fumble with 9:52 left in a 13-12 game, but it could have gotten as good as a 20-12 lead for Pittsburgh. Just as we were stretching to find a loss for Manning, we are just going to include this as a way to get Roethlisberger another win. Just like 2004 and our "Earth 2" version of 2007 here, it probably would have meant getting crushed by the Patriots again the following week.
Russell Wilson: Red Zone Danger
Just a four-year pro, Wilson has already had a very eventful postseason career with a 7-3 record and two trips to the Super Bowl. Six of his playoff games have featured a team inside the opponent's 40-yard line in the final minute of the fourth quarter in a one-score game. A few more Marshawn Lynch runs at the goal line and Wilson might have been to three Super Bowls to begin his career. The only real thorough loss was his last game after falling into a 31-0 hole in Carolina. No onside kick magic that time, but Wilson's Seahawks sure have seen some crazy outcomes already.
Glory Play No. 1: 2012 NFC divisional round at Atlanta
Seattle trailed 27-7 to start the fourth quarter, but Wilson led an impressive comeback. The Seahawks had first-and-goal from the Atlanta 2 with 34 seconds left and three timeouts. If there was ever a time to be inefficient at scoring, this was it. Lynch scored on first down, leaving Matt Ryan enough time to set up Matt Bryant for a 49-yard game-winning field goal in Atlanta's 30-28 win. This was definitely a defensive letdown as Atlanta's win probability was just 0.12 to start its drive, but had Lynch taken an extra run or two to score, Ryan would likely have never had enough time to drive for the win. The Seahawks would have then traveled to San Francisco for the NFC Championship Game. Given the way that series has gone, Wilson had a decent shot at becoming the first rookie quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl, but he instead takes a loss here in one of his best career games.
In fact, Wilson has the two highest QBR scores in playoff losses since 2006: 90.6 in Atlanta and 87.7 in Super Bowl XLIX. He also has two of the three lowest QBR scores in playoff wins: 16.8 vs. 2014 Packers and 21.3 in Minnesota this year.
Ruin Play No. 1: 2013 NFC Championship Game vs. San Francisco
Wilson could only watch from the sideline as Colin Kaepernick was driving the 49ers with a 23-17 deficit in the final minutes. The 49ers reached the Seattle 18 with 30 seconds and two timeouts left, but Kaepernick got a little greedy and went for the dagger with a throw to Michael Crabtree in the end zone. Richard Sherman tipped the pass to Malcolm Smith for a game-clinching interception with 22 seconds left and the 49ers were history. Wilson advanced to the Super Bowl, but Seattle came this close to blowing another fourth-quarter lead.
This play is basically the difference between Seattle being known as an almost dynasty vs. NFL's biggest chokers pic.twitter.com/RGdk2g8gTX
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) October 20, 2015
On a side note, how different would Kaepernick's career look with a couple of better throws to Crabtree in the red zone?
Ruin Play No. 2: 2014 NFC Championship Game vs. Green Bay
Seattle trailed 19-7 with 3:52 left, but got the first touchdown it needed. An onside kick was crucial with one timeout remaining and Green Bay's Brandon Bostick botched the recovery with 2:07 left. Had the Packers recovered, their win probability would have been 0.95. Seattle's last hope would have been having just over 70 seconds to drive a long field for a game-winning touchdown. Instead, the short-field touchdown worked and a crazy two-point conversion pass from Wilson to Luke Willson gave the Seahawks a 22-19 lead. Green Bay forced overtime, but the Seahawks got the ball first and won on Wilson's pass to Jermaine Kearse. There was a small chance the Seahawks could still have won this one in regulation without the recovery, but any time you get an unexpected onside kick recovery, you should thank your lucky stars.
Glory Play No. 2: Super Bowl XLIX vs. New England
You might be wondering why the costliest interception in NFL history is on this list since Wilson threw it, but that is the whole problem. Why were the run-heavy Seahawks throwing the ball at the 1-yard line with Lynch in the backfield? The strategy should have been to run, run, and run on fourth down if you had to. People will say the Kearse catch to get them down there was lucky, and it was, but that also set up this botched finish since Seattle burned a timeout there. Had the Seahawks gotten down to the goal line in a different fashion, we may have seen an ending similar to Super Bowl XLII, but instead Malcolm Butler is immortalized. Seattle also would have won had Lynch broken one more tackle, getting past Donta' Hightower at the 1 on the play before the interception.
Ruin Play No. 3: 2015 NFC wild-card game at Minnesota
The ramifications of this one were limited after Seattle's loss in Carolina, but what an ending. Minnesota had three cracks at erasing a 10-9 deficit, and the third appeared to be the charm. But that was when Blair Walsh shockingly missed a 27-yard field goal wide left with 22 seconds left to effectively end the game. It is the shortest do-or-die field goal miss in the Super Bowl era.
We know Wilson says his prayers, but they seem to be answered a lot.
I Feel My Luck Could Change
If it wasn't for bad luck, Manning would not have any luck in the postseason.
That was going to be the first line to this piece when I started working on it a few weeks ago, but perhaps Manning's luck is changing before our eyes. Despite the worst season of his career, Manning finally has a defense that can carry him to success. Despite missing six games with injury, Manning was healthy for Week 17 just in time to clinch a No. 1 seed for the Broncos that would not have been possible without the Patriots losing in Miami that afternoon. Instead of drawing a Kansas City team that knocked him out of commission in Week 10, Manning drew the Steelers, who were missing their leading receiver and rusher, and had the lowest-ranked pass defense in the AFC playoff field. The Broncos were able to rally in the fourth quarter to set up another AFC Championship Game with Brady and the Patriots, who are now 2-7 in Denver since 2001. Manning's defense rose to the occasion by stopping the most pivotal two-point conversion attempt we have ever seen in Denver's 20-18 win.
Sunday night appears to be Manning's swan song. He enters in a very unfamiliar role: an underdog and a game manager. One last vintage performance to finish on top as the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl would be right out of a Hollywood screenplay.
A second ring should get the critics to ease up on Manning's playoff resume, which would then only trail the likes of quarterbacks from the dynasty teams: Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, and Brady. One player does not make a dynasty, yet Manning's achievement of reaching four Super Bowls with four different head coaches and two franchises may never be equaled. While he will not win four Super Bowls, becoming the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams would be the most fitting accomplishment in his career. The fact that his two championships would come in the two postseasons where his teammates most stepped up for him just reinforces football as the ultimate team game where the margin between winning and losing is razor-thin.
There will always be the fans that place the most importance on rings and playoff records. Then there are the people who just care about how the player performed. Did he put his team in a position to win the game? Manning did that with the best of them. Greatest regular-season quarterback? Check. Greatest playoff quarterback? We saw only glimpses of that, but that is enough for some of us when appreciating the full picture.