Peyton Manning is headed to the Super Bowl for the third time in his career. His first two appearances were during his long tenure with the Indianapolis Colts. Though Manning has just one ring to his name, that's one more than any other player taking part in this year's game between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. Wes Welker (twice), Jacob Tamme (once) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (once) have all been to the big game, but none have won. No member of the Seahawks has appeared in a Super Bowl.
Given that fact, it's surprising that Manning is still occasionally mentioned as a quarterback who can't come through when the games become do-or-die. He would fully acquit himself with a win. Not only would he have a second ring, but his career playoff record would improve to 12-11, putting him over .500 in postseason games for the first time since 2009.
That record would pair nicely with some admirable postseason records. No quarterback has thrown for more than 300 yards more times in the postseason (eight) than Manning. He is also one of only just four players to ever record a perfect quarterback rating in the playoffs, the last before him being Dave Krieg in 1983. A win would also keep Manning from taking outright possession of a dubious record. With 11 playoff losses, Manning is tied with Brett Favre for the most in NFL history. He already owns the record for the most first-round losses with eight.
We can't yet know for sure what we'll see out of Manning on Sunday. Whatever happens has the potential to swing the playoff debate significantly, however. Manning has now appeared in two Super Bowls, and both tell a different story.
Super Bowl XLI, Feb. 4, 2007 -- Colts 29, Bears 17
Catcalls claiming "Peyton isn't clutch" were never louder than entering the playoffs after the 2006 NFL season. Manning played in nine playoff games during his first eight seasons in the league, and won just three. Admittedly, he played poorly in his first three postseason games, all first-round exits in 1999, 2000 and 2002. He was able to get past the first round the next two seasons, but inevitably came crashing down against the New England Patriots. In two losses against the Pats, Manning completed just 56.1 percent of his passes and threw one touchdown to five interceptions.
Manning's Colts finally conquered the New England hump in 2007, however, to set up a Super Bowl bout against the Bears. Then Manning conquered his critics. Though a Rex Grossman-led Bears offense was hardly up to task, Manning still had to solve a stout defense. He responded by winning Super Bowl MVP honors. Manning went 25-for-38 passing for 247 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
While the numbers aren't eye-popping, consider what Manning was facing. The Bears ranked first in the league giving just 5.0 yards per attempt. They ranked second with 24 interceptions on the season with 18 passing touchdowns allowed. This year's Seahawks secondary is better giving up and even better 4.8 YPA and 28:16 INT:TD ratio, granted, but don't say Manning hasn't performed well against elite teams in the highest of pressure situations.
Super Bowl XLIV, Feb. 7, 2010 -- Saints 31, Colts 17
Manning was coming off his fourth MVP season, but he was clearly outdueled by Drew Brees. The Colts entered the game as favorites. Manning racked up big numbers to help Indianapolis to a 14-0 start during the regular season. At one point the team looked like it could go undefeated, but head coach Jim Caldwell played his starters sparingly to close the season and the Colts skidded into the playoffs on a two-game losing streak.
Manning's Super Bowl numbers look fine at a glance -- 31-for-45, 333 yards, one touchdown and one interception -- but he made one mistake that quickly entered Super Bowl lore. On what could have been a game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter, at exactly the right time for Manning to prove his "clutchness," Tracy Porter stepped in front of a routine slant pattern and returned an interception 74 yards to give the Saints a 31-17 lead with 3:12 to play.
Brees went 32-for-39 for 288 yards and two touchdowns to earn MVP honors of his own. Manning's playoff record dipped back down to .500, 9-9 overall, and he has since suffered first-round exits with the Colts in 2010 and the Broncos last season.
So will Sunday finally settle the Great Manning Playoff Debate? Maybe. Maybe not. Manning is already a unanimous Hall of Famer with a potential claim to G.O.A.T. regardless of the game's outcome. There's no doubt that a win over the Seahawks would put an emphatic stamp on his career, however.