Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning has been pro football's Great Debate for much of the past decade. We imagine it will continue for decades to come, much like sports fans today still debate the relative merits of, say, Ted Williams vs. Joe DiMaggio.
As far as the Cold, Hard Football Facts are concerned, the argument should have ended long ago.
Brady's ascension to the role of starting quarterback for the Patriots was one of the watershed events in pro football history, instantly launching the New England dynasty and lifting Bill Belichick from quirky but ordinary head coach (53-63 without Brady) to mad genius and extraordinary head coach (123-36 with Brady).
The Patriots passer instantly pieced together a series of record win streaks, won three Super Bowls, captured a pair of Super Bowl MVP awards, engineered two last-second Super Bowl-winning scoring drives, won with machine-like regularity playing with a collection of unknowns and castoffs and proved to be one of the great big-game quarterbacks in history. He's currently in the midst of an unmatched period of statistical success.
Hard to top that resume if your name's not Starr or Montana.
Those who favored Manning as the best of his generation have long had only one arrow in their quiver of arguments: Peyton puts up better stats.
But that argument was tenuous at best. It was based largely on meaningless volume stats. The far more important efficiency stats were much closer than anyone realized.
And now, as of this week, even those efficiency stats point in Brady's favor.
Quietly, Brady passed Manning -- at least for the time being -- in career passer rating during New England's 31-27 win over the Packers Sunday night.
Brady, as of this week, is No. 5 on the career passer rating list (94.94); Manning is No. 6 (94.93).
Yes, it's a statistical dead heat. But you can argue Brady's numbers are the more impressive, coming as they have by playing in one of the NFL's worst-weather arenas. Manning has had the benefit of playing more than half of his career games in stat-inflating domes.
Manning still has much greater volume numbers than Brady, but volume numbers are important only in fantasy football, not in the real football played on Sundays. Remember: the last guy to lead the league in passing yards and win a championship was Johnny Unitas back in 1959.
No, winning in the NFL is all about passing the ball efficiently, no matter how often you pass it. And in the area of efficiency it's obvious that Brady has consistently done more with less and against tougher conditions.
There are three major measures of efficiency that we use at Cold, Hard Football Facts.com because they have such a high correlation to success: TD-INT ratio, passing yards per attempt and passer rating.
Here's how the two quarterbacks stack up over the course of their careers in all three indicators.
Passer rating, as noted above, is a statistical dead heat, while Manning has a quarter-yard advantage in average per attempt. The one big difference is in TD-INT ratio, which Brady dominates.
TD-INT ratio is critical because it indicates a passer who produces points while limiting those killer interceptions.
The importance of points is obvious. The importance of avoiding INTS is not as obvious, but critically important. Keep in mind that every pick decreases a team's chances of winning by a full 20 percentage points. There are few plays in sports more devastating. And Brady's ability to avoid them throughout his career is one of the underappreciated secrets to his success.
Manning, though, has been victimized by critical INTs many times in his career, and threw 11 picks in the space of three games this year. It was the worst period of football in his career. And the Colts lost all three of those games, thanks largely to those mistakes. His four INTs against the Patriots in the 2003 AFC title game cost the Colts a shot at the Super Bowl. And he blew a chance to win the Super Bowl last year with a fourth-quarter pick-six against the Saints.
Brady, for his part, has never thrown more than 14 INTs in an entire season. He's currently in the middle of a period of nearly 300 attempts since his last pick -- dating all the way back to Oct. 17. (He has thrown a few passes into the hands of defenders in recent weeks that were dropped.)
His 31 TDs and 4 INTs this year put Brady on pace for the best single-season TD-INT ratio in history (7.75 to 1), surpassing his 50 and 8 in 2007.
Brady's last three seasons (2007, 2009-10), meanwhile, represent perhaps the best three-season performance by a quarterback in history:
• 1,068 of 1,592 (67.1 percent), 12,765 yards, 8.02 YPA, 109 TD, 25 INT, 107.68 rating.
His '07 season already stands as the second-most efficient in NFL history, with a 117.18 passer rating (behind Manning's 121.11 in 2004).
And with a 109.92 passer rating in '10, Brady is on pace for the seventh-highest rated season in history. Brady will, in all likelihood by season's end, be the only quarterback in history to produce two of the 12 most efficient seasons in history.
One wonders what the numbers might have looked like had Brady not missed essentially all of '08 with a catastrophic knee injury.
The most impressive aspect of Brady's MVP-caliber effort this year is that he's producing monster stats and huge point totals against an absolute murderer's row of defenses.
Seven of Brady's 14 games this year were played against the six stingiest scoring defenses in football (Co-No. 1s Green Bay and Pittsburgh, No. 3 Chicago, No. 4 Baltimore, No. 5 N.Y. Jets (twice) and No. 6 San Diego).
Brady and the Patriots shredded almost all of them. They scored:
• 31 points against Green Bay Sunday night, the most any team has scored this year against the league's stingiest defense (15.7 PPG)• 39 against Pittsburgh, the most any team has ever scored in a regular-season game at Heinz Field• 33 points in the first half alone against Chicago; the Bears have not surrendered more than 26 total points in any other game this year.• 45 points in their second meeting against the Jets; the team has otherwise not given up more than 31 points in a game in two years under Rex Ryan.
From the perspective of individual production, those same six teams all rank in the top 10 in Defensive Passer Rating, a Cold, Hard Football Facts "Quality Stat" and the most effective measure of each team's pass defense. It merely takes the formula used to rate quarterbacks and applies it to pass defenses.
• The Packers are No. 1 in DPR (70.32). Brady posted a 110.2 rating against them with 2 TD and 0 INT.• The Chargers are No. 2 in DPR (72.46). Brady posted an 82.7 rating against them, with 1 TD and 0 INT.• The Bears are No. 3 in DPR (73.00). Brady posted a 113.4 rating against them, with 2 TD and 0 INT.• The Steelers No. 6 in DPR (78.16). Brady posted a 117.4 rating against them, with 3 TD and 0 INT.• The Ravens are No. 7 in DPR (78.20). Brady posted a 69.5 rating against them (lowest of the year), with 1 TD and 2 INT (his last INTs of the season).• The Jets are No. 10 in DPR (79.94). Brady posted a 148.9 rating in his most recent game against them, with 4 TD and 0 INT.
In other words, Brady has played half his schedule against defenses that have shut down every other quarterback and every other offense they've faced this year.
Given the nature of their respective careers, it's only fitting that Brady surpassed Manning in career passer rating Sunday night with a brutally efficient performance, in the cold of New England, against a defense that's the toughest on quarterbacks and the stingiest on the scoreboard.