John Elway and Peyton Manning Super Bowl Simulation From image

Elway and Manning Super Bowl Simulation

We simulate every John Elway and Peyton Manning Super Bowl appearance
January 30, 2014

The careers of John Elway and Peyton Manning overlapped for just one season. In 1998, Elway won his second consecutive Super Bowl while Manning was cutting his chops as an NFL rookie. Both were No. 1 overall picks (Elway in 1983, Manning in 1998), NFL MVPs (Elway in 1987, Manning in 2003, 2004, 2008 and 2009) and Super Bowl MVPs (Elway in 1998, Manning in 2006).

Despite the plaudits that both have received, their careers have not been free of detractors. Manning is criticized for an 11-11 playoff record and apparent cold-weather kryptonite he's 4-7 in games with a kickoff temperature below 32 degrees. Should the Broncos falter in the Super Bowl behind a less-than-stellar performance from Manning, it will be considered damning evidence of his shortcomings. (Never mind that the Seahawks surrender 172 passing yards per game, easily the fewest in the league.)

Elway, meanwhile, may have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he was considered incapable of winning the big game for much of his career. Elway's Broncos made three trips to the Super Bowl in the 1980s and fell woefully short each time. In contests against the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers, the Broncos were defeated by a combined score of 136-40. While Elway's performance in those first three Super Bowls certainly left much to be desired (he completed a combined 46-101 passes for 649 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions), it may have been unfair to say that Elway choked. His five Super Bowl appearances, after all, are a record only Tom Brady can match. Moreover, perhaps the Broncos simply played superior teams during Elway's first three Super Bowl trips. Using our NFL simulation engine, which takes into account a team's statistical makeup, we "played" each of Elway's Super Bowl games 1,001 times for an unbiased determination of the outcome that should have occurred:

John Elway Super Bowl Appearances
Win %
Avg. ScoreSimulate Game
XXI1986 New York Giants37.621.1 - 25.1SimMatchup >
XXII1987 Washington Redskins33.725.4 - 30.2SimMatchup >
XXIV1989 San Francisco 49ers22.819.2 - 29.7SimMatchup >
XXXII1997 Green Bay Packers37.325.1 - 29.4SimMatchup >
XXXIII1998 Atlanta Falcons60.828.6 - 25.2SimMatchup >

According to the simulations, the Broncos were only favored in one of Elway's five Super Bowl appearances, a 1998 matchup with the Falcons that resulted in a 34-19 Denver victory. The Broncos also beat the Packers 31-24 in 1997 despite Vegas oddsmakers favoring Green Bay by 11 points. Not exactly an outcome that fits the "can't win the big game" narrative. While the simulations don't exactly excuse the shellackings the Broncos experienced in the 1980s, the results do reveal that Elway and the Broncos were overmatched against their first four title-game foes.

We again deployed our simulation engine to see how Manning's Super Bowl squads in Indianapolis should have fared, as well as this year's Broncos vs. Seahawks matchup:

Peyton Manning Super Bowl Appearances
Win %
Avg. ScoreSimulate Game
XLI2006 Chicago Bears60.429.0 - 26.6SimMatchup >
XLIV2009 New Orleans Saints40.630.6 - 34.5SimMatchup >
XLVIII2013 Seattle Seahawks50.723.0 - 24.0SimMatchup >

The simulations suggest that Manning's 1-1 record in Super Bowls is an accurate reflection of his team's chances. This is in contrast to the perception of the Colts-Saints tilt that capped the 2009 season. Going into the game, Indianapolis was considered by many to be the better team, a viewpoint that was seemingly confirmed when the Colts built a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. As the Colts' advantage was slowly relinquished, highlighted by an errant Manning throw that Tracy Porter returned for a touchdown, it seemed that Manning and the Colts failed with the odds stacked in their favor. Our simulation engine tells a different tale though. Perhaps the Saints were the more likely victors all along.

Much of Manning's legacy, right or wrong, will depend on his performance in Super Bowl XLVIII. Don't be too quick to overemphasize the outcome of one game though. As Elway demonstrated, labels are often proven inaccurate, if they were ever accurate in the first place.

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