When it comes to regular-season excellence, no one does it better than Peyton Manning.
And when it comes to playoff gamesmanship, no one ... well ...
A lot of quarterbacks do, or have done it, better. Like Tom Brady, Joe Montana and John Elway. And Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw. And Eli Manning, Bart Starr and Bob Griese.
Each of the above has two or more rings.
Even Jim Plunkett has two.
This is where the legacy gets complicated. Or downright messy. It is, after all, simply impossible to evaluate Peyton’s career without distinguishing the regular season from the postseason.
They tell dramatically different stories.
Nothing illustrates that more than Saturday’s playoff crash against Baltimore, the latest sad chapter in a familiar theme.
Peyton’s team was heavily favored to win. It didn’t.
End of story.
How many times did the same drama play out during 14 seasons in Indianapolis?
With one notable exception, it happened almost annually. Magical regular seasons were segues to bitter postseason disappointment. For inexplicable reasons, the magic always seemed to just disappear.
Just like it did Saturday night, when yet another MVP-caliber season was marred by yet another playoff disappointment. This one largely — though not exclusively — the result of egregious quarterback error.
You know what happened. Peyton committed three turnovers, including an interception for a touchdown, and another in double overtime that set up Baltimore’s game-winning field goal.
And so it goes with Peyton, who entered the playoffs coming off one of the best regular-seasons of his career. He threw 37 touchdown passes. He had a 105.8 passer rating. He had the Broncos on an 11-game winning streak. He led them to the NFL’s best record and No. 1 seed in the AFC.
But in the end, he threw an ugly pass — across his body toward the middle of the field — that landed in the hands of Baltimore’s Corey Graham.
Six plays later, the Ravens — who had lost four of their last five regular-season games — had a shocking victory, and Peyton had another playoff failure to rue.
In all, Peyton is 9-11 in the postseason. Eight times, his teams have been one-and-done. His career regular-season passer rating is 95.7. In the playoffs, it’s 86.2.
In terms of what it all means for his legacy, it makes it mixed to say the least.
Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Peyton an all-time great — a surefire Hall of Famer, a renowned perfectionist whose four MVP awards speak volumes to his superstar status.
Barring a mild injustice, he’ll get MVP nod No. 5 in a few weeks. Four is already unprecedented. A fifth would simply be another exclamation mark on an already iconic career.
As a one-time Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl MVP, Peyton is guaranteed not to go the way of Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkington, Dan Fouts and a host of other prolific passers whose Hall of Fame credentials were never validated by a championship.
Yet in one significant way, Peyton’s career has a ring of incompleteness. Fair or unfair, it seems a player with his unique cerebral and physical skill-set would have — should have — more than one championship.
True, he’s been to two Super Bowls, but the second ended in ignominy when his late fourth-quarter interception ensured the Saints a 31-17 win in 2010.
To be sure, it takes more than one player to win or lose a game. But for the better part of 14 seasons, the sole reason the Colts won games was because of Peyton. And for most of his first season in Denver, the Broncos won for much the same reason.
Yet for reasons that simply don’t make sense, the playoffs just haven’t been Peyton’s best place.
But as they used to say in Indy, “Maybe next year.”