Peyton Manning has traveled to New England to do battle more times than a Redcoat.
“It seems like I sure do go there a lot,” the Denver Broncos quarterback told reporters on Wednesday with a chuckle. “I don’t know how that always works. I guess it’s random, they say, but it’s been strange how that works out.”
Strange, yes, but not totally random. Including this Sunday’s game against Tom Brady and the Patriots, Manning will have played on the road nine times and at home just five. So what’s with the disparity between home and away splits when the NFL’s schedule is normally tilted toward competitive balance?
To answer that question, you have to remove Manning and Brady’s three playoff matchups, where the team with the higher seed gets home field advantage (two of those three games were played in New England). Furthermore, you can toss out the first two games between the Colts and the Patriots in 2001, due to the fact they were divisional rivals before the NFL realigned its conferences and divisions prior to the 2002 season. The Patriots won both those games in Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl-winning season (in fact, his first NFL start came against Manning and the Colts in Week 3 of 2001).
That leaves nine games against the Patriots in Peyton Manning’s career as QB of the Colts and the Denver Broncos and a split of 3-6 home and away. The uneven distribution is due to two factors: 1) The random scheduling of games between “non-common opponents” and 2) The scheduling disruption created by Manning’s signing with the Broncos.
The first factor explains why Manning and Brady have faced each other so often. With it’s mathematically balanced realignment of 2002 (two conferences made up of four divisions comprised of four teams), the NFL’s 16 game schedule became a wonder of symmetry, fairness, and predictability. Besides the six intra-division games each year, all teams in a division play four games against a non-conference division every four years, alternating home-and-away (for instance, Monday night’s game between the Patriots and the Panthers was the first time New England had played Carolina since the 2009 season, and it was the Panthers first home game against them since 2005). They also play an entire division inside their own conference every three years (such as the AFC East playing the AFC North this season), again with home-and-away splits.
This leaves two games which are decided by divisional record from the previous season. Since the Broncos and the Patriots both won their divisions last year, they play each other (along with Baltimore and Houston, respectively) in one of the two games of non-common opponents to the rest of their division. Because of their last place divisional finish, the Broncos rival Kansas City played Buffalo and Cleveland, teams that also finished fourth.
When you have Tom Brady and Peyton Manning on your team, you’re pretty much guaranteed to win your division, which is why they square off seemingly every year (in fact, they have, barring 2002 and the two combined seasons in which the QBs were out with injuries). These matchups are trickier to schedule in terms of alternating home and away games, but until Manning was signed by the Broncos, he had played relatively equitable four regular season games against the Patriots on the road and three at home.
The swing came when Manning came to Denver and had to adjust to their scheduling. Denver played New England last season by virtue of their division championship earned under Tim Tebow (remember that!), the same reason why they’re playing again this year. And Manning vs. Brady XV is already scheduled for next year, as the AFC West plays the AFC East. Since their last regular-season meeting under those circumstances took place in Denver (when the Pats brought Tebow’s six-game winning streak to a crushing halt), next year’s game figures to be in Foxboro, pushing Manning’s total home/ away split against Brady to 5-10 (barring a playoff rematch this season).
So there you have it. It might seem unfair how frequently Manning has had to face Brady on the road (and it might partially explain his overall 4-9 record against him), but there is a logic behind it. The scheduling Gods might be all-powerful, but they’re far from capricious.