By Kerry J. Byrne, Special to SI.com, ColdHardFootballFacts.com
Kurt Warner did more than lift the historically dysfunctional Cardinals franchise into its first Super Bowl on Sunday. He also lifted himself past the Chosen One, Peyton Manning, to right behind Tom Brady on the list of the best quarterbacks in the NFL today.
His performance against Philly in the NFC title game was classic big-game Warner, the type we've rarely seen out of Manning in the playoffs. The Eagles entered the NFC title game with one of the league's best defenses: they ranked fourth in scoring (289 points allowed) and fifth in defensive passer rating (72.9).
It didn't matter.
Warner torched this stingy unit, completing 21 of 28 passes (75 percent) for 279 yards, 9.96 yards per attempt, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 145.7 passer rating.
It was a nearly perfect statistical game. In fact, over the course of the game, Warner jumped past Joe Montana and into second place on the all-time postseason passer rating list: Warner now boasts a 97.3 postseason passer rating; Montana, 95.6. Only the great Bart Starr was better in the playoffs (104.8).
That's not to say Warner is a better quarterback than Montana. He's not. Montana did it over more games and was nearly flawless in four Super Bowl victories. But it does tell us that Warner's performances over his unusual 11-year NFL career have been nothing less than historic in their nature.
It also tells us that Warner is better than Manning.
There are a surprising number of similarities between Manning and Warner.
They both joined the NFL in 1998. They both spent the bulk of their careers playing in domes, giving them plenty of opportunity to cook up fat, juicy stats. And both were often surrounded by great offensive talent. Hell, both of them played with Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James.
The similarities are apparent in the Cold, Hard Football Facts, too:
The two are tight as ticks statistically in the regular season.
Yet there are two major differences between Warner and Manning. They are differences that tell us Warner is the better quarterback even as the misguiding light called reputation says otherwise.
First, Manning was anointed for his greatness as early as high school and the reputation followed him to the University of Tennessee and into the pros, while Warner followed an unusual path from small college (Northern Iowa) to second-rate pro leagues before injury handed him a shot in the NFL. Warner simply doesn't carry the same perception in the eyes of the pigskin public, even as the Cold, Hard Football Facts demand that he deserves the same Manning-style exaltation.
Second, when it comes to all-important postseason play, there is no comparison: Warner is better than Manning any which way you want to slice it or dice it.
Warner in the postseason (10 games):
230 of 360 (63.9 percent), 2,991 yards, 8.31 YPA, 299 yards per game, 23 TD, 12 INT, 97.3 passer rating.
Manning in the postseason (15 games):
348 of 565 (61.6 percent), 4,207 yards, 7.4 YPA, 280 yards per game, 22 TD, 17 INT, 84.9 passer rating.
You'll notice Warner is better than Manning in almost every single efficiency stat and has actually thrown more postseason TD passes than Manning (23 to 22) -- despite playing in five fewer games.
You'll also notice Warner's postseason passer rating (97.3) is higher than his regular-season passer rating (93.8), while Manning's postseason passer rating (84.9) is significantly lower than his regular-season passer rating (94.7).
In other words, Warner's play improves in the postseason pressure cooker. Manning's performances plummet.
Three other things to consider:
1)Warner is much more likely to play well in the postseason. Warner produced a passer rating of 90.0 or better in six of 10 postseason games. Manning produced a passer rating of 90.0 or better in six of 15 postseason games.
2) Warner is far less likely to lay an egg in the postseason. Manning has played his worst statistical game of the year in the playoffs in 1999, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006 (as measured by passer rating). Three times in 15 playoff games Manning has posted a passer rating of less than 40 (compared with just twice in 176 regular season games).
Warner has never performed so poorly in the playoffs. In his worst statistical game, his passer rating was 56.2.
3) Most importantly, Warner's teams are much more likely to win the playoffs. Warner's teams are 8-2 in postseason play. Manning's Colts are 7-8 in postseason play. In all of history, only Brady (14-3; .824) and Starr (9-1; .900) boast better postseason records than Warner.
Warner is also gearing up for his third Super Bowl start. The list of quarterbacks who have started more is short: John Elway, Terry Bradshaw, Jim Kelly, Montana and Brady.
So what we have in Warner is a quarterback who's as good statistically as anyone who's ever played the position. He's also a two-time MVP, a Super Bowl champion and a Super Bowl MVP.
He'll soon join the short list of quarterbacks who have started three Super Bowls and he's on an even shorter list -- a list that includes only him -- of quarterbacks who got to those three Super Bowls with two different teams (Craig Morton only started two Super Bowls for two teams, Dallas and Denver).
More remarkable is that Warner has done it with historically dysfunctional organizations. Before Warner took them to the big game, the Rams had reached just one Super Bowl (XIV) in their history, including their time in Los Angeles. Warner led the franchise to its only Super Bowl victory and to its first NFL title since 1951. The Rams have fallen off the face of the earth since he left.
Reaching this year's Super Bowl with the 9-7, defensively deficient Cardinals is nothing short of a miracle. The Cardinals are easily the worst franchise in league history: they had won just two playoff games in their first 88 years of NFL football. Yet they've won three playoff games this month alone, and they head to the Super Bowl with what's easily the worst defense (426 points allowed) of any conference champion in league history.
For his part, Manning remains the Picasso of Choke Artists and the master of the one-and-done. Six times in nine visits his vaunted Colts have exited the playoffs without a single victory and he's underperformed almost each and every time.
Given Manning's and Warner's career accomplishments, we'd take Warner over Manning to lead our team six days a week and certainly on Sunday -- especially if that Sunday is in January.
Online Executive Producer Nate Leding