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Eli's clutch, but he's not the Manning yet

Curtis Conway and Willie McGinest preview the NFC championship game.
Curtis Conway and Willie McGinest preview the NFC championship game.
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Bill Reiter

Bill Reiter reported on LeBron James' first season in Miami and has covered the NBA Finals, Super Bowl, Olympics and NCAA tournament for FOXSports.com. He also co-hosts Hawkins and Reiter on FOX Sports Radio (Sundays, 12-3 p.m. ET), which can be heard on the FOX Sports App, iHeartRadio, XM247 or your local station. Previously, he was an award-winning sports enterprise writer for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter.

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SAN FRANCISCO

Let’s stop with the Eli Manning hysteria.

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First, in August, there was a collective harrumph! when Eli had the gall to answer with bravado when asked during a radio interview if he considered himself a top-10 or even top-five quarterback.

“Yeah,” he said at the time, “I think I am.”

This was followed by a pointed question of whether or not Eli considered himself in the same class as three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.

“I consider myself in that class,” he said. “And Tom Brady is a great quarterback.”

This, of course, led to some serious explanation about why the younger Manning brother is no Peyton — mediocre, solid, reliable, but not a star that shines as bright as big bro or Brady.

And now?

Now, two wins from a second Super Bowl, the talk has shifted considerably. The buzz is that if he can go back to the big game by beating the Niners on Sunday (6:30 p.m., FOX) and again best Brady (or the Ravens, should they emerge from the AFC), Eli is a lock for a hallowed spot in Canton.

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For the love of reason, everyone, let’s slow the hell down.

The past seven quarterbacks enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame were Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Steve Young, Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly and Joe Montana.

They already should have Brady’s bust polished, positioned and waiting for the official nod. Same for Eli’s older brother.

That’s elite company indeed.

To say Eli already may belong on that list is absurd. Let’s not forget Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers each has a Super Bowl ring of his own. Whether or not Eli wins his second Super Bowl in the coming weeks, he still will have work to do to belong in the Hall of Fame conversation.

Two Super Bowls is not automatic admission. Tom Flores won two Super Bowls as a head coach. He is not in the Hall. Neither is Jim Plunkett, who as a player also won two Super Bowls.

The stats don’t support it either. In his first eight seasons, Peyton threw for 33,189 yards, 244 touchdowns and 130 interceptions. Brady passed for 30,762 yards, 225 touchdowns and 99 interceptions in his first full eight. But Eli, who just wrapped up his eighth season, is considerably behind in yardage (27,579) and touchdown passes (185), while having almost as many interceptions as his brother (129).

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What’s more, Peyton and Brady have continued to match and even surpass their early excellence. Brady passed for 5,235 yards this season, the second-highest total in history.

So let’s stick with what we know. Eli Manning is one of the modern era’s best quarterbacks at dealing with, and succeeding despite, massive pressure. He may not be as good as his older brother, but he is more clutch. The very unique, challenging difficulty of being No. 2 for one’s life is what shaped the little brother into the mentally tougher brother.

Forget the Hall of Fame for now. Let’s focus on the fact Eli Manning is one of the gutsiest players in the game — and, perhaps other than Brady, the most adept at handling the unique pressure of the NFL.

Asked for any parallels between himself and Manning, Niners quarterback Alex Smith wisely pointed out the obvious Wednesday: What Eli has gone through trumps even Smith’s own incredible and difficult journey to prove he belonged.

“I’ve never seen any (similarities),” Smith said. “Other than the fact that obviously we’re both first picks. His (situation) I feel like is a little different. To be Peyton’s little brother, No. 1 pick, you go to New York, playing for the Giants — obviously that’s a lot of pressure. I don’t think anyone’s been in the situation he has. Those are pretty unique circumstances. Your older brother is arguably maybe the greatest quarterback ever, and a lot of expectations on you. And then you go to a big city like New York. So, I didn’t have to face those things.”

Who did?

Yes, the NFL is a win-or-else league, and everyone feels the push and pull of the pressure it brings. But Eli always has carried a larger load of expectations. He’s felt a special stress his entire life — part of his own making, as in that radio interview, and part the result of fate and family.

STARGAZING

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Think about this: Your father is Archie Manning, your older brother is Peyton Manning, you decide you don’t want to play in San Diego, so then you force your way to the Giants and the hysteria of New York.

That takes one of two things: Serious balls or an utter lack of common sense.

The difference between Eli and, say, LeBron James is that Eli got it done. It turned out he had the guts to back up the swagger. He has made himself a winner, has proven himself for however long a little brother must when growing up in the shadow of a legend.

That’s the thing about shadows. They can be cold, scary, at times lonely places. And from them can emerge people we didn’t see clearly at all, people made of more than God-given talent, people whose real value was obscured all along.

Sometimes, from the shadows, we get an Eli Manning.

At Mississippi, something about him buzzed with energy — with a sense he was more than his last name.

“As a freshman, I thought he was the greatest quarterback ever,” said Niners linebacker Patrick Willis, who played with Eli at Ole Miss. “That was the best season I’d ever had in football.”

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Willis went on for a while, saying kind things, and then a reporter asked what exactly Eli did to so impress him.

That took only two words to answer: “Winning games.”

Now that’s it. Eli wins. Eli bested an undefeated Patriots team in the 2008 Super Bowl because he can win games. He bounced back from last season’s 25-interception horror show because he’s a winner. He threw for 346 yards in the final game of the regular season against the Dallas Cowboys to squeak into the playoffs because he learned to be that guy as a kid behind Peyton, not as a player on some field of regular football players.

And now, having dispatched the Falcons and the 15-1 Green Bay Packers, Eli and the boys are back to the brink of the big dance.

There will be time in the years ahead to debate whether he’s one of the greatest of all time, or, always the little brother, is just behind such men.

For now, let’s shy away from hyperbole and go with what we know.

We know this is an era of the QB, with Brees, Brady, Peyton, Rodgers and Roethlisberger all among the elite.

We know Eli believes he belongs in that group.

We know, having grown up in his older brother’s shadow, Eli was molded into a man not to be underestimated.

We know Eli is two victories away from his second Super Bowl title.

That wouldn’t guarantee he belongs in the Hall of Fame. But it would prove he’s one of the grittiest, most clutch players of his generation — a surefire winner who grew into a champion in the shadow of his brother.

Win again, and that will be true regardless of whether or not he ever steps far enough outside of that shadow to end up in Canton.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.

Tagged: Packers, Colts, Patriots, Giants, 49ers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Alex Smith

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