NFL

Eli's leap could come in Peyton's place

New York Giants talk after their arrival in Indianapolis
New York Giants talk after their arrival in Indianapolis
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Mark Kriegel

Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for FOXSports.com. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

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INDIANAPOLIS

He’s been here before, a former Super Bowl MVP, in fact. But even now, after the finest of his eight professional seasons, there’s something about Eli Manning that says, “Little Brother.”

It could be the softness of his features, the nondescript quality in his voice, or the inscrutable expression that could pass for either a smirk or a smile. More than that — and now more than ever — it’s the ubiquitous, if unseen, presence of his older brother.

Peyton and Eli are the second and third sons of the first family of quarterbacking. Still, the improbable idea of a Super Bowl in a moderately sized Midwestern city — right down to the venue itself — owes everything to the Colts quarterback.

Lucas Oil Stadium is well and justifiably known as the House that Peyton Built. Just the same, it’s become the prospective stage for his kid brother’s greatest glory.

Super Bowls aren’t supposed to be subtle affairs, and on that count, this one won’t disappoint. The theme of succession could not be more obvious.

Eli, whose NFL career has been marked by a chronic lack of respect, now stands to exceed Peyton with a second Super Bowl victory. Peyton, thought by many to be the greatest passer ever to play, may never play again.

“I’m not looking at the fact that this is where Peyton has played his career,” Eli said during Tuesday’s Media Day. “I’m just trying to go out there and play my best football and get a championship for the New York Giants.”

Nice try. But what about sports’ most famously good-natured sibling rivalry?

“I am five years younger than Peyton, but growing up we would always compete,” Eli said. “When I got a little bit older, 15 or 16 years old, we could finally start being on the same level and compete in playing basketball, pingpong or pool . . . Competition is a great thing. It brings out the best in people. It does make you work harder, to try to get to that level where you can compete with your older brother . . .”

In other words, the Mannings regard competition as both natural and learned behavior, instinct and ethos. And it doesn’t suddenly stop because that older brother is likely at the end of his career.

“The No. 1 priority right now is for him to get back 100 percent,” said Eli of his brother. “I’d love to see him back playing football next year in Indianapolis. Hopefully, that’s the case . . .”

STEP RIGHT UP

The annual Super Bowl Media Day always turns into a circus.

Now that Media Day has been turned into a kind of spectator event, the remark drew great applause from the stands — especially from the legions wearing those No. 18 Colts jerseys. But one can’t help to think them overly optimistic. Forget what you’ve heard in the last 24 hours. It’s Feb. 1, 2012, Peyton Manning hasn’t played a game in almost 13 months, and with just weeks to go before his $28 million bonus is due, his physical state remains a matter of conjecture.

That’s not a good sign for Peyton. But it’s an unmistakable harbinger of change. A Giants victory will forever change the calculus, in the family and in football.

“As a player,” Eli cautioned, “I don’t think you think about your legacy.”

As a brother — a Manning, especially — you do. You can’t help it. So, Eli was asked again, will you best your brother?

“Since I’ve been watching football, I haven’t seen anybody play at a higher level than he has,” he said. “It has always been my goal to get to his level of football, to get to his level of play.”

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At 31, this isn’t Eli’s last chance, but it may be his best. Four years ago, in the Giants’ last Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, Manning the Younger was seen — erroneously, it turned out — as along for the ride. This time, he’s been deemed — quite justifiably — the reason the Giants arrived in this championship round.

“He’s been able to stand in there and make the most difficult plays,” said Tom Coughlin, the only NFL head coach Eli has known. “He’s literally taken this team on his shoulders.”

Coming off a bad year, Eli’s numbers were, well, elite: 29 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 4,933 yards. There were also six game-winning, fourth quarter drives this season. Still, more than all that, was his command of the offense, and the players who run it.

“Been running the same offense my whole career,” he noted.

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His receivers, too: “It’s the only system they know.”

In 2008, Manning’s receivers included Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer. They were both greatly talented. But Toomer was at the end of a career that began in 1996 with Dave Brown as quarterback. Burress was famously recalcitrant. And Manning, for his part, was still smarting from remarks of the type uttered by Tiki Barber, who said the kid brother suffered from a lack of leadership skills.

By contrast, Hakeem Nicks is 24. Victor Cruz is in his second year. That’s more than 2,700 yards of receiving right there. Mario Manningham is the old man of the receiving corps, in his fourth season at 25.

Manning calls them together for a meeting after practice on Fridays. “I’m not trying to coach them,” he says. “I’m just trying to get them touchdowns.”

The receivers wouldn’t consider the system Coughlin’s so much as Eli’s. They are his guys. This is Eli’s team. And the stadium his brother built?

Well, that could be his, too.

Tagged: Colts, Giants, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Victor Cruz

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