Eli an impact player — on NFL history

BY Jason Whitlock • February 5, 2012

For most of us, Sunday’s Super Bowl is the most significant we’ve ever witnessed. We either weren’t around or weren’t old enough to see Joe Willie Namath back up his guarantee, legitimize the AFL and turn the NFL’s season finale into a national holiday.

Super Bowl III played out eight days before President Richard Nixon took office, six months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, when gas sold for 35 cents a gallon and Madonna was like a 10-year-old virgin.

Yeah, Jan. 12, 1969 — the day Namath exited the Orange Bowl wagging his index finger after leading the Jets to an upset of the Colts — was a long time ago.

Feb. 5, 2012 — the day Eli Manning surpassed his big brother, cemented Tom Coughlin’s legacy and damaged Tom Brady’s and Bill Belichick’s reputations with another scintillating, fourth-quarter touchdown drive — is still fresh in our minds.

And it just might be another four decades before we see an NFL game as significant as the Giants’ 21-17 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

The victory Eli Manning engineered inside The House Peyton Built could dramatically change, for the worse, the narrative on three of the biggest names in all of sports (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick).

Let’s start with Eli’s older brother, Peyton. When it comes to postseason play, Peyton is not on Eli’s level. Eli is Mr. Clutch, Mr. Postseason, Mr. Fourth Quarter, Captain Comeback. He has earned two Super Bowl MVP awards. He twice has made spectacular, final-possession throws on game-winning Super Bowl drives.

Four years ago, he scrambled away from pressure and heaved a rainbow to David Tyree that eventually allowed the Giants to beat the Patriots. On Sunday, Eli dropped a 38-yard dime to Mario Manningham that ignited New York’s final scoring drive.

Eli is 8-3 in the playoffs with 17 touchdown passes, eight interceptions and two Super Bowl titles. Peyton is 9-10 with 29 TDs, 19 INTs and one Super Bowl title.

Eli is 31 years old and in the prime of his career. Peyton is 35 with a bad neck and an uncertain future. Eli will never match Peyton’s regular-season passing records or awards. Peyton will never match Eli’s swagger.

For his career, Joe Namath threw 47 more INTs than TDs. Statistically, Namath was a mess. But Joe had Broadway, swag and Super Bowl III.

The New York media are going to permanently change Eli’s name to Elite Manning. Eli’s preseason proclamation of elite status is the equivalent of Namath’s guarantee. The more the media elevate Eli, the further Peyton sinks.

Peyton is the new Dr. J, the spectacular player and ambassador who isn’t regarded as a champion on the same level as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

And now, suddenly, Tom Brady no longer is on the same platform as Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas. A victory on Sunday would’ve put Brady in the conversation for the greatest of all time. Four Super Bowl titles, two MVPs and a record-setting perfect regular season in 2007 likely would’ve made the NFL’s television partners push the idea that Brady is better than Montana, Unitas and John Elway.

Can’t do it now. Not after Sunday’s performance. Not only did Brady fail to lead a final scoring drive after the Patriots smartly surrendered a TD with 58 seconds to play, but Brady tossed an early-fourth-quarter interception and made a bad throw to Wes Welker on New England's second-to-last possession that prevented the Patriots from icing the game.

Yes, Welker should’ve made the twisting catch. But he was wide open. It was a bad throw.

Only one Patriot had a worse game than Tom Brady. New England guard Logan Mankins won’t get a comfortable night’s sleep for the next 40 years. Mankins got beat on New England’s intentional-grounding safety in the first quarter. Mankins got beat on Brady’s interception. Mankins gave up a sack on New England’s final possession.

(I still remember the ass-whipping Joel Smeenge laid on me during a 1988 game that settled the MAC Championship. Missed blocks in critical games leave scars. They don’t heal.)

Belichick was scarred, too. He spent Super Bowl week being somewhat warm, fuzzy and reflective. He was none of those things in the aftermath of Sunday’s game. He was back to being stoic and brief. He knows the deal. He knows Sunday’s outcome gave fuel to his critics, gave them the opening to bring up Spygate.

Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison celebrated New England’s loss by tweeting: “Told you, cheaters never win!!!!!!!!!”

Belichick might never earn the same level of respect as Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, Don Shula, Joe Gibbs and Tom Landry. What Belichick could do is earn more Super Bowl titles than any of them.

Can he now? He’s one short of Noll’s four. Brady will be 35 at the start of next season. Does Brady have two more Super Bowls in him? It’s been 17 years since a coach (George Seifert) collected an additional Super Bowl ring with a different starting quarterback.

Sunday’s contest could be the last gasp of the Belichick-Brady dynasty. Maybe it’s the start of the Coughlin-Manning era.

Len Dawson and the Kansas City Chiefs finalized the legitimacy of the AFL in Super Bowl IV, beating the Vikings by 16 points. Damaged nerves and Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger might finish off Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

Whatever happens from here, we’ll never think of Eli Manning the same again.

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