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Published: Thursday, 1/31/2008

The Mannings qualify as the First Family of quarterbacks

GLENDALE, Ariz. - They are the Mannings, football's royal family.

Archie, the father, who played for 15 years in the NFL, most of them with New Orleans, almost all of them with bad teams or underachieving teams. He passed for 24,000 yards, played in a couple Pro Bowls. The kids today look at his sons and presume the father was great. He was pretty good; not great. Maybe he didn't have the talent around him to achieve greatness. If life was fair he'd have played in a Super Bowl. But, heck, Archie never was on even a playoff team.

Peyton, the one son, seemingly has made more commercials than Dave Thomas. They're pretty funny, too. He's as comfortable in front of the camera as he is in the pocket. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady pretty much go hand-in-hand as the best quarterbacks in the game. But we watch the commercials and forget Peyton's struggles and heartaches, the playoff failures, the inability to beat Brady until last year, finally, when he took the Indianapolis Colts all the way to a Super Bowl victory. He wore the crown.

Now, 365 days later, give or take, it is the younger son, Eli, who comes here with the New York Giants. And this story may be the best of all.

Back-to-back, jack, at quarterback. In the Super Bowl.

"I'm glad I got to play 15

years," Archie Manning told New York writers last week. "I'm not scarred by the fact I didn't do better or win more. But I'm happy for my kids getting postseason opportunities, for them playing in the Super Bowl back to back. I never would have envisioned anything like that."

As recently as a month ago, he would not have been alone.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning has yet to acquire what big brother and Colts QB Peyton already has - a Super Bowl win. Giants quarterback Eli Manning has yet to acquire what big brother and Colts QB Peyton already has - a Super Bowl win.
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"Heck, four weeks ago, I didn't think we'd be here, to be honest with you," admitted Giants defensive end Michael Strahan.

Eli Manning hadn't achieved greatness four weeks ago. Frankly, he hasn't yet. But he certainly caught lightning in a bottle.

The Giants, fifth-seeded as a wild card in the NFC playoff field, went first to Tampa Bay, and Manning threw two interceptions fewer than did Jeff Garcia. Then he beat Tony Romo in Dallas. Then, on the truly frozen tundra of Green Bay, he thoroughly outplayed Brett Favre from start to finish, perhaps the most amazing feat of all.

In those three games, Manning completed 62 per cent of his passes and did not throw an interception in 85 attempts.

And, now, he comes to Super Bowl XLII, the New England Patriots and none other than Tom Brady, his brother's longtime nemesis, in his sights. Three games don't define a career. Winning this fourth one might.

It was a fight for Eli from the start, from the day he was drafted and then traded by San Diego to New York after telling the Chargers he wouldn't play for them. The whole Manning clan, smug and out of line it seemed, took a hit for that one, but Eli caught it full force because playing in New York is like nowhere else. The media is relentless. The fans? You think Philly fans are tough? The ones who would boo Santa Claus? Try the big mouths in the Big Apple.

"He gets scrutinized more than anyone else in the country, I think," said Giants general manager Jerry Reese.

That scrutiny saw a quarterback struggling. The bad decisions. The ugly interceptions. The crushing defeats. The mumbled attempts at explanations. There was the belief that he would never be his brother. Heck, some critics feared he would never be your brother. New York. It's a bad place to be bad.

Strahan read and heard it all. If it had been about him, he would have started swinging.

"He's taken it," Strahan said. "I don't understand how he did it. But he did it and now he has led us here. I'm proud of the way he has come out of it. My hat is off to Eli and how he has held in there."

Part of it, suggested Archie Manning, is that Eli may not have heard it and, even so, isn't capable of taking it personally.

"He's never been a sports-page guy," Archie said. "Eli's as competitive as anybody, but it's kind of a quiet fire that he has there. He's always had pride, always hated to lose. But he's never been much for ego."

Tom Coughlin, the Giants' coach, lived every step of the climb with his young quarterback. Sometimes he seemed as critical as anyone. But he claims to have known something the rest didn't.

"You write what you see, but you don't see what I see," Coughlin said. "Expectations for Eli were very high, but I knew he was right for it. All he wanted to do was compete and win the job. Our first meeting, he was passionate. He wanted to be the starting quarterback. He wanted to be the leader. Now, he's playing as well as we've seen him and I think there's much more to come."

Eli doesn't worry about the expectations. Never has. Peyton, either.

"Our parents did a great job of not putting expectations on us," Eli said. "They wanted us to be ourselves and do whatever we loved to do. Football was just our best sport. We liked playing, we kept with it and my dad was there to help us and support us. But we had to come to him. He never forced anything on us. It's not about trying to live up to expectations, it just about being yourself, having fun, and trying to do the best you can do."

It was never about trying to live up to Big Brother, either. Peyton had to prove the critics wrong, too. He had to turn the questions into answers. Sometimes, royalty has to earn the crown. A year later, it is Eli's turn.

"As his brother, obviously, I am proud," Peyton said in a recent conference call. "But as a quarterback, I can't tell you how much I appreciate the way he played in those conditions in Green Bay and just coming back from deficits. The same way in Dallas and in Tampa.

"[The Super Bowl] is certainly the biggest game that Eli has ever played in. It was certainly the biggest game I had ever played in last year."

Peyton's Colts, though, were favored against Chicago. To win this one, Eli would have to orchestrate an upset for the ages against the 18-0 Patriots.

Two brothers, back to back, quarterbacking their teams in the Super Bowl, may be enough of an upset.

Or, suggested Peyton, maybe we've seen nothing yet.

How about Manning vs. Manning?

"Maybe next year," Peyton said.

There's a royal flush even Archie wouldn't know how to handle.



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