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Published: Sunday, 2/5/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Manning could take next step; Brady would cement it

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

INDIANAPOLIS -- Earlier this season, while responding to a question, Eli Manning called himself an elite quarterback. He's been hearing about it ever since.

He's been proving it too.

In the two-week lead-up to the now imminent Super Bowl XLVI some have suggested Manning is so elite as to have stepped even with, or perhaps even beyond, Tom Brady.

Now, let's not get silly here.

Tom Brady may well be the most successful quarterback ever to play in the NFL by the time all is said and done. Some suggest he already has reached that level.

"He's got to be right there at the top," said New England guard Logan Mankins. "I think there are only a couple quarterbacks that have won more Super Bowls. He's still playing, and they're not. I think he's got a shot to go all the way to the top."

Brady will appear in his fifth Super Bowl in 10 years Sunday, trying for his fourth win. If successful, it would tie him with his childhood idol, Joe Montana, and Terry Bradshaw for the most ever. His 16 career playoff victories already have Brady tied with Montana for most all time. That's on top of a 124-35 regular-season record that is the best of any starting quarterback in the Super Bowl era.

So, his place in history is already pretty secure. Not bad for a sixth-round draft pick who shared the starting job his senior year at Michigan, who went to the NFL combine and pretty much laid an egg -- not quick, not agile, not particularly strong of arm.

That's the distant past now, yet Brady would hate a few hours from now to step before the media, as he did two weeks ago following an uneven performance in an AFC Championship win over Baltimore, and say, "I sucked."

Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots' tight end, wasn't surprised.

"Tom's a humble person, and he is a realist," Hernandez said. "He's not going to go up there and act like he played his best game when he didn't. He wants to play [at] the level of the best quarterback of all time in every game. And he is probably the best quarterback to play the game."

Manning, the New York Giants quarterback and Brady's Super Bowl opponent, has already proved, if nothing else, that he is one gutsy quarterback in pressure situations. During this past regular season, Manning set an NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdowns. He's added three more in the postseason. The Giants have needed just about every one of them on their tightrope walk from a 7-7 team to one that has won five straight to reach Lucas Oil Stadium.

He passed for 1,715 fourth-quarter yards, which is 500-plus yards more than he compiled in any other quarter during the regular season. He has completed 120 of 182 attempts and compiled a rather astonishing 110 passer rating during the final 15 minutes of games.

Giants' receiver Mario Manningham calls it Manning's "clutch gene" and says, "I can't explain it. You have to have it in your heart and your mind. Eli hits that peak in the fourth quarter. He knows what he wants to do and knows where to put the ball. Normally, in the fourth quarter, quarterbacks get sluggish. That's when he plays his best ball."

Said Manning: "Those are the situations you want to be in. It's the fourth quarter, the ball is in your hands, and you have to score a touchdown or you have to make a play. Guys get open. It makes my job a lot easier; I just have to hit the open guy."

You might say he plays an elite brand of ball in those circumstances.

Manning can be a tad fiery and defensive -- you can read it in his body language on and off the field -- and he is sensitive to the elite comment.

"Look, I was asked a question," he said last week. "I had to stand up and say I thought I was a good player. I think I can play at a high level."

Now, he simply says he's not into ranking quarterbacks. Let others do it. Fair enough.

Manning has often been in the shadows. His father, Archie, was an NFL quarterback. His brother, Peyton, has been among the very best of 'em with the Colts.

If the comparisons bother Eli, he doesn't let on.

He came into the league in a swirl of controversy. He notified the team with the first pick in the 2004 draft, the San Diego Chargers, he had no interest in playing for them. It forced a draft day trade with the Giants that certainly worked to his advantage, but affected his early popularity.

Brady's draft didn't seem to affect anything. The Patriots had Drew Bledsoe, with whom they were happy, but the undercard wasn't very impressive, so coach Bill Belichick was looking for someone in the later rounds. After his poor combine performance, that's exactly where Brady was waiting.

It is an oft-told story in Boston that during his first conversation with team owner Robert Kraft that Brady said drafting him was "the best decision your franchise ever made."

Asked about that last week, Kraft said, "I believed him. And, now, I'd tell you he's the best quarterback I've seen."

Nobody could have predicted what has happened since Bledsoe got hurt in 2001. Brady is a two-time league MVP and a two-time Super Bowl MVP.

Few would argue with Kraft's recent assessment, and most quarterbacks come up lacking by comparison -- even other so-called elites like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, like Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger. And, of course, there is Eli Manning.

The Giants' starter has improved dramatically, especially after throwing 25 interceptions a season ago as the Giants missed the playoffs for a second straight year.

"The thing I kept telling him was that it was as good of a year as he has had with the exception of the interceptions," said Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. "You can't divorce the two, but don't lose sight of the fact he threw for more yards, more touchdowns, more yards per attempt."

The problem, said Gilbride, was when Manning tried to make something out of nothing.

"He was fully committed to trying to solve that problem," the coach said.

This season, including the playoffs, Manning has 37 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. It is also worth noting that 16.6 percent of his completions were for 20 or more yards. On the other hand, Brady, whose primary targets are tight ends and slot receivers, passed for 20-plus yards 7.9 percent of the time.

Brady and the Patriots have shrugged off any suggestion they are seeking revenge for their loss to Manning and the Giants in the Super Bowl four seasons ago. In that game, however, some of the fear factor other teams had of the Patriots disappeared. It started by pressure making Brady uncomfortable, a formula the Giants rode to another narrow victory in a game this past regular season.

"I was holding the ball too long," Brady said. "They have some blitz schemes that are hard to handle. You can't sit back there and think you're going to have all day to throw the ball. You have to be able to find guys quickly and throw with accuracy."

You know Brady has been working on it for two weeks.

"He is our hardest worker, certainly one of our best-prepared players," Belichick said.

And you know Belichick and his offensive staff have been working on line play, especially with Matt Light at the crucial left tackle position.

Meanwhile, Brady understands the buzz surrounding Manning.

"He's a great quarterback," Brady said. "He's obviously a great leader. You hear the comments coming from their players and obviously they respect him. He loves the game, and he's played it at a high level for a long time. He's survived that environment in New York; it's a tough place to play. He answers the critics. He never makes excuses. He goes out there, and he plays very well. He has his team back here for the second time."

If the Giants win a second time, then Eli Manning will take another giant step forward toward the elite line Tom Brady has drawn in the sand. He won't quite reach it, perhaps. But he'll be close.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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