From the day he arrived in the NFL, Eli Manning has dealt with huge expectations. He was asked to live up to the passing achievements of his famous brother, Peyton, and rise above the other quarterbacks in his draft class, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.
Now comes an even greater challenge: topping himself.
In Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI, Manning and the New York Giants would have to do something spectacular just to approach their late-game exploits of four years ago. That’s when a stunning sequence of plays enabled them to complete an epic upset of the then-unbeaten New England Patriots, who were playing for pro football immortality.
Nothing resembling those historical plot lines is in the mix in Indianapolis, although the brotherly comparison is more unavoidable than ever.
For the quarterback who’s perpetually cast as Peyton Manning’s little brother, the career breakthrough came in the Giants’ first Super Bowl meeting with New England. Eli followed Peyton’s title with one of his own a year later, after his brother’s enjoyment of the victory resonated with him.
“It definitely made me jealous,” Eli Manning said Monday, after the Giants arrived in town. “You always want to win a championship, but when you see someone win it — just the relief, the smile that was painted on his face for months — it makes you want to win one even more.”
So now, he’s going for two. And wouldn’t you know, his latest opportunity comes in his brother’s playground.
The Super Bowl likely never would have come to Indianapolis if not for Peyton Manning’s lifting the Colts franchise to heights that merited the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium. And to conclude an NFL season that Peyton missed with a neck injury, here comes Eli with a chance to win the family’s third title — after the Colts lost to New Orleans two years ago in their bid for a second championship.
Having already beaten Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs, Eli Manning will take another shot at New England’s Tom Brady in his quest to join an elite club of Super Bowl multiple winners.
Another victory “would be a great endorsement for the quality of football player he is, what kind of football season he has had and what he means to our franchise,” said Giants coach Tom Coughlin.
A winning drive like the one Eli Manning produced against the Patriots in suburban Phoenix would be awfully tough to duplicate. Before the winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress, there was Manning’s remarkable escape from pressure and his throw to David Tyree, who made a catch for the ages.
That play is being shown over and over in the buildup to this Super Bowl. It’s almost as ubiquitous as Peyton Manning, who’s seen joking about needing work as he appears as a referee in a commercial for a pizza chain.
Yet as opposed to creating a shadow that hovers impossibly over Eli, Peyton’s influence remains valuable to him. He’s still the older brother whom Eli watched play in every game from seventh grade through high school in New Orleans and who set a standard for quarterback play at every level.
In the NFC championship game at San Francisco, Eli Manning overcame six sacks to pass for 316 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime victory. Teammates love his toughness, and this season’s playoff performance of eight touchdown passes with only one interception illustrates how much he’s continued to grow as a quarterback in the four years between his Super Bowl appearances.
All that remains is another victory over Brady to enhance his legacy. “He’s never been anything less than a top [QB] to me,” Coughlin said, “and that’s all I care about.”
Yet the rest of us always want more, and this is Manning’s opportunity. The funny thing about the rematch is that finally, Eli is not being viewed as the Other Manning or the Other Quarterback. In this Super Bowl, the heat’s on Brady to beat him.