x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Opportunity knocks for Eli Manning to take centre stage

The New York Giants quarterback has the chance to step out of his brother Peyton's shadow with a second Super Bowl win.

Eli Manning can win his second Super Bowl ring against the New England Patriots.
Eli Manning can win his second Super Bowl ring against the New England Patriots.

The brightest star in these NFL play-offs is the youngest member of the Mannings, from the first family of quarterbacks.

How fitting that, all week in Indianapolis during the drumroll to the Super Bowl, the buzz about Eli and his New York Giants has been drowned out by impassioned speculation over the fate of his older sibling Peyton, 35, who is on the verge of a break-up with the Indianapolis Colts after 14 seasons.

It is tempting to say Eli, 31, has suffered throughout his career from comparisons to Peyton, except that the laid-back younger Manning never shows signs of suffering over anything.

About as close as it gets is when Eli was asked if he would solicit Peyton's help before tomorrow's game against the New England Patriots: "He was very helpful in getting me some tickets to the game."

Because Eli spoke in his usual monotone, it was unclear if he was annoyed, taking a stab at humour or expressing genuine appreciation to his big brother.

Eli is ice to Peyton's fire, as evidenced by the television commercials in which they appear. Peyton usually gets more lines, exudes greater presence.

The elder Manning has emoted his way to the Hall of Fame, inspiring his Colts to great heights (look what happened to them in his absence) and seemingly controlling the 11 players on defence as if they were his hand puppets.

All Eli has done is guide the Giants through a brutal back half of a schedule - the Patriots, 49ers, Eagles, Saints, Packers, Jets and Cowboys - and three post-season wins to the cusp of his second Super Bowl ring. For those counting, Peyton has one.

His five road victories in the play-offs, more than any quarterback ever, under all sorts of weather conditions, illustrates a person impervious to pressure.

"He's calm … He doesn't holler and scream," said Archie Manning, the patriarch of the quarterback clan, while disclosing that the last of his three sons is not so robotic off the field.

"Unless you are with him day to day, he is not going to display it," said Archie, an appreciated player in his 14 seasons, mainly with New Orleans, despite a 35-101-3 record, the sorriest for any quarterback with a minimum of 100 starts.

How is this for calm? Eli led the league in passing yardage on third downs, when the defensive rush is most intense.

He engineered five comeback wins in the fourth quarter during the regular season. In a sixth win, the Giants entered the final period tied.

For the play-offs, his log reads: 11 touchdown throws, one interception.

"I don't get intense or fiery," he said, "but I have a desire to win."

His statistics over the past year are so dazzling, they might be described as … Peyton-esque.

While Eli has generated no headlines from centre stage, the spotlight aimed on him, daily news blasts about Peyton have rattled the Super Bowl host city.

One day, it was that the Colts had already decided the elder Manning would not be retained.

The next, it was Jim Irsay, the team owner, denying the report.

Then it was Manning, recovering from three neck and back surgeries over a 19-month time frame, was unlikely to ever play again for anyone … followed by Peyton insisting that his medical prognosis is encouraging.

Each Tuesday before Super Bowl, the NFL conducts Media Day, a ritual in which participating players spread out on the stadium turf to field questions serious and silly from the 2,000 journalists covering the game.

For the first time this week, the league admitted fans, who paid US$25 (Dh92) apiece to watch athletes move only their mouths.

The apparel of choice for many of the 7,300 eavesdroppers? Peyton's No 18 Colts jersey.

By one estimate, the topic of Peyton came up in at least 30 queries directed toward Eli.

Have they worn each other's jerseys or Super Bowl rings? (No.)

Do they talk during the season? (Usually on Fridays.)

Will Peyton play again? (No idea, but hope so.)

Did Peyton, four years older, torture him during their childhood? (Yes, by gently punching him in the chest when he could not pass Peyton's sports-related quizzes.) Who got the top bunk bed in their room? (Peyton, of course.)

Actually, both have an older brother. Cooper was a standout wide receiver who was forced by a neck injury to drop football while in college.

It was Cooper and Peyton, separated by two years, who did most of the brotherly fighting, often in one-on-one basketball games, while Eli steered clear of them. The relationship helped shape Eli as the quiet, observant one, ultimately being assigned the nickname "Easy".

All three learnt from Archie, who remained dedicated to the Saints, bringing home film to watch nightly, even as fans dubbed their team the Aints and fastened bags over their heads at games.

Among the bag-wearers at one game were Cooper and Peyton, aged six and four, who had no clue they were mocking their father's team.

Eli absorbed the joys of competition from watching his brothers, then was able to join in when he reached teenhood.

"We could finally start being on the same level and compete in basketball, ping-pong or pool," he said. Competition "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 who plays at that same level."

Eli could have attended Peyton's alma mater, the University of Tennessee, which pursued him. He went elsewhere, but not to avoid comparisons to the accomplishments of other Mannings.

His choice was the University of Misssisippi, Archie's school as well as his mother's. Olivia was homecoming queen when she met Archie there.

While Peyton won the Heisman Trophy, college football's highest individual honour, Eli never finished higher than third in balloting.

Both boys became No 1 overall draft picks - Peyton to the Colts, Eli to the Chargers even though he (and Archie) made it clear to San Diego his unwillingness to play for the franchise. The kid they called Easy pulled a power play, forcing a trade to the Giants that has paid off with one Super Bowl title, while another in reach.

On the rare occasions when Eli's competitive nature bubbles up in conversation, it surprises those close to him who are accustomed to his amiable demeanour.

Even Archie acknowledged surprise upon hearing that Eli told a radio interviewer last summer that he regarded himself on the same elite level as the Patriots' Tom Brady, his esteemed counterpart in Sunday's game.

Eli's words were fairly benign. Having come from his lips, then funnelled through the echo chamber of the New York media, they were widely interpreted as reflecting a cockiness. "I thought I gave an honest answer," he said this week. "I didn't regret it."

Though Brady is a Hall of Fame certainty, nearly amassing enough Super Bowl rings to decorate an entire hand, Manning has matched him this season.

Brady stood on the Pats' sideline during one of those Manning-inspired rallies this season in Week Nine.

"He's done a great job of bringing his team back," Brady said last week. "A great leader. You always hear that coming out of New York."

When Peyton earned Most Valuable Player at the 2007 Super Bowl, it was Eli taking it all in from the sideline.

"Just seeing Peyton after that game, just seeing him down in the locker room, seeing that smile on his face, then being with him those next couple of months after he had won a Super Bowl, it definitely made you jealous.

"It truly gives you a burning desire to get one," said Eli, whose burning eased just one year later when the Giants won - and he was named MVP.

As Media Day wound down, a hundred Giants and Patriots players wrapping up their mass interviews, the most significant exchange with the press had yet to take place.

The Manning with the hazy future was about to tell a few reporters that he had just come from a fruitful rehabilitation session. "I continue to make progress and work hard," Peyton said.

"The doctors are encouraged, and that's encouraging to me."

For more than three hours on Sunday, all attention will be trained on Eli. Maybe for a few hours afterward, too, if he one-ups big brother with a second Super Bowl win.

Then it will shift back to Peyton. Which seems fine to Archie and Olivia's youngest. To him, rivalry is less about sibling than it is about other football teams.