GOLDBERG ON FOOTBALL: Manning and Rivers, traded for each other, in title games Print
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Thursday, 17 January 2008 15:10
NFL Headline News

 Less than a month ago, Eli Manning was a TV talker's standard joke. His ``body language'' was a loser's. He melted under pressure. The only reason he was the first pick in the 2004 draft was his breeding: his brother an NFL star, his father a Mississippi legend.
Philip Rivers took a little less heat, in part because his career started well; in part because he plays in San Diego, not New York.
But he seemed to have regressed in his second season as a starter and has taken to doing the thing that seemed the furthest from anyone's mind when he came out of college - yapping at opponents and fans.
It's last laugh time now: The quarterbacks traded for each other in the first hour of the 2004 NFL draft are in conference championship games this weekend - Manning in Green Bay for the NFC game against the Packers; Rivers in New England to play the Patriots.
Last laugher Ernie Accorsi, the retired Giants general manager, took Rivers with the fourth pick that year and then traded him to San Diego for Manning. The Mississippi quarterback had already made it clear that he didn't want to play for the Chargers, who had taken him with the first overall pick.
``It might not be this year, but I'm still convinced that both will play in Super Bowls, maybe multiple Super Bowls,'' Accorsi said this week. ``About the only negative thing about them that surprises me is that Philip is getting involved in all that animosity. When we interviewed him before the draft, he was mature, polite, a coaches son.''
That 2004 quarterback class is one of the few in recent years that doesn't have an outright bust at the top - a Ryan Leaf, a Tim Couch, an Akili Smith. Ben Roethlisberger, taken 11th overall by Pittsburgh, already has a Super Bowl ring, which he won in his second season with the Steelers.
It could easily have worked out with all three in different places.
Accorsi, who was picking fourth, has always made it clear that he wanted Manning, son of Archie and brother of Peyton. He still defends the choice even though to get him, Accorsi had to surrender a flock of draft choices, one of whom San Diego turned into All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman.
His second choice was Roethlisberger, something not generally known at the time.
As he negotiated with the Chargers, he turned down a request for Osi Umenyiora, a young player who also turned into a Pro Bowler, preferring instead to give up the first-round pick in 2005 that San Diego used to take Merriman.
At the same time, he was negotiating with Cleveland, which chose sixth, knowing that if he couldn't work out a deal for Manning, that Roethlisberger would be there - Washington, everyone knew, was going to use the fifth pick on Sean Taylor. The Browns, meanwhile, thought that if they could get to fourth, then they could swing a deal with San Diego for Manning.
``I remember Butch Davis asking me later, 'Didn't we have a deal?' `` Accorsi said in a reference to the former Browns' coach. ``I told him 'We almost did.' ``
You could argue that the Giants might be better off if they'd made that trade.
So far, Roethlisberger has had a better career than Manning and the Giants would have gotten an extra draft choice had they made the trade with the Browns.
Though he tied for the NFL lead with 20 interceptions this season, Manning has emerged in the last three games from three seasons of inconsistency to lead the Giants to the conference championship game.
It started with the 38-35 loss in the season finale against unbeaten New England and continued in playoff wins in Tampa and Dallas. His total: eight touchdown passes and just one interception and a passer rating of well over 100 in all three games.
That comes after a season in which he threw four interceptions against Minnesota, three returned for touchdowns, and went 18-for-52 against Washington in Meadowlands winds (although a dozen of his passes were dropped). Even after he drove the New York Giants for two TDs in the final quarter to win in Chicago, one local columnist and television talking head declared he wouldn't trade Rex Grossman even up to get him.
Still, Eli's first playoff win came one game and two seasons earlier than his more celebrated brother's, and the question now is whether he's arrived, Peyton style.
``Those were three impressive games and he's been good before this,'' said Phil Simms, the ex-Giant turned broadcaster who also was a struggling first-round draft choice for the first five years of his career. ``But he'll have some downs in the future. We all do. It goes with the territory.''
It took nine games for Manning to become the Giants starter and he lost his first six games before winning the 2004 season finale with a late drive - one of nine times during his career he's won a game in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Rivers had a better start, partly because he sat for two years behind Drew Brees.
In his first season as a starter in 2006, San Diego finished 14-2 and he had 22 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions and a nice passer rating of 92. This season, the Chargers started 1-3 and 5-5; the TD passes dropped to 21, two fewer than Manning, and the INTs rose to 15.
There was also the uncharacteristic feistiness with opponents and fans.
He got into a nationally televised shouting match with Champ Bailey and Jay Cutler during a game with Denver. Last Sunday, at several times during the game in Indy, he started jawing with fans, something that until then seemed totally out of character.
Rivers, who expects to face New England in Sunday's AFC title game despite a knee injury, says it's part of being a competitor.
``It's kind of surprising really to be honest with you,'' he says of the criticism.
``I'm out there having a good time as I did in the backyard since I was 5 years old. I'm not saying anything out of line. There's no profanity being used. I know what I'm about. My teammates know, my family knows and everything else I can't worry about. When it stops being fun, that's when I'll stop playing it. If you're out in the backyard with a buddy and you're wearing them out ... you're not going to jab at them? If their parents walk outside, 'Hey, I'm killing them today!' That's all it is.''
The laid-back Manning - too laid back according to his critics - also has a little free spirit in him.
Brett Favre, whom he will face on Sunday in Green Bay, says he thinks he first met the Giants quarterback in Mississippi when Eli was a teenager and ``helped him'' get into a bar. Favre also is among his admirers.
So is Troy Aikman.
Asked this week whom he prefers, Manning or Rivers, Aikman replied: ``Right now, it would be a coin toss.''
``Eli Manning has impressed a lot of people over the last three ballgames. There have been various times throughout his career where he has been exceptional,'' said the Hall of Fame QB, who will be Fox analyst on Manning's playoff game for the third straight week.
``Last year, Philip Rivers got his chance to be the starter and they went 14-2. ... I would have to believe that right now, both being very young quarterbacks, it's a little bit like the question that has been asked all season long: 'Who do you take Peyton Manning or Tom Brady? I think you can get into a similar discussion when talking about Eli and Philip.''
No, neither is Peyton or Brady.
And neither is likely to reach that level for a variety of reasons.
But neither is Rex Grossman, either. That's something some folks knew a long time ago.
Others have only learned it in the last three weeks.
 

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