The little brother finally wins the big 1 Print
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Sunday, 20 January 2008 19:32
NFL Headline News

 GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) -The resemblance was unmistakable everywhere except on the field. Once Eli Manning stepped between the white lines, he somehow made football seem more like his burden than his birthright.
He is the son of one great quarterback and the little brother of an even better one. But he lacks the devil-may-care charm that made his dad, Archie, such a heroic figure on all those lousy teams in New Orleans. And he has yet to display the rocket arm or tactical mastery that made Peyton such a success in Indianapolis.
In fact, until Eli capped the best four-game run of his own maddening career with a flawless performance on a frozen field far from New York, it seemed fair to wonder whether the family gene pool was empty by the time he waded in.
``I might be a hard guy to read,'' Manning said, in one of the understatements of the season, moments after the Giants advanced to the Super Bowl with a 23-20 overtime win against the Packers. ``But right now, I'm as excited as I can be.''
We'll have to take his word on that. Eli's expression gives away so little that for much of the fourth quarter and into overtime, the TV broadcast kept cutting to shots of Archie in a skybox at Lambeau Field burying his head in his hands. That way, at least, we knew somebody in the Manning family was anguishing over the outcome.
Once Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes made up for two fourth-quarter misses by drilling the 47-yard game-winner in overtime, a smile flashed briefly across Eli's lips. He ran onto the field looking for someone to hug and settled on Jeff Feagles, the Giants' holder on the final play. Then Eli's eyes got wide as he looked up to see his opposite number headed in his direction.
Yet it hardly looked like a meeting of equals. Brett Favre already had his helmet off and the poncho draped over his shoulders, set off by silver stubble and a tired grin, made him look more regal than usual. Manning, still wearing his helmet and an awed expression, thrust his hand forward like a kid about to shake his idol's hand. The only thing missing was a slip of paper in his palm for Favre's autograph.
``We knew we could compete with anybody,'' Manning said afterward.
Until Sunday night, though, that might have been the royal ``we.'' The kid never inspired confidence, and the nagging feeling the Giants had mortgaged their future in the draft-day deal that brought Eli to New York was never stronger than it was on the eve of the regular-season finale against the perfect New England Patriots.
In the three previous games, Eli had thrown four interceptions against the Vikings and had three returned for touchdowns; threw 35 incompletions against Washington; and fumbled five times against Buffalo.
But Manning produced a career effort against New England - ``I am not doing anything different or anything extra special,'' he said last week, taking a brief stab at self-analysis. More important, he followed that up with smart, caretaker performances against Tampa Bay and Dallas. All three opponents tried to shut down New York's ground game and counted on him to make telling mistakes.
As Manning proved against the Packers, you make that a building block of the game plan at your own risk.
``It's exciting,'' Manning said one more time, ``but it's not about me. It's about this whole team.''
Giants coach Tom Coughlin might disagree, but he has no better explanation for the sudden turnaround than Manning does. He can't say why his quarterback's rating jumped 50 points the last few weeks, nor why he hasn't turned the ball over even once during that stretch.
``Certainly not ideal conditions yet the focus of Eli was outstanding,'' Coughlin said. ``He just willed himself to play well.''
Archie Manning wasn't going to try to explain the numbers, either. Outside the Giants locker room, he could hardly believe his good fortune. Peyton went to the Super Bowl and got his ring last season. Now much-maligned Eli, the runt of the Manning litter, was going to get his shot.
``My cup runneth over,'' Archie said. ``We're not crowning him yet. But I never thought that he was as bad as they were saying.''
It's not a glowing review - yet. But it's a lot better than a story Archie told not long after Hurricane Katrina passed by the family's New Orleans home, only to have burglars strike a few days later.
Seems Peyton and Eli each had signed a dozen jerseys for a charity auction and left them on a table. When Archie returned home, the stack signed by Peyton had been stolen and Eli's were left untouched.
Hang onto 'em, Archie, for a few more weeks. They might fetch something still.
---
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
 

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