This would be Eli Manning’s biggest pass

From Indianapolis — On the signs, it is Super Bowl XLVI.

On the streets, it is Super Bowl 18.

That is Peyton Manning’s number, and seemingly every well-scrubbed local is wearing it. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback has not taken a snap the entire season, yet during football’s most important week he is dominating its most important game.

A father and his two young sons wear Manning jerseys atop muddy pants as they hang out in front of the New York Giants’ downtown hotel. A woman in a wheelchair wears a blue Manning jersey below a flowered cap as she takes photos of a New England Patriots logo on a downtown building.

It’s Manning, Manning everywhere, from the headlines of the local newspaper to the gossip on the street corners, everyone talking about whether their injured institution has played his last game here, Peyton going from the sidelines to one of the most giant shadows in Super Bowl history.

Which makes his little brother smile. Because, you know, his little brother is actually playing in the game.

“This is just a Super Bowl venue,” said Eli Manning, the Giants quarterback. “I’m not looking at the fact that this is where Peyton has played his career.”


It seems as if he’s the only one, and although hardly anybody is noticing him now — he ended Wednesday’s interview session with only a couple of print journalists still hanging around — that could soon change. A victory by the Giants over the Patriots on Sunday would rock this town, and the entire football world, with an earth-shaking irony.

In the stadium that his brother essentially built, in the city that his brother essentially owns, Eli Manning would surpass his brother as the Main Manning.

You think I’m crazy, right? Don’t look at the statistics. Look at the scoreboard.

If Eli wins, he will have won two Super Bowls, while Peyton has won one.

Eli will have won eight of 11 postseason games, while Peyton is 9-10 in the postseason.

Eli has led more postseason comebacks. He has mounted more postseason game-winning drives. He has won a record-tying six postseason games on the road or at neutral sites, twice as many as Peyton. And he has done it with fewer weapons, in a more pressurized environment, under harsher conditions, a Giant in tough New York facing far more obstacles than a Colt in gentle Indianapolis.

Obviously, Peyton has far better statistics than Eli. It’s not even close, and even if Peyton retires this winter because of his neck injuries, it probably will never be close. Peyton has passed for nearly twice as many yards and more than twice as many touchdowns as Eli, and even though he has played five more seasons than Eli, the kid is never going to compare there.

But aren’t individual statistics only the second-most-important measure of a quarterback? Isn’t that why quarterback is the most important position in any sport?

Is any other athlete more connected to his team’s ability to win than a quarterback? Isn’t winning by far the most important part of his resume? Did Tim Tebow teach us nothing?

“Obviously, winning is the goal; that’s the only goal that matters,” Eli admitted.

Dan Marino passed for 20,850 more yards and 147 more touchdowns than Joe Montana, yet who is considered the greater quarterback? It is Montana, because he led his team to four Super Bowl titles while Marino won zero.

You still think I’m crazy? You’re not alone. In a hallway outside Eli’s news conference Wednesday, I asked three-time Super Bowl quarterback Kurt Warner if he thought a victory by Eli would propel him past Peyton.

I thought Warner was going to throw me 80 yards downfield.

“No,” he said emphatically.

What about the postseason victories?

“You’ve got to give me more than that,” Warner said.

But they would be Super Bowl victories.

“C’mon,” Warner said. “In Peyton, we’re talking about a guy who is one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks ever. Football is such a team game, it’s not always just about the quarterback.”

I’m not saying Peyton is not one of the best ever. I’m just saying, we could one day be looking at Eli Manning like Joe Montana, which would land Peyton in a class with other one-of-the-bests with the likes of Marino and Dan Fouts and, well, Kurt Warner.

Continuing the debate, Warner pointed to Tom Brady’s numbers when the Patriots defeated Warner’s Rams in the Super Bowl 10 years ago. Brady threw for only 145 yards in that game, more than 200 fewer than Warner, yet was named most valuable player when the Patriots triumphed on a last-second field goal.

“He won the Super Bowl that day, but did he have a great game?” Warner said. “All that happened that day for him was, he won the Super Bowl.”

But isn’t that enough? Is there anything else? Forget Tebow, did we learn nothing from, say, Vince Lombardi?

Eli Manning is shorter than his older brother. He’s more disheveled than his older brother. He showed up for his media appearance Wednesday in messy hair and baggy jeans and clunky running shoes.

Eli does not appear as crisp or commanding as his older brother. If Peyton is awe, then Eli is shucks.

“I’m not concerned about people who say things about Peyton and me and want to compare us,” said Eli, shaking his head. “I’m just trying to win a football game.”

Just trying to win a football game. That’s not dramatic, and it won’t fit on the back of a jersey draped across the shoulders of a city, but for the potential Main Manning, it’s good enough.