Eric Mack
Thursday January 19th, 2012

Eli Manning opened this season calling himself an elite quarterback. A look at the top of the fantasy scoring suggests only Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady deserve that lofty status.

But look around the NFL now: Brees and Rodgers didn't make it as far as Manning and Brady to the conference championships. Sure, Alex Smith and Joe Flacco are there, too, but they quarterback behind arguably the two best defenses in the NFL this season.

It depends on how you define an elite quarterback. Could it be playoff success? How about just performing in the clutch?

The Giants' Manning has even out-Manning'd the great Peyton Manning in those areas. Rodgers might be the best quarterback in the NFL, but Eli Manning has two playoff wins at Lambeau Field now. Rodgers still has none.

And as for regular-season clutch, Manning set an NFL record this season with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes, passing his brother. That means more than half of Eli's 29 total TD passes came when the game hung in the balance. That's remarkable.

With all this said, you still won't be considering Manning over Rodgers, Brees or Brady in Round 1 or 2 this August. You likely won't even pick him in the next class with Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton or maybe even his brother Peyton (if healthy and in the right situation) after the elite tier.

But consider this: Eli's emerging duo of receivers put him, potentially, in the class of Rodgers and Brady, maybe even over Brees. Bear with us here:

Rodgers has Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, two top-10 fantasy receivers. Brady has Wes Welker, the second-best fantasy WR, and the No. 1 tight end, Rob Gronkowski. Brees does have an elite TE in Jimmy Graham, but Marques Colston is borderline if not out of fantasy's Top-10 at WR (even if because the Saints use Darren Sproles so much and spread the ball around).

Stafford does have the No. 1 WR in fantasy in Calvin Johnson, but Titus Young and TE Brandon Pettigrew aren't elite fantasy options. Cam Newton has Steve Smith, but that WR is no longer elite, even if he is still pretty good. Who knows about Peyton Manning (neck and uncertainty in Indy) at this point.

But Hakeem Nicks, with his huge postseason breakthrough the past two weeks, and Victor Cruz, with his huge regular-season breakthrough, look like they can both be threats for 80 catches, 1,200 yards and 10-plus touchdowns next season. They give the Giants and Eli big-play ability.

Then toss in a healthy Mario Manningham, who looked like he could develop into a 70-1,000-10 receiver before his injury-plagued 2011, and a tight end in Jake Ballard, and Eli just might be getting closer to being elite in fantasy than anyone thinks.

The problem with Manning has been consistency. He just hasn't been immune to the bad matchups like Rodgers, Brees and Brady. You don't want to ever have to consider sitting your "elite" QB pick.

Well, if Manning can outperform Brees' performance in San Francisco against the Niners' elite defense -- even if it is because of his breakaway receivers more than anything -- we should be considering putting Eli in the top five of fantasy quarterbacks next season.

We said last week the Ravens-Texans game would decide which running back should be No. 1 overall next year, assuming you're not going with LeSean McCoy. You probably shouldn't now, regardless.

Ray Rice's Ravens won the battle, but Arian Foster won the war.

Foster was spectacular against a Ravens defense that had never allowed a 100-yard rusher in the postseason. He set a postseason NFL record for a two-game total of rushing yards and he did it against two good run defenses that stacked the line of scrimmage because the Texans were starting a rookie QB.

It doesn't get any better than that. Just think what he can do with a full healthy season (cross fingers) and with QB Matt Schaub back keeping defenses honest.

Foster should be your No. 1 overall pick in fantasy 2012.

We asked going into last week's 49ers-Saints game how can Alex Smith and San Francisco keep up with Brees if Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree don't prove to be elite.

Holy smokes did Davis do plenty for his fantasy value with his record-setting performance Saturday. Even Crabtree caught a touchdown.

Like Tim Tebow, Alex Smith removed all doubt about who his team's QB of the present (2012) is, even if they still haven't necessarily cemented themselves as the QB of the future. Smith can make Davis an elite tight end again, obviously.

Davis should probably be considered right after Gronkowski, Graham, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten at the position. Aaron Hernandez, Tony Gonzalez, Jermichael Finley and Dallas Clark (depending on where Peyton Manning plays) might not be as promising as Davis. He is the 49ers passing game and they seem to have discovered it, finally.

Crabtree is the next to potentially break through, so he should provide solid value at this draft position next season, if he doesn't really enhance it Sunday against the Giants secondary.

We have had this theory the Pats pass for show early and run for titles late. So much for that.

Tom Brady threw the ball all over the Broncos, and neither BenJarvus Green-Ellis nor Stevan Ridley showed much of anything (Danny Woodhead is just a third-down back, and not a good one in the Sproles mold).

The Pats don't need a running game, although the Packers falling on their face when Rodgers was a bit rusty is a testament the other way. The Pats don't figure to run much on a Ravens' rugged run defense ticked off by that Foster abuse -- or either of their potential Super Bowl opponents.

We are going to go into next season believing all of the Pats RB options are fantasy junk. Heck, even Shane Vereen could muddy the picture even further.

The lack of a successful running game with BGE getting the bulk of the duty last week at least suggests he won't be the answer coming out of training camp next year. That makes Ridley and Vereen nice sleepers for draft day, regardless of BGE's starter status (if he even keeps that).

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention something about the Ravens before they go into New England, a place they stunned the Pats a couple of postseasons ago behind the running of Rice. Assuming the Pats don't let that history repeat itself, the Ravens are going to need to do something with Joe Flacco going down field against that suspect Pats secondary--something Tebow could not do last Saturday.

Flacco had a disappointing fantasy season in a year he was supposed to take the next step. The thing is he could really develop something with rookie Torrey Smith. Smith has already surpassed the aging and oft-injured Anquan Boldin in fantasy circles. The suspect Pats secondary and the probable high-scoring game Brady is going to force the Ravens into can help Smith rise up the fantasy charts.

A big performance by Smith might upgrade his projections to 70 catches, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. That might make Smith a potential top 15 WR for 2012, even if he might not get drafted in the top 25-30.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can also find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there and takes them very personally.

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