INDIANAPOLIS -- It's a pretty select club Eli Manning joined here Sunday night. You could almost call it an "elite'' membership to belong to.
Quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl wins have a cache all their own in NFL history, and we had best start wrapping our minds around the reality that Peyton Manning's little brother is in the fraternity, and the Colts' long-time great isn't. That last shall be first stuff really does come to pass sometimes.
The rush to answer the legacy questions gets a little tiresome at times these days, with everyone eager to assign, and then re-assign, the "greatest ever'' tag seemingly every other week. But the simple truth is this: When Sunday started, there were only 10 quarterbacks who had won more than one Super Bowl, and now there are 11. You know the names. They read like a who's who of the last five decades at the NFL's most pivotal and glamorous position:
San Francisco's Joe Montana and Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw were four-time winners. Dallas' Troy Aikman and New England's Tom Brady have three rings. Green Bay's Bart Starr, Miami's Bob Griese, Dallas' Roger Staubach, Denver's John Elway, the Raiders' Jim Plunkett and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger are in the two-win circle. And so too is Eli Manning, the Manning brother we didn't think we saw greatness in for the longest time.
But you have to admit, two-time Super Bowl MVP has a ring to it. A couple of them to be precise. Manning has proved his greatness this season all year long, and Sunday night was just the culmination of his best work yet.
Let's be honest, when Manning during the last offseason had the gall to include himself in the discussion of the game's "elite'' quarterbacks, proverbially putting himself in the same league as Brady, he was basically mocked for it. But it's not so ripe for lampooning today, eh? With New York's 21-17 conquest of New England in Super Bowl XLVI, Manning has now beaten Brady three consecutive times in the past five seasons, leading extremely late fourth-quarter game-winning touchdown drives on each occasion. Twice those victories made Manning's Giants the kings of the football world.
And what have they done for Manning? They've put him on the road to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, that's what. Not in it. Not yet. But on the way. Manning just completed his eighth season in the NFL, so the final edition of this story can not yet be written. But he has put himself in rarified company, and he's done it in the league's biggest media market, as the architect of two of the most remarkable playoff runs in NFL history. When we least expected it, he has twice forced us to view him in a different light, and take a fresh snapshot of his career and where it ranks.
Consider this: Seven of the 11 members of the two-ring-or-more club are already in the Hall of Fame, those being Montana, Bradshaw, Starr, Griese, Aikman, Elway and Staubach. Brady is a lock, and Roethlisberger is in very good shape to be accorded that honor as well. That leaves Plunkett, who some within the league feel deserves Hall consideration, and Manning. Those are pretty good odds for Canton and immortality, and that's the threshold that Manning just cleared with what could be his defining victory.
"Eli is the best quarterback in the National Football League, hands down,'' said Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, flushed with victory after New York's thrilling win over a New England team that won four more games than the Giants did in the regular season. "Do you know why? Because everyone always says, 'You're not this and you're not that until win a Super Bowl.' After he won a Super Bowl, people started giving him a little more credit. But now he's got two. Does this make him the best quarterback in the National Football League?
"Drew Brees is a great quarterback. He's at home. Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback. He's at home. Tom Brady's a great quarterback, and he's at home. Eli beat him twice in the Super Bowl. You ask Tom Brady that and I bet he'll tell you the same thing. Eli's a beast. Eli's an animal. There's not enough I can say about him.''
If nothing else, Manning's superb 30-of-40, 296-yard, one-touchdown passing game ends the "elite'' debate once and for all. He won't have to suffer those questions any more. Manning is now one of just six quarterbacks who are undefeated in Super Bowl play (Montana, Bradshaw, Aikman, Plunkett and Starr), and joins Brady and Roethlisberger as the only active QB multiple winners. As far as multiple Super Bowl MVPs, he's one of just five, joining Montana, Bradshaw, Brady and Starr.
The highlight of Manning's game was once again a long-bomb on a fourth-quarter pass that he completed to a reserve Giants receiver, sparking New York's game-winning touchdown drive. Playing the role of David Tyree this time was Mario Manningham, who hauled in Manning's picture-perfect 38-yard strike on the first snap of New York's nine-play, 88-yard drive. It was a great catch and a great throw, and in one fell swoop seemed to signal that the Giants would not be stopped against a Patriots team that once again was favored to beat them on the game's grandest stage.
"Great catch by him, keeping both feet in,'' said Manning of Manningham. "That's a huge play in the game right there; when you're backed up [at the 12], to get a 40-yard gain and get to the middle of the field. It was a big, big, big-time play right there.''
But for Manning, we're getting used to such heroics. For much of the season, he was the only island of consistency in a sea of inconsistency in New York, and his teammates and coaches have grown to have almost an other-worldly level of confidence in him. And even his opponents are coming around to the realization that Eli Manning may be the best clutch performer in his famous family.
"The first play that they made on our sideline was a phenomenal throw and catch,'' said Brady of the Manning-to-Manningham game-changer. "That got them going. They've got a very good offense. Certainly Eli has had a very good season. He made some great throws there in the fourth quarter, and they deserved to win. They did a better job than we did.''
Wasn't it just last year that we were hearing Manning described as a mistake-prone passer, who was capable of hurting his team with ill-timed throws and costly turnovers? Manning led the NFL in interceptions with 25 in 2010, and the luster of his first Super Bowl victory had seemingly started to fade as New York went three consecutive years without making the playoffs.
But Manning this season was superb with the ball in his hands, and the Giants just beat the three best teams in the league in turnover-ratio -- Green Bay, San Francisco and New England -- with Brady's fourth-quarter interception by Chase Blackburn representing the only turnover in the Super Bowl.
"I never doubt Eli,'' Giants safety Kenny Phillips said. "I don't think anyone on this team doubts Eli. He was the main reason we were in the position we were in today.''
Manning didn't just finish well against New England. He started the game on fire as well, completing his first nine passes, to set a Super Bowl record and help stake New York to an early 9-0 lead in the opening quarter. But it was his work in the game's deciding 15 minutes that has again left us with no other conclusion to come to than this: Eli Manning is fully and forever out of his big brother's shadow. In a game that rewards those who perform the best when the pressure is the greatest, Eli Manning is becoming the standard by which current NFL quarterbacks are measured in the clutch.
"Everyone thought I was crazy a week ago when I said I trust Eli Manning more in the fourth quarter than I did Tom Brady,'' said former Patriots safety and current NBC analyst Rodney Harrison, a man who has some unique experience in seeing Eli's fourth-quarter work in a Super Bowl up close and personal. "I think you saw tonight why I said that. Tom Brady had a couple opportunities, and missed some opportunities down the field. Eli didn't. He won this football game.''
That he did. And it puts him a long way down the path to being considered in his own right as one of the greats in the game.
"I'm not surprised,'' Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "He's been doing it all year long. I'm out of words to say about Eli.''
It's about time all the talking ended. In the case of Manning, the debate seems over. You really can't spell elite without the letters E-L-I.