Eli and Peyton were at Nicholls State for their annual quarterback camp -- the Manning Passing Academy -- and for the first time in the camp's history, it was hard to tell which brother had a better shot at winning the next Super Bowl. Eli had just been named Super Bowl MVP, but the Giants were not even being picked to win the NFC East. Peyton had been named Super Bowl MVP the year before, but the Colts were back in their familiar position, being picked to finish behind the Patriots.
In the race between brothers, Eli took a commanding lead this season. Peyton had knee surgery, lost half his offensive line, started 3-4, and watched the Giants become the most dominating team in the NFL. But just when Eli could start to relax -- when a Manning vs. Manning Super Bowl appeared about as likely as a Lions vs. Bengals Super Bowl -- Peyton turned it back into a distinct possibility. Although hype is building mostly for a potential Giants-Jets Super Bowl, a Manning-Manning Super Bowl cannot be ruled out either.
Not only have the Colts won four games in a row, but also they've captured the unofficial title of "team no one in their right mind wants to face in the playoffs." The Colts have little chance of overtaking Tennessee in the AFC South, but at 7-4 they control their own destiny for a wild-card berth, owning tiebreakers over New England and Baltimore. As a wild-card entry, the Colts would almost certainly have to win three road games to get to the Super Bowl, but in the past four weeks they have already won at Pittsburgh, at San Diego and beaten the Patriots at home. The Titans and Jets, nouveau riche in the AFC, have nowhere near the postseason pedigree the Colts do.
The Colts have a history of peaking too early. In 2005, they started 13-0. In '06, they started 9-0. In '07, they started 7-0. But only one of those seasons ended at the Super Bowl. The Colts, by virtue of their torrid starts, were able to relax at the end of the regular season. Once they relaxed, their momentum waned. But this season, without their traditional margin for error, the Colts have proven they can play on an edge. Their four straight victories have come by a combined 16 points, proof that they are not as potent as they used to be, but perhaps more gutty. Against San Diego on Sunday night, the Colts offense practically refused to leave the field, converting an impressive 10 of 17 third downs and two fourth downs.
The problems that plagued the Colts early in the season have not totally disappeared. Center Jeff Saturday -- one of the only people alive who can follow Peyton's play-changes at the line-of-scrimmage -- healed from an injured knee, only to strain his calf Sunday in San Diego. Safety Bob Sanders, the undersized leader of an undersized defense, has missed seven games, the last two because of an injured knee. But the Colts still have Peyton, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai. As much has changed in the AFC over the past year, that group remains the most explosive.
Neither Peyton nor Eli is particular motivated by the prospect of a Manning Bowl. The family seemed almost embarrassed by all the attention it received leading up to the Colts-Giants game in New York two years ago. And that was just in the regular season. It is hard to imagine how many crowd shots Archie and Olivia Manning would have to endure if their sons ever played in the same Super Bowl. At the passing academy in July, Archie waved off such a notion, dismissing it as fantasy. But it could become real, if not this season, then a season not so far in the future.
Right now, Eli clearly has the more enviable path to Tampa. The Giants are on track to win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while the Colts are just trying to squeak in. Winning three road games in the playoffs, and then winning the Super Bowl, is not an easy proposition. But Peyton happens to know another quarterback who has already done it -- his baby brother.