Manning Bowl II, the NFL's most prominent sibling rivalry, went to Peyton ... ... and shed more light on the often joyous—and sometimes painful—dynamic at play when family members face off against each other on the biggest stage in professional sports
This is an article from the Sept. 27, 2010 issue
The brothers huddled in a stadium tunnel, hands tucked into their pockets, heads bowed as if in prayer. As equipment bags were shuttled back and forth behind them, Peyton and Eli Manning stole one last moment after a blowout game that brought joy to neither of them. Long Eli's protector and sometimes his tormentor, Peyton steered the conversation away from his Colts' 38--14 battering of Eli's Giants and instead brought up New York's Week 3 opponent, the Titans. The Colts play Tennessee twice a year, and Peyton's knowledge of the Titans' defensive schemes is vast. After doing everything in his power to beat Eli, Peyton was already eager to help him.
Satisfied that his little brother was of sound body and mind, Peyton hugged him, slapped him on the backside and scheduled a fraternal chalk talk. Eli's eyes came to life.
"I'll call you Tuesday," Eli said.
Only a handful of people can relate to what the Mannings experienced on a hyped-up Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, a tussle of siblings played out before a national TV audience. In the week leading up to the game, archival footage from the brothers' youth looped endlessly on sports programs, the boys in plastic helmets and tube socks, a toy football always in flight. In Indianapolis the game was real. Peyton threw for 255 yards and three touchdowns and Eli tossed an interception and fumbled three times as parents Archie and Olivia watched impassively from a luxury suite, unwilling to show favoritism to either son. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 333 sets of brothers have played in the NFL (including the AAFC and the AFL) through the 2009 season, but none are as well-known as the Mannings' middle and youngest child, whose dad was an NFL quarterback for 14 seasons. Three of the last four Super Bowls have had a Manning in the game, with Peyton winning a title in the 2006 season and Eli's coming the following year, in accordance with their birth order.
"If Eli had won a Super Bowl and Peyton didn't, Peyton would be going crazy right now," says Devon McDonald, the former Colts and Cardinals linebacker who competed against his twin brother, Ricardo, a former Bengals and Bears linebacker, in the 1990s. "I hear about that brotherly love stuff, but trust me, the competitiveness is there. My brother came out a year before me and was a fourth-round pick. I ended up being a fourth-round pick. If he'd been a first-round pick, I'd have been happy for him, but I'd also be thinking, What about me?"
Tiki Barber, the former Giants running back and twin brother of Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, says Peyton and Eli's first professional meeting, a 26--21 Colts victory in 2006, was instructive in how they approached the second. "Eli and Peyton are both intense, more so than Ronde and I," Tiki says. "They don't let their family situation distract them from what they have to do. It's literally all X's and O's for them. The intensity has to do with the fact that they're brothers but more to do with the fact they are insanely focused on winning. If that means kicking your brother's butt, they will do it."
As Peyton carved up New York's secondary—and Eli's face grew longer with every Indianapolis completion—the complications inherent in the matchup became clear. The better Peyton played, the worse Eli seemed to perform, the younger brother failing to keep pace with his elder. For years the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, played insipid, sloppy tennis when they faced each other in tournaments; as they're learning to compartmentalize their feelings those matches have gotten more competitive. "It's a mixture of emotions," Tiki says of facing a sibling. "Your instincts say, I should be rooting for him."
Tiki and Ronde lived together for their first 21 years and shared a bedroom for the first 19. They always assumed they'd play on the same NFL team—as they did in college at Virginia—but in 1997 reality set in.
"A month before the draft we finally had the conversation, that, 'Dude, we're not going to be together anymore,'" Tiki says. "It was a hard conversation. I'd never known a life without having Ronde by my side. After I got drafted by New York, [Giants coach] Jim [Fassel] was going to draft Ronde with the Giants' next pick, but [Bucs coach] Tony [Dungy] got him before then. It was one of the toughest things to happen in our lives."
The Giants and the Bucs met five times with the Barbers on the rosters, and Tampa Bay won three of those games, though Tiki likes to point out that Ronde didn't play in the first matchup, a 20--8 Bucs victory in November 1997. When the two finally did meet on the field, in October '98, Tiki says it was impossible to treat it as a normal game. In one instance during Tampa Bay's 20--3 win, Ronde blitzed, Tiki stepped in to block, and both of them held up instead of cracking the other. "As we became better players, it got more intense," Tiki says. "I remember a night game in Tampa when [Ronde] laid into me on the sideline. I go, 'What are you doing?' He whispered, 'I have to make it look good—the whole sibling rivalry thing.'"
Tiki calls the Mannings "the Kennedys of football," which might make the Matthews clan the Rockefellers. Like Peyton and Eli, Clay and Bruce Matthews are separated by five years, but they played in the same division in the 1980s and '90s, the physical old AFC Central. Their father, Clay Sr., spent four seasons with the 49ers in the 1950s as both a pass rusher and an offensive lineman, and the boys essentially took sides: Clay was a Pro Bowl outside linebacker with the Browns, while the younger Bruce had a Hall of Fame career as an Oilers and Titans offensive lineman. They faced each other 23 times in the NFL, with Clay's teams going 12--11. And unlike the Mannings, who'll never deliver forearms to one another on the field of play, Clay and Bruce—defense versus offense—collided often.
"He had always been my favorite player and my hero, and it became an adjustment for me when we were on the field at the same time," Bruce says. "We'd be at our meetings [before the game], and the coaches would say, 'We have to stop the Matthews kid,' or 'We have to stop Bruce's brother.'"
The first time they faced each other, at the old Cleveland Stadium in 1983, the Oilers called a counter trey designed for Bruce to pull and take out the outside linebacker—Clay. "Right before the play there was a TV timeout, so I'm just playing [the call] over and over in my head," Bruce says. "It felt like I was waiting for 10 minutes. [At the snap] I go over there and just try and kill him. He stepped out of the way, and I got a faceful of stadium kitty litter. I whiffed."
"Bruce was coming to knock me out," recalls Clay, who has two sons who are also linebackers—Clay III, with the Packers, and Casey, a senior at Oregon. "All the years I had been the older brother, never letting him beat me in basketball; he was going to make up for it. Being the veteran, I moved inside, he landed face-first and had a big wad of dirt in his face mask."
While Clay says Bruce kept him from the quarterback "hundreds of times," the brothers distinctly recall one occasion in 1986 when he didn't. On a blitz of Houston quarterback Warren Moon, Clay sprinted around a lineman so quickly that he didn't even know who it was. He then grabbed Moon, dragged him down for a sack and looked back to the line of scrimmage to see which Oiler he'd beaten. When Clay saw that he'd victimized Bruce, an unfamiliar feeling settled over him. "I felt like Judas," Clay says.
For years Peyton has sidled up to Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney before the kickoff and urged him to get after the opposing quarterback. Peyton offered the All-Pro pass rusher no such directive against Eli, and it wasn't needed. Freeney and Robert Mathis had Eli on the run and on the stadium carpet for much of the night. (Eli was sacked four times.) Eli completed just 13 of 24 passes for 161 yards and a pair of second-half touchdowns, when the game was comfortably in Indy's control.
"You can learn from what the Colts did," Eli said afterward. "They got beat pretty good [in Week 1] by the Texans, and they came out and had a little fire under them."
Peyton, meanwhile, was breathtaking in his brilliance, throwing darts and rainbows in all directions, connecting on 20 of 26 throws. His drives over, he would gaze up at the big screen from the sideline and watch the little brother who'd followed him into the family business. Peyton's face betrayed nothing. "I'm sure it's hard to shelter yourself with all the hype," Colts right tackle Ryan Diem said of his quarterback, "but he knows how to handle it."
At midfield after the Colts' victory, Eli told Peyton it was a good game, and Peyton told Eli he loved him. If in recent years the talent gap has closed between the brothers, Peyton forced the wedge in for a while longer. The brothers missed an all-Manning Super Bowl by a mere 12 months, but there is still time.
Peyton, at 34, remains the prototype NFL quarterback. Eli, 29, who three years ago led the Giants to three road playoff wins and a shocker over the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl, has the brio to one day return to the title game. If the brothers arrive together, there will be more baby photos and home movies and analyses of the remarkable Manning family tree.
The winner would achieve what Peyton and Eli have spent their entire lives working toward. The loser would face a pain no brotherly love can heal.
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Peter King analyzes the Week 3 matchups and makes his picks on Thursday at SI.com/nfl