The Big Easy

CALL HIM A HANGDOG HERO, A SAD-SACK SUPERMAN, KID BROTHER TO A LEGEND—BUT WOULD YOU BET AGAINST ELI MANNING WHEN IT'S ALL ON THE LINE IN FEBRUARY? THE MVP OF TWO SUPER BOWLS, A SCION OF FOOTBALL'S FIRST FAMILY AND THE ULTIMATE GAMER, THE GIANTS' QUARTERBACK HAS FORCED US TO RETHINK WHAT WE EXPECT IN A STAR
December 17, 2012

You want to win, right? Then you'll to have to reimagine how a quarterback should be. That's obvious now. This won't be easy if you grew up with Tittle's bloodied head or Namath's nightclub grin, with Montana's ice-cool gaze or Marino's red-faced rage; if you buy the football-as-war thing and envision a QB as some glory-eyed field general, Patton in cleats, beloved and feared and renewing one of the last archetypes of American manhood with each last-second miracle.

Eli Manning stays on his feet ... airs it out down the field.... It is ... caught! By Tyree!

Because that's the essence. That's what we talk about, really, when we talk about The Quarterback. Is he clutch? How does he fare in the ultimate moment, when 100 million fans are watching and an unforgiving city demands success? Nothing else matters. Which brings us to the wondrous and puzzling boy king of New York.

Oh, my God ... I don't know how he got out of there! I thought he was on the ground, and then he came out of the pile and just slings it!

Giants quarterback Eli Manning owns a middling career passer rating and is, in the words of his former center, Shaun O'Hara, "one of the most unathletic quarterbacks in the NFL." He lacks Tom Brady's glamour, Drew Brees's accuracy and big brother Peyton's near-oppressive aura of authority. Yet after last February's Super Bowl title—his second in five seasons—after a year in which he set the NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes and 10 road wins and tied the alltime mark with eight game-winning drives, it's clear that, at 31, Manning is the best quarterback alive if you want to win a title; the best ever to play for one of the most iconic franchises, the best, in fact, to take Manhattan, better than Charlie Conerly, Phil Simms and even sexy, storybook Broadway Joe.

Thirty-nine seconds left.... Manning lobs it.... Burress alone. Touchdown, New York!

This is, in many precincts, sacrilegious talk. The Big Apple likes its heroes (and villains and fools) larger than life. Manning is the opposite, country twang and all. His body language falls somewhere between mumble and sigh. Where his passing peers project macho cool, Eli appears to have just rolled off a couch, blinking and bed-headed, to take the snap. His hype-deflating demeanor on camera—even the cellphone that snapped him gazing at his flooded Hoboken, N.J., apartment lobby following Hurricane Sandy—can leave one doubtful that this guy knows whether he's just won, lost or been hit by a natural disaster.

Four-man rush. Eeee-Li, throwing into traffic on the sideline ... and they rule it a catch by Manningham!

An absolutely picture-perfect throw. The window on that thing is about THIS big. That's why he was the Super Bowl MVP.

Pro football has never quite known what to make of him, and God has laughed at every try. After three years of playing alongside him, Tiki Barber in 2007 called Manning's leadership "comical." Five months later Eli guided the mercurial Giants 83 yards in the final 2:42 to beat the 18--0 Patriots for one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history. Pundits giggled when, in response to a radio host's prompting, Eli described himself last preseason as "elite." So in February—in Peyton's old Indianapolis stomping ground—he drove the Giants 88 yards to win his second Lombardi trophy. And a month ago, in the midst of a three-game touchdown drought and speculation about a "dead arm," Simms declared that Manning was, indeed, not an elite quarterback. Thirteen days later Eli fired three touchdown passes to beat the streaking Packers and break Simms's franchise career record of 199.

That would be the turning point for most teams, but these first-place Giants treat momentum like a disease. On Sunday they scored 52 points to beat the Saints, yet the usual spectacular-shaky mix—Manning threw four touchdowns and two interceptions, one a pick-six—had analysts mapping the ways they could miss the playoffs entirely. Meanwhile, the Redskins and the Cowboys are surging, and oh, yes, Peyton has come back from oblivion to fashion one of his typically flawless campaigns in Denver. Eli, in other words, has 'em all right where he wants 'em. Life just feels better when it's played like an endless two-minute drill. "I definitely don't get nervous," he says. "That's maybe the difference with other people. They may think, If we don't score here, we lose. I look at it the other way: Hey, we're about to win. It's two minutes, we're about to throw it every down—and as a quarterback that's what you want. When you're down, you got nothing to lose."

There have been low-key star quarterbacks before, of course. But Bart Starr and Bob Griese carried themselves like NASA engineers. Eli Manning, peering out from under a 10-year-old's haircut, is the NFL embodiment of cognitive dissonance. He inspires confidence despite stretches where, as former Jets QB Boomer Esiason says, "he can look like he has no clue." At certain harried moments Manning resembles no one so much as Dukakis in the tank. No wonder his favorite Seinfeld episode is "Bizarro Jerry," where everything is reversed. In Eli's world last is first, omega man trumps the alpha males and the lesser quarterback always wins.

"He doesn't fit," says Esiason, who co-hosts a sports talk show on New York's WFAN. "When he's fundamentally sound, he looks good, like a Manning. When he's not, he's gangly, all over the place, and when he runs, the whole thing is awkward. To have two Super Bowl parades and be on the lead float, looking like a bobble-head doll? What is going on here? But that's the beauty of Eli. I can't tell you just how amazing his story is. If I had a vote, even if his career ended today, he'd be in the Hall of Fame."

So now he has this reputation. "King of the Game-Winning Drives" is what ESPN dubbed Manning two weeks ago, after a 17--16 loss to the Redskins. But it wasn't just media talk. Holding that lead with 3:51 to play, Washington's offense had taken the field with one mission: "We can't give Eli the ball back," said Redskins tackle Trent Williams. "We have all the faith in the world in our defense—but we didn't even want to give him a chance. He does this for a living. He's a killer on those fourth-quarter drives."

Back in 2002 the only NFL man who saw the killer, who saw that something "rare" below the surface, worked for the Giants. Then again, general manager Ernie Accorsi couldn't have been more primed. He had grown up worshipping Johnny Unitas in his heyday, after all, and he had joined the Colts as their p.r. director in 1970, when Johnny U's elbow was all but shot. Don't worry about the arm, scout Milt Davis told Accorsi; judge a QB by his ability, with a title at stake, to lead a team downfield and score. Everything else is secondary.

Unitas led Baltimore to a Super Bowl V win over the Cowboys that season, and Accorsi never forgot the lesson. Sixteen years later, as G.M. of the Browns, Accorsi was just 5:32 away from winning the 1986 AFC Championship Game when he watched Denver's John Elway complete a little outlet pass to Sammy Winder from his own two-yard line. Oh, no, Accorsi thought. The Drive, Elway's heroics, decades of Cleveland misery now felt gut-wrenchingly inevitable. "Some quarterbacks have that," he says. "Something deep in their soul makes that happen."

Sixteen years after that loss, Accorsi sat frozen in the stands in Oxford, Miss., watching Eli Manning, an Ole Miss junior, pick apart heavily favored Auburn and thinking, Oh, yes. Accorsi's ensuing scouting report, typed up in all caps, has become a talisman of New York sports, up there with Clyde Frazier's fedora and Jeffrey Maier's glove. In it he refers to Bobby Boyd's old quip about Unitas's two best qualities: his left testicle and his right. The kid had little talent to work with, Accorsi says of Manning, "but he kept bringing them back. It was cold and windy, and Auburn would go right down the field, and now he had like a minute and three or four seconds and he single-handedly took them down the field and right at the end threw an interception in the end zone. But he was always trying to win—I saw that."

What Accorsi and other outsiders didn't see, however, is the odd cocktail of goofiness and unrelenting will bubbling beneath. The year before Accorsi's first sighting, Eli had started for the first time, against Alabama: In the sophomore's SEC coming-out party, he threw for 325 yards, erased a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, marched the Rebels 59 yards in the final two minutes and snapped a 10-game losing streak against the Tide by throwing the winning touchdown pass with 46 seconds to play.

But more than his performance, it's the night before the game that stuck with David Morris, Manning's Ole Miss backup who would end up rooming with Eli for four years and becoming his best friend. (For those who call Manning "easygoing," it's worth noting that at first the two didn't like each other; they competed tensely for the job, and it was only after Eli—driving his squad some 80 yards to the winning score with less than two minutes left in the spring game his freshman year—established supremacy for good that the tension dissolved. Eli kept the needle handy, though. "To D-Mo," he later scrawled on a photo of himself scrambling during the Super Bowl XLII pass to David Tyree. "You're the best backup quarterback ever!") "His demeanor before a game is very unusual," Morris says now. No one sleeps harder than Eli, but Morris figured the prospect of facing the South's marquee program would cause concern. Instead, he returned from the bathroom to find Eli midair, shorts wedgied where no sun shines, bouncing on the bed and bullfrogging his knees up to his face, over and over. We play Alabama tomorrow? Morris thought. What is this?

The two eventually stopped giggling long enough to get down to business: their weekly signals test. Taking turns, each would try to stump the other with the most obscure, complex combination of hundreds of sets and plays and audibles, silently running through the sideline sign language. The other had to bark out the play—"Gun, flop-right, duo, X-jet, roll 98, X-flood"—and whoever got the most right earned bragging rights.

"I've been playing quarterback since second grade," says Morris, who now works as an independent QB tutor. "I like to think I'm intelligent. But he was always prepared. I don't think I won a test—not one in four years."

New York City thrives on crisis. Visit for three days, and it's impossible not to get sucked into the tidal rhythm of Page Six snark, chest-beating columnists and nonstop yapping on The Fan. Still, you'd figure know-it-all New York would know better by now, realize that a November swoon is part of Manning's DNA, and just enjoy the ride. But no, three weeks ago, with the Packers and their red-hot QB coming to town, you could feel that old panic rising again. First place is slipping away! What's wrong with Eli?

To have Simms—the Super Bowl XXI MVP who just last summer said Manning was headed to the Hall of Fame—backpedal on a radio show on Nov. 12 was to see another so-called expert sink into analyst hell. Eli, you see, is the Rolling Stones' Satan in shoulder pads: Confusing you is the nature of his game. "No, he is not one of the elites," Simms said on CBS Sports Network. "Because when I hear the word elite, I'm thinking about guys that can make unbelievable plays on the field by themselves."

To a man, Manning's bosses never publicly betrayed any such second-guessing. "I try not to worry about it, because I know at the end of the day he's going to turn things around," says Giants co-owner John Mara. "Eli has a certain calm, a confidence, and that gets passed through the rest of the organization. I don't know how to explain it."

The best attempts focus on Manning's efforts, year in and year out, to take young receivers like Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle in hand, tutoring them on routes and tendencies, building their confidence. Others talk about seeing his car parked at the Giants' facility on off days or the study habits copied from the master. Of Eli's nickname, Easy, Peyton says, "I've never sensed that about Eli. He's extremely intense about his work, takes his craft very seriously. When he and I talk at night, he's studying tape at the same time I am. There's nothing easy about it."

But where Peyton might scorch the lineman who missed a block or the receiver who didn't run the proper route, Eli will inject just a touch of urgency into his voice. "Get that guy blocked; we're going to win the game," Eli will say. "You want to win, right? You want to score touchdowns, don't you?"

Such cajoling might have been comical once, but teammates just nod now. Two Super Bowl MVP awards help, of course, but part of Manning's "magic," as Accorsi called it, is the ability to keep things simple. "I mean, he's beautiful," says Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, laughing the way one does when simplicity prevails.

"You ever go some place and have a burger, and don't know why that place's burger is so much better than others'?" asks Giants tight end Martellus Bennett. "It's a hamburger at the end of the day, but this one's just better. That's Eli."

It does help that Manning has a habit of feasting on big names. He beat Brett Favre in OT in the arctic NFC Championship epic in January 2008; and he completed a team-record 32 passes in taking apart the NFL's No. 2 scoring defense in the NFC title game last January. The last three times Manning has played the Patriots, he was trailing inside two minutes and won. Brady couldn't outplay him, and Bill Belichick couldn't stop him. Aaron Rodgers might be last year's MVP and a model for QB excellence, but on the night of Nov. 25, just as in last year's divisional playoff meeting, he found himself outplayed by Eli on the biggest stage.

Still, the faces of Giants execs gathered in the tunnel following that 38--10 demolition of Green Bay were clearly lit with relief. Teammates ran off the MetLife Stadium field whooping, and the building shook with the chaos of triumph—and finally, here came Manning, last off the field, head down and waving, once, at the crowd. It was his victory, most of all, but he didn't stop. He barely smiled. He knows better.

"Every day the fans call in and ask, 'What the hell's the matter with Eli?'" says Esiason. "And I say, 'There's nothing the matter with Eli. That's who he is.' He's better suited for this than any of us idiots are."

In Manning's press conference following the win over the Packers three weeks ago, two unusual things happened. The first occurred when he was asked about Adam Merchant, a 15-year-old cancer patient and Giants fan whom the Make-a-Wish Foundation had arranged to attend the game and who had given the team an impromptu pep talk. "We've had a number of kids, and it's pretty, uh, special," Manning said, and suddenly his eyes were tearing, his voice breaking, and for a moment it seemed like he might well lose it. Over the last five years he has raised nearly $3 million for children's clinics in Jackson, Miss. He was thinking, he says, of his own daughter, Ava, a healthy soon-to-be-two-year-old.

"This was his last wish; it's sad," Manning says of Adam. "This is what he wanted to do—come to a Giants practice, come to a game—and we gave him a great day. It just makes you happy anytime you can impact someone's life, especially someone who's had a tough life. I think about him and his parents, just seeing him smiling, seeing him happy."

The second occurred when Manning was asked about breaking Simms's franchise record. Into the mike he called it "an honor" and left it at that. But he had to fight himself. This was a piñata just begging to be whacked. Manning even had a zinger prepared: "Well, I don't know if Phil Simms was an elite quarterback anyway, so I don't know if it's that big of a deal." Instead he held his tongue.

"I wanted to get a laugh, but I didn't know if that would make another ordeal, so I passed," he says. "I was very close to saying that, just to get payback or whatever. I guess I took the high road...."

That his tone is more regretful than self-regarding is no surprise. Eli loves payback. His pranks, ranging from merely annoying to elaborate, are legendary constructs. Once at Ole Miss he startled Morris by mooning him, spanking himself and yelping, "How you like me now!?" But that was only the setup. Eli left the room knowing that Morris would respond in kind, so he asked a janitor to go check on him. Eli howled as the horrified man ("Oh, my dear God!") scampered away.

"Golf trips, you don't go to sleep before Eli," warns his dad, Archie Manning. Drink a few beers and conk out? If you're lucky, he'll change your cellphone language to Chinese. If you're not? "He will mark ... you ... up," says Archie. "The one thing Peyton and Eli have on 'em is a Sharpie—and you can't get that stuff off. He'll do somebody's face, and you get up the next morning to play golf, go to breakfast? Or you're out, and he'll do your calves, all colors. You can't get it off!"

Eli delights in ratcheting things up a notch. Mess with his car keys, as one Giants coach did at training camp? Your bike will end up in the netting 50 feet above the gym floor. Stick a live frog in his sock, as O'Hara once did? Manning'll pay the ball boys to cover your Hummer in Silly String. When Morris told the tale at Manning's 2007 wedding rehearsal dinner of a particular performance by Eli at a Tuscaloosa bar, the quarterback retaliated with an exaggerated telling of the mooning story at Morris's own rehearsal dinner, inserting a dead squirrel into the tale. "He's witty," says Morris. "And he's going to get you back."

New York, of course, sees none of that. Manning's weekly sessions before the cameras and microphones are hilarious exercises in dullness. Two weeks ago, in the run-up to that Monday-night showdown with Washington, reporters fanned out in a semicircle in front of his locker. Manning stood and answered each question ("We've got to go in there and find a way to win.... We've got five games left.... This is an important one because it's the next one...."), but he appeared to be taking a perverse pride in finding, Bull Durham--like, the most groan-worthy clichés. "That's all by design, not by default," says O'Hara. "Eli's smart. He's playing chess while everybody's playing checkers."

Indeed, the most interesting part of the exercise was the way Manning's eyes kept scanning the crowd, left to right, never focusing on one face, as if he were reading a defense before the snap. His left eye, in fact, tracks just a degree or two behind the right, leaving the odd impression that he's able to take in the whole panorama at once—a useless tool unless your job involves avoiding unseen tacklers. This scanning calls to mind something his high school coach, Frank Gendusa, said about a play that always stuck with him. "Eli looked like he'd be sacked; this guy swung him around and [Eli] threw a little sidearm pass to the running back. I don't know how, sometimes, they see people," Gendusa said. "It's an uncanny knack good quarterbacks have—but he has it."

Now somebody was asking, as everyone had been asking the other players all week, about Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Giants' defenders, in particular, had nearly fallen over in the rush to join the national chorus praising the rookie sensation. And you might think that Manning, who carried a franchise's weight and got as rattled as any good quarterback ever has during his own rookie year, would have something to say about that too.

"Eli, did you see Griffin's sensational Thanksgiving Day performance?"

"Yeah. He's making a lot of plays." The words hung there. For the first time, Manning looked his questioner in the eye.

"Uh, what do you find special about him?"

"He made a lot of plays, throwing the ball accurately, running around extending some plays. It seems like he feels comfortable and relaxed back there and is making good decisions." Eli stared again, blank-faced, as if to say, I can do this all day.

"As a rookie you had to make the adjustment to the league. His poise, are you taken with that?"

"Yeah. He's stepped in, and he's played well." Run along now. My job is to beat his ass, not kiss it.

Did you see Archie's fingernails?" Olivia Manning asks after her husband has walked out the door. "Some days during games he'll put gloves on because he bites 'em down. It's a habit he's had since he was a little boy. He's gone through times where they did grow a little bit, but football season takes them right back down. He just can't keep 'em out of his mouth."

The matriarch of America's first family of football laughs softly. The two have just spent a good hour in their sunny sitting room in New Orleans, with its photo of oldest son Cooper, now 38, in his high school jersey and Super Bowl shots of Peyton and Eli above the mantel alongside Archie's College Football Hall of Fame certificate, trying in vain to plumb the age-old mystery of siblings: How did they get like this? As Archie put it, "They're just three different animals."

Still, when strangers take the easy way and attribute Eli's temperament to his courtly, seemingly relaxed father, Olivia takes issue. The Archie she's known for 44 years is more of a nervous wreck than anyone sees. Eli may well have gotten his ribald wit from oldest brother Cooper (who says Eli would never dare prank him because "he knows I'll go medieval on him"), but the clan's competitive gas flows from the top. "We're playing golf for five dollars, and he wants to rip your heart out," Cooper says of Archie. "I'm just glad to have a little nine-hole with my dad, and he wants to rip my face off."

Eli's exposure to that intensity came secondhand. Born under a bad star—Archie's Saints had just finished 1--15 when he was born in January 1981—Eli didn't, like Cooper and Peyton, witness Archie missing the playoffs season after torturous season. Trailing his brothers by seven and five years, respectively, he wasn't part of their loud, often bloody fraternal battles over basketball or checkers or life. When his parents would try to take him to his brothers' endless baseball tournaments, Eli would ask for a babysitter and stay home. "I often thought sports weren't going to be his thing," says Archie. "And that was fine."

Math came easy. Eventually, sports did too. But when, early in school at Isidore Newman in New Orleans, Eli struggled with reading, he grew terrified of being called on—for any reason—and became withdrawn. Classmates would taunt him. When Olivia visited his first-grade class, a teacher cajoled, "Eli, introduce your mom!" But the boy could barely get the words out.

He transferred to a smaller school, St. George's Episcopal, with a specialized reading program. There he learned to start studying on Monday for a Friday test, so he'd never be surprised. "I wanted to get better," Eli says. "I wanted to be able to do it, so I wouldn't be embarrassed. Once I understood the rules it finally clicked, and eventually I was an honor roll student. I proved to myself that if you work hard at something it can become better. And I've taken that approach to everything I've tried."

The experience left scars too. Manning, an academic All-America at Ole Miss, is still not the best speller. (His wife, Abby, proofreads every note he writes.) And that reserve stuck. When Cooper, Peyton and Archie jabbered away at the dinner table, Eli and Olivia would sit and listen. They became close when Archie traveled, sharing lunches and shopping at antique stores. Olivia says he's "always been kind of a mama's boy" and very much like her own mother, a calm, deceptively tough presence who, one day in the male-dominated universe of 1940s Philadelphia, Miss., decided to become the town's first female pilot. If Peyton was the family's inevitable star, the one falling asleep listening to tapes of his dad's old games, Eli kept his ambitions banked. He never asked Archie about his playing days.

"If Peyton wasn't a football player, I can assure you he would be the CEO of some company and be super successful," says Cooper, a partner at a New Orleans energy consulting firm. "He wants it. It's important to him. It is who he is. Failing is not an option—or not trying, at least." And Eli? Cooper shakes his head. "I have no idea what he would be doing."

Archie still considers his youngest child something of a mystery. But no one can make fun of someone who doesn't seem to care. "I do get upset; I do get frustrated," says Eli. "I just try not to show it. I don't want to give anybody the satisfaction of seeing me in that state.

"It's not that I'm easygoing, relaxed, don't have a care. I do. I care so much. I just don't show it to outside people. Ask my wife how much I care and what it's like after a loss. The reason she roots so hard for the Giants is that she wants to have a good week—she wants on Sunday night, Monday night and Tuesday to have some smiles and laughs around the house."

He cared, all right. When it came time for high school, Eli's parents told him that he didn't have to go back to Newman—the academically rigorous scene of his humiliation and the place where Cooper and Peyton had become football kings. "I'm going to Newman," he said. Eli played quarterback, pretty much matching Peyton yard for yard, touchdown for touchdown. At one point during Eli's junior year, Peyton returned from Tennessee, and the two squared off in a backyard game of one-on-one basketball. "I was up one and I slipped by him and dunked on him to win the game," Eli remembers. "He does not like that story. But it was a pretty fun moment for me."

Olivia says that Peyton "never got over" that first loss to his little brother, but the loser says she exaggerates. "If it makes Eli feel better to embellish a bit, I'm all for it," Peyton says. "I'm all for being a good older brother."

Everyone agrees that had it been Cooper (whose football career ended in high school after a diagnosis of spinal stenosis) with two Super Bowl rings to Peyton's one, things would've been, as Cooper says, "icier" between the two. But in college, Peyton—now with four NFL MVP awards to Eli's none, and more than twice the career touchdown passes—was telling people, "You think I'm good? Wait till you see my little brother." His dad always said the one way for his sons to disappoint him was to not get along. A five-year age gap made getting along easier.

"In high school [Peyton] would come back when I was in spring practice and make my dad film my drops, and we'd watch it that night," Eli recalls. "He'd tell me, 'This is what we're learning at Tennessee: On your three-step, make that second step real short and quick to get the ball out.' When I was in college and he was in the NFL, he'd come to spring football and watch our practices and we'd do drills. He wanted me to have success. Everything he learned, he wanted to come back and teach me."

And a pattern was set. Eli, placid demeanor and all, kept putting himself in pressure-cooker situations where failure would surely bring the humiliation he once feared. He could've played college ball anywhere, but he chose Ole Miss, where his father was revered and where the speed limit is still set at 18 mph—Archie's uniform number—to this day. His one speed bump, a public-drunkenness arrest midway through freshman year, left Eli "as embarrassed as I've ever been," he says. The phone call home was brutal, but he vowed to fully dedicate himself to football. Months later the phone rang again in the Manning home. Eli had finally read up on Archie's legendary career in Oxford.

"Dad?" Eli said. "You know, your numbers weren't very good."

It's hard to remember now, but at one point Eli Manning had that same overwhelmed, lost-tourist-in-Manhattan look worn these days by Jets QB Mark Sanchez. The Giants presented a unified front when they orchestrated the 2004 draft-day deal with San Diego that brought Manning to New York, but for a long time the most powerful voice in the room didn't like the look of things. Wellington Mara, the team's longtime co-owner, was fond of Kerry Collins, who had taken the team to Super Bowl XXXV in 2001. And at 88 he didn't know if he had time to wait for a rookie to pay off.

Especially that rookie. Manning had shattered his father's numbers at Ole Miss, but his first day at minicamp, in 2004, was marked by just one memorable pass: Eli hit a tackling dummy instead of a receiver. Oh, my God, thought John Mara, the team heir who had pushed his father so hard on Eli. This isn't the guy I watched in college. Taking over the starting job from Kurt Warner in Week 11, Manning lost six straight, including a panicky 37--14 meltdown beneath the onslaught of a slavering Ravens defense that resulted in a 0.0 passer rating. (That particular feat had previously occurred just 62 times in NFL history—once, 30 years earlier, by Archie.) A last-minute drive to beat Dallas in the season finale was the lone bright spot. It was the last Giants game Wellington Mara ever attended.

Archie grew up in Drew, Miss., a Giants fan. His father, Buddy, had always loved Ole Miss quarterback Charlie Conerly, and the two followed Conerly's progress when he went on to New York, led the Giants to the 1956 title and was named MVP in '59. Buddy committed suicide just before Archie's junior year in college, and it's one of Archie's great regrets that he couldn't take his dad along with him when he became a star, introducing him to the likes of Conerly and Y.A. Tittle. Eli has always said the decision to force San Diego to trade him to New York on draft day was his alone, but many saw Archie's hand in it. "It was him," Archie insists. "It started with him, and it ended with him."

Still, family and franchise didn't begin to feel justified until the next season, when Manning won his first two games and held up under withering attacks in his first visit to San Diego. The sellout crowd booed and raised hate-filled signs. John Mara heard one Chargers assistant jaw at Eli, "You're going to get yours today." The Giants lost 45--23, but Manning was 24 of 41 with 352 passing yards, all then career highs. When John visited his cancer-stricken father in a Manhattan hospital the next day, he said, "Tough game, Dad, but the quarterback really played well."

"He sure did," Wellington Mara responded. "He really showed me something." A month later the elder Mara was dead.

Fathers and sons. When Peyton broke the NFL's 50-year-old rookie record with 26 touchdown passes in 1998, Archie loved that it was Conerly's mark he broke. And when Eli passed Simms to set the Giants' career record with 200 TD passes late against the Packers in November—his teammates hopping, slapping his back, looking far more excited than Eli—Archie was there at MetLife Stadium. It had seemed to Archie like just another record until the team's alltime list was displayed, with Conerly and Tittle and his own idol, Fran Tarkenton, sitting now below his son. "It was a good night," Archie says. "It's special to see Eli there with those guys."

But then, should anyone be surprised? Soon enough Manning will own nearly every Giants passing record, maybe another Super Bowl ring. "If it's Ping-Pong, Eli's not going to let you win," says Morris. "If it's your serve, he'll turn your head and put a divot in the ball; he will cheat before he lets you win. That's why he's perfect for New York. A lot of people talk about it. Eli lives it."

A couple of years ago, after Eli had won his first Super Bowl, Cooper asked his little brother to join him on an overnight golf outing with a group of high-end money managers at an exclusive club in Chattanooga. First came 36 holes of golf and then, in a cottage near midnight, everyone was playing cards and dice when Eli, out of the blue, asked, "Who here doesn't think I can do a headstand for a minute?"

In an instant, bets were flying and someone said, "I definitely can hold it longer than you," and Eli's feet were up in the air and all these Ivy Leaguers were rolling onto their heads and, really now, who do you think might have the edge in a world gone upside down?

"One of my hidden talents: I can do a headstand until all the blood rushes down into my head and I'm about to pass out," Eli says. "I won some money. It wasn't even close."

Eli is the NFL embodiment of cognitive dissonance. Confusing you is the nature of his game.

I can do this all day, Manning seems to say as he stonewalls a reporter. Run along now.

"Dad?" Eli said after he read up on Archie at Ole Miss. "You know, your numbers weren't very good."

"If Peyton wasn't a player, he would be a CEO," says brother Cooper. And Eli? "I have no idea."

Flop or future Hall of Famer—the papers can't seem to stick with one story. Maybe Eli's not that easy

APRIL 2004

The savior arrives in the draft

NOVEMBER 2004

First start: TD, 2 INTs, 45.1 rating in a loss

NOVEMBER 2006

Patience running out during four-game skid

NOVEMBER 2007

Six-game win streak ended by Cowboys

NOVEMBER 2007

Three pick-sixes in loss to lowly Vikings

NOVEMBER 2008

Nine months after SB win, he's a Jedi

JANUARY 2009

No Lombardi Trophy, no love

NOVEMBER 2009

Gotham has reason to be thankful

DECEMBER 2009

Misses playoffs, first time since rookie year

NOVEMBER 2011

Heroic expectations for SB rematch

JANUARY 2012

Gunnin' to take down Green Bay

FEBRUARY 2012

A rare front page after SB MVP No. 2

SI.COM

For complete coverage of the final three weeks—Jim Trotter's Awards Race, Chris Burke's Must-Win Watch and the playoff picture—go to SI.com/mag

PHOTOPhotograph by SIMON BRUTYELI'S HUMMING At 31, Manning has more Super Bowl rings than Marino and Favre. Not bad for a guy whose career passer rating hovers in Neil Lomax territory. PHOTOSIMON BRUTYLEATHER HIDES Unlike some past football giants of New York, Eli shies from the spotlight—but that hasn't tamed the tabloids (below). TWELVE PHOTOSCOVERS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK POST AND DAILY NEWS PHOTOBOB ROSATOMAGIC MOMENTS Eli's great escape and miracle connection with Tyree (top) in SB XLII was matched by his sideline toss to Manningham to set up the XLVI win. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (MANNINGAM)[See caption above] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (TYREE)[See caption above] PHOTOTIM FARRELL/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PRESSWIREBEAT THE PRESS Eli's sessions with the media—at camp (right), in the locker room and on the field—appear, for him at least, to be an exercise in obfuscation. PHOTOTOM DIPACE (ELI)DIXIE BUSINESS At Mississippi, Eli (below) had to live up to the memory of his Ole man (right). He was better, in fact, throwing 50 more TDs and five fewer INTs. PHOTOJAY LEVITON/ATLANTA INC.[See caption above] PHOTOSIMON BRUTYAWWWKWARD Cross-legged, pigeon-toed, arms akimbo—Eli's on-field demeanor can evoke a discombobulated third-grader's. Whatever works.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)