QBs Take Center Stage at Super Bowl

Right or wrong, much of the focus this week is on Tom Brady and Eli Manning. With a fourth Super Bowl win, Brady would join Quarterback Mount Rushmore. With a second Super Bowl win, Manning would have more championships than brother Peyton.

INDIANAPOLIS — Like the monstrous Lucas Oil Stadium, the monolithic centerpiece of this city's southern downtown area, the discussion over the merits of the two quarterbacks for Super Bowl XLVI has dominated much of the talk surrounding Sunday evening's championship matchup.

The NFL can ward off the snow accumulations predicted for at least part of the weekend, apparently the tradeoff for several consecutive days with temperatures in the 60s, by keeping the retractable roof of the stadium closed. But there is no such barrier for the chatter about Eli Manning of the New York Giants and the New England Patriots' counterpart Tom Brady. It's obvious from the early arriving fans for the game, most of them strolling the downtown streets while wearing jerseys bearing the names and numbers of the pair of star quarterbacks, that Brady and Manning are the faces of their franchises.

Which, most people here agree, is the way it's supposed to be.

Of the 45 previous Super Bowl games, quarterbacks were selected as the most valuable player 24 times. Brady is a two-time Super Bowl MVP and it was Manning who won the award when the Giants upset the then-unbeaten Pats in Super Bowl XLII. Quarterbacks have won four of the past five Super Bowl most valuable player honors, and six of the last 10, including Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers last season.

Perhaps most ironic, of course, is that the each quarterback will attempt to further his resume in Peyton's Place, a city where Brady has been reviled, and where Manning's older brother, Peyton, is an injured and possibly departing icon. That fact only adds to the story line, no doubt, but there was already plenty of intrigue to go around in the Super Bowl signal-caller showdown.

"Fair or not," said New York offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride earlier this week, "(the Super Bowl) is kind of viewed as a quarterbacks game. Because of the nature of the beast, in general, those guys pretty much get the most scrutiny in any game. But in a Super Bowl, it's probably increased. Right or wrong, there's a mentality that the quarterbacks will probably decide the game. And because of who they are, that's probably even more the case in this game."

Brady, who has a niche reserved for him in the Hall of Fame, needs only one more victory to join boyhood hero Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks on the two-headed Mount Rushmore of guys with four Super Bowl rings. A victory on Sunday evening would not only nudge Manning ahead of his older brother — who he said this week will be recalled as "the greatest quarterback ever to play" in the NFL — but also validate his preseason self-assessment that he ranks among the elite quarterbacks in the league.

You can't spell elite without Eli. And the younger Manning, who during the regular season set a league record for fourth-quarter touchdown passes (eclipsing, notably, John Unitas, a man some feel, this correspondent among them, essentially created the position), and who seemed to will the Giants to victory at time, has seemed to raise his game to to-shelf status.

"He kind of took over," allowed wide receiver Hakeem Nick. "This isn't really the kind of team where you often look to one guy. But most of the time this year, all eyes were on him. He became kind of the unquestioned leader."

"You just want to be the best quarterback you can be, and be the best player for your team that you can be. It's actually pretty simple," Manning said early this week.

That said, Manning's ascent from pretty good to pretty amazing has been something at which to marvel during the season. And a Super Bowl XLVI victory, particularly over Brady, would culminate a memorable year. Remember, the Giants' win in Super Bowl XLII was seen as something of a fluke, with wideout David Tyree's against-the-helmet catch on a play on which Manning should have been sacked, was just shy of otherworldly. This time around, if New York is victorious, the Giants will likely have earned the win.

And the guy at the front of the pay line, most think, will be Manning.

"You get the sense," said guard Chris Snee, "it's his game."

Make no mistake, there was a time, not all that long ago, when Manning was regarded as the weaker limb of the NFL's most conspicuous quarterback tree, at least from a leadership and work ethic standpoint. Although he never took the game lightly, the perception was that Manning fretted over the details far less than the obsessive Peyton, who prefers to control everything. For those inside the game, even if unfair, the term "doofus" was actually attacked to Manning's mien. But all that seemed to change the past couple seasons, and the metamorphosis into serious student of the game appeared to come to completion this spring and summer when Manning supervised the Giants' lockout practices and even scheduled some private time with his receivers.

"I remember when he called and said he wanted to get together," recalled wide receiver Victor Cruz, the second-year sensation, who went from zero catches as a rookie in 2010, to electrifying, big-play maker this year. "I thought, ‘You know, this is the kind of stuff Peyton is always so famous for.' But (Eli) did it quietly, and with no fanfare, and you got a sense then for how driven he was about this season. It was like it was his time to shine."

Ever since shedding his sixth-round tag, replacing the injured Drew Bledsoe, and then winning his first Super Bowl game in an upset of St. Louis, Brady pretty much has ranked as the league's Golden Boy. In fact, some Giants players, a few publicly and quite a few privately, have chafed at his image. But while Brady's veneer may be that of the Pretty Boy, with many defenders in the NFL feeling that league officials go out of there way to protect him, his teammates insist he is tough and demanding and not above providing criticism, both verbal and otherwise.

"You know," said tight end Aaron Hernandez, "when he's not happy, believe me."

Brady was clearly less than happy with his uneven performance in the AFC championship game victory over Baltimore, an outing in which he suggested on national television that he had "sucked," and after which he famously promised owner Bob Kraft that he will "be better" in the Super Bowl. The game was just the latest in Brady's recent big-game struggles, a stretch that may have removed some of the luster from his impressive resume.

The Patriots, it should be pointed out, have not won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season, when they grabbed the championship for the third time in four years. In the seven seasons since then, Brady is just 7-5 as a starter in postseason games. In 2009 and 2010, New England was defeated in its first playoff game each time. Forget the fact that Brady has been forced, even when he won Super Bowl titles, to throw to some fairly ordinary wide receivers. Overlook, too, that this season's comeback to carve out the AFC's best record, was achieved with virtually no running game and a beyond-suspect defense, and that the Patriots was forced to win shootouts to post a lot of their victories. Brady is expected to deliver, even of he has attempted at various junctures this week to adopt a public team-first stance.

To many, Brady and coach Bill Belichick are the Patriots, the first quarterback-coach tandem to advance to five Super Bowl games, and that fact has overshadowed that as this particular point of the season, the resurgent Giants seem to be viewed by many players around the league as the better team. New York defenders certainly have contended privately that Brady no long has an air of invincibility. He isn't quite Tom Thumb, but neither is he Tom Terrific in their eyes.

That said, the quarterback who embraces the role of hero here on Sunday night, in the stadium that Peyton built, will probably have been terrific.


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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.


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