- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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Here's to the little brother. Here's to the squirt. Here's to Beaver and Linus and Jim-Bob Walton.
Here's to the one who never gets the top bunk, never gets shotgun, never gets the last chicken leg.
Here's to Eli Manning, the ultimate little brother. Eli the Lesser, Eli the Forgotten, Eli the Oh Your Youngest Son Plays, Too?
Oh, he plays. The little brother with the perma-cowlick is one game away from his second Super Bowl in five seasons as the star QB of the New York Giants. If he can beat the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in Candlestick Park, it would give him just as many Big Bowls as big brother Peyton, and in five fewer seasons.
Wouldn't that be a tiny, little, private smirk across the dinner table for Eli? For the sixth-grader who had to stand in the front yard catching howitzer passes from his five-years-older-brother Peyton while wearing a pillow, gloves and a helmet. Had to stand there while Peyton hollered, "Hold still, Michelin Man!" Had to catch those things.
"Sometimes it just wasn't right," remembers their dad, Archie Manning, with a laugh. "He looked like some big fat kid out there. Cooper and Peyton just always messed with poor Eli. And you know Eli. He was always quiet, so he just kinda took it."
He's not taking it anymore.
And what about this -- after all those years of Eli being the Boying to Peyton's Manning, is it possible that Eli is actually going to end up as the greatest Manning of all?
Settle down. It's possible. Consider:
• Eli's playoff record is better than his brother's. Eli is 6-3 to Peyton's 9-10.
• The scalps on Eli's belt are better. He got one off Tom Brady and the 18-0 New England Patriots of 2007 in Super Bowl 42. A week ago, he snagged one almost as good: Aaron Rodgers and the 15-1 Green Bay Packers of 2011. Peyton's signature win? He beat Rex Freaking Grossman.
• Eli's four playoff road wins are tied for most in NFL history. Peyton's had only two.
• Peyton has never thrown for as many yards as Eli did this season (4,933), even with more than half his games in domes.
• Eli's been more Clutch Cargo this season than Peyton ever has. His 15 fourth-quarter TD passes broke the NFL record held by Johnny Unitas (1959) and -- oh, wait! -- Peyton Manning (2002).
Is that a revenge wedgie or what?
Can you imagine, Pops?
"I'm not going there," says Archie. "But I know there's nobody happier for Eli than Peyton. He's the biggest Eli fan in the world."
You might have a fight over that in the Giants' locker room now that Eli has led the Giants to five wins in their last six games.
"I think we've got the best QB in the NFL," says Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks. "Don't matter what his name is."
"This is probably the best he's ever played," says Archie, "because we [the Giants] haven't been able to run the ball like we did in past years. Plus, we had three changes in the offensive line [one move, two new players], and all the injuries."
Even former tormentor Cooper Manning, seven years older, has said he's never seen Eli play with such confidence.
"He's been so good in the last two minutes," Archie says, and he's right. Eli's five comeback wins this season were the most in the NFL, tied with the 49ers' Alex Smith and whoever it was quarterbacking the Denver Broncos.
You think if Eli makes it to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, he'll call up Indy resident Peyton and ask, "Hey, Bud! You OK? You need tickets to the game?"
If Eli does end up with more rings than Peyton, it might be because he deserves it. The man watches more film than Roger Ebert.
"I don't know if I've ever come to work here and his car wasn't already in the lot," says tackle David Diehl. "He just outworks everybody. I was here when he walked in as a rookie, and to see his development in the eight years since then, it's amazing."
Diehl is so fond of Eli that when Eli takes off running, Diehl gets up and chases after him, even if the play is going to be dead by the time he gets there. "I'm Marty McSorley and he's Wayne Gretzky. Nothing better happen to him."
What's weird is, Eli doesn't even get the most press among New York QBs. The guy across town -- the Jets' Mark Sanchez -- still gets most of the back page headlines. Now there's wild talk that if Peyton can get his tortured neck healthy, he could wind up replacing Sanchez next season. Lord, that's all Eli needs.
Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!
Anyway, as a little brother myself, the one that always had to get up and change the channel (pre-remote America), I say: Make him get up and chase you, kid.
So here's to Eli the Other, Eli the Overlooked, Eli The One Peyton Would Forget To Drop Off At Middle School Until He Was Locking Up His Car In The High School Parking Lot And Saw Him Sitting Sheepishly In The Back Seat.
"He wouldn't speak up!" Peyton protests.
He just did.
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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "Monday Night Countdown," "SportsCenter," and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.
Feel like taking a detour from sane sports? Try Rick's latest book, "Sports from Hell."
Rick Reilly takes a look at the ascendancy of Eli Manning.