- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Tom Brady is a tough guy, dimpled face and all, and yet he will walk into Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday as the second-toughest quarterback in the house.
Eli Manning has him on that one. Brady has more talent, more touchdowns, more rings, more charisma, more endorsements, more square feet of living space, more just about everything.
Manning has more nerve in the face of a raging pass rush. If you assured me that both Super Bowl XLVI quarterbacks would suffer a violent beating from the opposing front, and then asked me to pick one to weather that storm, I'd go with Manning, and I think most neutral observers would do the same.
We'll start with the mental before we get to the physical. Brady entered the league as the 199th pick of his draft, and entered the New England Patriots' huddle as a no-expectation replacement for Drew Bledsoe, who was nearly cut in half by Mo Lewis. At the time the 2001 Patriots had the feel of a 6-10 team, and Bill Belichick had the look of a dead coach walking ... again.
Manning entered the league as Dom DiMaggio. He was the little brother of an all-time great (Peyton), not to mention the son of a man (Archie) who was the face of an NFL franchise, albeit a sorry one. Eli was picked 198 spots earlier in his draft than Brady was in his, and enraged the city of San Diego -- and many league elders -- by forcing a trade to the big-market New York Giants.
Brady started out burden-free. Eli? He was the bonus baby cursed by a famous surname, poor body language, an arm that didn't measure up to Peyton's, and feet that didn't measure up to Archie's. The burdens strapped to his shoulder pads couldn't fit inside Central Park.
As proof, four years after matching his big brother's title, Eli found his first Super Bowl XLVI news conference dominated by Peyton questions in Peyton's place.
And the normally colorless Eli lit up and wowed the crowd with tales from the family crypt, recalling that Peyton used to pin him to the ground, bang his knuckles against the little brother's chest, and make him name each Southeastern Conference school, each NFL team, even each brand of cigarettes sold at the store.
Cigarettes? "When he really wanted to torture me," Eli said, "and knew I had no shot of ever getting it, that's when I just started screaming for my mom or dad to come save me. ..."
It was Peyton this, Peyton that. No, Eli won't be visiting with big brother this week. Yes, Eli will be talking with big brother this week. Yes, Peyton's been a terrific big brother who even bought Eli the most helpful Christmas gift: a computer to watch all sorts of game film at home.
"Things his coaches were teaching him in college," Eli said, "he would come back and teach to me when I was in eighth grade or high school just so I would have an advantage."
So there are advantages to being Peyton's kid brother. But in the context of building a successful NFL career, in managing the expectations tethered to a No. 1 pick bearing the Manning name, the cons outweigh the pros.
Brady didn't have a living legend for an older sibling, and nobody ever threatened to run him out of town, not after he won it all in Year 1 on his precision and poise, the grace of the Tuck Rule, and a kicker clutch enough to ensure that Michael Jordan would go down as the Adam Vinatieri of two-guards.
Manning? In the 11th week of his fourth season, with no playoff victories to his name, Eli was so dreadful at home against Minnesota (four interceptions, three returned for touchdowns) that the retired executive who had acquired him, Ernie Accorsi, sped away from Giants Stadium by halftime because he couldn't bear to watch his prospect play football anymore.
Manning was ticketed for the next train out of dodge, booked in a coach class seat next to the coach, Tom Coughlin. Eli was facing unbearable pressure until he delivered a charmed postseason run, made his great escape from a heavy Super Bowl rush, and went wing-and-a-prayer to David Tyree's head.
At Tom Brady's everlasting expense.
Brady was sacked five times and hit nine times in that game, and no, he never looked too happy about it. As the epic upset in Glendale, Ariz. was unfolding, Justin Tuck said he heard the Patriots quarterback giving it to his offensive line.
"I think there are a lot of things that can get him rattled," Tuck said Monday, six days away from the rematch, before adding that not many teams are capable of doing those things.
Eli doesn't get rattled. He took a vicious pounding from San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game, and never once blinked.
"Eli always gets up," his father said Monday by phone. "That's what you're supposed to do as a quarterback, get up. It was tough to watch, a little tougher for my wife Olivia, but I was really proud of how patient Eli was in that game."
Archie absorbed more than his fair share of direct hits as a New Orleans Saint, but even he was surprised at how quickly Eli recovered from the Niners' pass rush. "I thought he'd be real sore," Archie said, "because of the nature of that game. But Eli said he was fine afterward."
So now we get to the physical part. Eli is the only Super Bowl XLVI participant on either side who played every regular season and postseason snap this year. His current streak of 119 consecutive starts (129 including the postseason) is third on the all-time list (behind Brett Favre's 297 and Peyton's 208), two places ahead of Brady's old streak of 111.
Manning was supposed to miss as much as a month early in 2007 with a shoulder injury, and yet he didn't miss a snap. "Eli's trainer from Ole Miss called me that week," Archie said, "and I told him it looked like he'd be out three to four weeks. And the trainer said, 'Don't worry, Archie, he'll be ready to play Sunday.'"
That trainer, Tim Mullins, remembered the conversation in a Monday phone interview. "Eli's one of the toughest guys we've had here," Mullins said, "so I knew he'd get through that shoulder thing. He had a sprained ligament in his knee that we kept quiet once, and he played through that when some people thought he wouldn't make it. Eli might be laid-back, but he has a passion and a hunger to succeed."
When Manning was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis in 2009, Mullins told him to wear cowboy boots all day and night, before and after practice, to ease the pain in his foot. Eli listened and, once again, didn't miss a snap.
"If something isn't broken," Mullins said, "Eli's mentality is that he's going to be out there."
Sure, Brady has played hurt as much as the next guy. But even though he has a more accurate arm, and even though he'll likely go down as the greater player and more prolific winner, Brady has at times gotten unnerved when hit and hit often.
Eli is the more steady hand when the walls of his pocket crumble around him. Nothing much gets to him, except maybe watching Peyton win the Super Bowl. "It definitely made me jealous," Eli admitted.
"You always want to win a championship, but when you see someone win it, just the relief, the smile that was painted on his face for months, it makes you want to win one even more. It truly gives you a burning desire to get one."
Now Eli has a burning desire to get two, a pursuit undoubtedly leaving Peyton as the jealous one. Somehow, some way, the little brother has emerged from the big brother's all-engulfing shadow to take his own shot at the Hall of Fame.
It doesn't make Eli Manning the best quarterback in Super Bowl XLVI. Just the toughest.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.