The pick: Young Eli is in trouble

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PHOENIX -- There are mountains of conflicting evidence on the Super Bowl readiness of Eli Manning, quarterback, New York Football Giants, and there certainly will be no resolution prior to 6:17 tonight, or whenever Super Bowl 42 actually begins.

Manning, you might have heard, is the younger sibling of last year's Super Bowl-winning quarterback, the ever-studious Peyton Manning, and there is conflicting evidence on whether that means diddly as well.

Ben Roethlisberger, the year before last year's Super Bowl-winning quarterback, said this week he had zero advice for Eli, which was prudent in that Ben knows that Eli is about to emerge in a world no quarterback can be fully prepared for until it envelopes him, for better or worse.

"I was nervous all the way through the game," Roethlisberger said at a Pro Bowl-pimping press conference at midweek.

That's right. Never calmed down. Maybe that's the way you do it.

What is certain is that this Super Bowl concept is entirely it's own animal. You can't, for example, look at the result of Dec. 29, when Eli led the Giants against these same unbeaten Patriots at the Meadowlands, and lit up the New Jersey night in a game the Pats had to scramble from a 12-point third-quarter hole to win, 38-35.

"He killed us," is the way Patriots coach Bill Belichick remembered it the other day. "Eli mechanically is a very good quarterback. His fundamentals are good, his footwork, ball handling, release, accuracy, and so forth. He has good pocket presence. He is athletic enough to buy time in the pocket and hit receivers accurately down the field and in the short and intermediate range. He's got good players around him and he's able to get them the ball and let them be productive and make plays, and that's really what the quarterback's job is.

"Eli has done a great job of that. He's done it all year and certainly done it the last few weeks. He did it against us, no question about that."

Tom Brady's passer rating that night was 116.8. Manning's was 118.6. He flung four touchdown passes as the Giants went 4 for 4 in the red zone and generated 35 points in less than 24 minutes of possession time.

"He played a helluva game," said Patriots corner Asante Samuel. "I think on defense, we didn't do the right things to stop him, obviously. He had one of his best games against us. Hopefully, we can change that."

But here's the source of the conflict. The Patriots might not have to change anything. The atmosphere might do it for them. The Super Bowl is inhospitable to quarterbacks in their first appearance. First-timers are a respectable 23-28, but only six quarterbacks have won in their first try when the opposing quarterback was a Super Bowl veteran: Brady prevailed against Kurt Warner, Troy Aikman against Jim Kelly, Mark Rypien against Kelly, Doug Williams against John Elway, Ken Stabler against Fran Tarkenton, and Terry Bradshaw against Tarkenton. First timers -- even highly accomplished elite athletes like Donovan McNabb and Dan Marino -- have failed in 11 of 17 matchups against quarterbacks with Super Bowl experience.

Worst of all, for Eli, no first-timer has beaten a quarterback with two Super Bowl rings, and Brady has three. Two-time winners are 6-0 against first-timers. Only Bradshaw beat a two-time winner, Staubach, but Bradshaw was himself at two-time winner by Jan. 21, 1979, the date of Super Bowl XIII.

For all of that, tonight's assignment needn't seem hopeless. Vince Ferragamo, in his only Super Bowl, had the Rams ahead of Bradshaw's Steelers after three quarters, and Boomer Esiason, in his only appearance, had Joe Montana's 49ers beaten until the final minutes. Neil O'Donnell, by contrast, melted in the face of Aikman's Cowboys in the only other Super Bowl played in Arizona.

It's a monster test of maturity, among many things, but some see Eli as fully credentialed.

"In terms of what he's been able to do in the last four games, regarding the turnover ratio, that's a sign of maturity," said veteran Patriots linebacker Junior Seau. "When you look at that 10-game winning streak they have on the road, that's definitely impressive."

Counting the season's final game against the Patriots and all three postseason starts, Manning has whipped eight touchdowns against only one interception.

"When quarterbacks play their best in the postseason," said Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, "that's when a quarterback has really arrived."

But what a long strange trip it's been, to raise the Dead, riddled with doubt, nearly ruined by expectation, and often accompanied by a soundtrack of New York vitriol.

"It's not easy playing quarterback in this league in this day and age," Eli said. "It's a learning process, and you're going to make a lot of mistakes. You're going to have some bad days. The important thing as a quarterback is to never lose your confidence. As happy as I was for Peyton last year, it definitely made me want it even more, seeing someone go through it. Seeing the grin on his face, his smile after the game, and the relief and enjoyment he had also put something in my heart -- this is where you want to be and where you want to get. It definitely sparked something with me."

Tonight he sees where the spark leads; history says down in flames.




Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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