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NFL | WEEK 1

Brother Against Brother

`Perfect Peyton' still has the edge over `Easy' Eli as they duel in football for the first time

September 10, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The prediction was heartfelt and memorable. But, unlike one of Peyton Manning's pinpoint passes, it was not entirely on the mark.

Under his senior picture in his high school yearbook, the future star quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts gave a shout-out to his kid brother.

"Watch out, world," Manning wrote. "[Eli is] the best one."

One day, maybe. For now, however, Peyton is the NFL's two-time most valuable player and reigning king of the hill in the Manning family, which also includes Eli, a fellow No. 1 draft pick, and father Archie, the No. 2 overall selection of the New Orleans Saints in 1971.

Sibling rivalry takes on new meaning for the Mannings tonight when Eli's New York Giants play host to Peyton's Colts in an eagerly awaited opener at Giants Stadium. It is the first time the brothers have played against each other at any level of football. And for the Manning family it's, well, sort of strange.

"It's new turf for everybody," said Cooper Manning, a financial executive in the family's hometown of New Orleans and the oldest of the three Manning boys. "That makes it hard."

Hard for the family, maybe, but riveting for the rest of the country. The game will be shown nationally on NBC and has been hyped for months as the centerpiece of opening weekend.

In a way, it's also a clash of personalities -- or perceived ones -- between "Perfect Peyton," the exacting perfectionist who directs his offense like a take-no-guff traffic cop, and "Easy E," his sleepy-eyed little brother who has shown flashes of promise but has yet to find his groove as a pro.

"You knew this was coming," Colts Coach Tony Dungy said in a conference call last week. "You couldn't have asked for more: two playoff teams from last year, playing in New York on opening night with a story line that has never happened before in the NFL. You couldn't have scripted it any better."

Make no mistake, both are supremely competitive. That shows in their everyday life, and it also surfaced on the basketball court during Eli's senior year at Isidore Newman High, an exclusive private school in New Orleans. It was a game of one-on-one and the first time Eli can recall ever beating Peyton in an honest-to-goodness athletic showdown. It ended with little brother dunking on big brother, who, truth be told, probably hadn't shot a basketball in five years.

"It was one of those tight games, like 9-8, playing to 10, you got to win by two," recalled Eli, who is five years younger than Peyton. "I was at the top of the key and he went for a steal, which didn't work, I got by him and went for the dunk and that's how it ended. It was one thing to lose to your little brother, but to get dunked on the last play, he wasn't too happy about it."

The stakes are far higher now. The Colts are coming off a season in which they started 13-0 before losing three of their last four games, including a heartbreaking home loss to eventual champion Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

The Giants went 11-5 and won the NFC East, but were shut out by Carolina in a wild-card game. Eli's play deteriorated during the season.

He had 14 touchdowns and five interceptions in the first eight games, 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in his final nine.

Even though his younger brother struggled toward the end of last season, as did many of the Giants, Peyton says Eli has made steady improvement as a pro.

"The good quarterbacks, the smart quarterbacks, are the ones who can use the experience from the year before to their advantage and improve from it, and he's certainly done that," Peyton said.

"Physically, he's bigger and stronger [than] he ever has been, and his arm is as live as it ever has been.... Nobody has worked harder than him this off-season.

"Every time I talked to him, he was leaving the complex. He lives there year-round and he's very committed to that team and that organization, which, as a quarterback, that's what you have to do. You're getting paid a lot of money, and there's an obligation and a responsibility that comes with that to improve your level of play every single off-season."

The three brothers talk frequently, sometimes several times a week. Not surprisingly, they seldom chat about football. They're more interested in catching up on each other's busy lives.

Likewise, their relationships with their father are about much more than football, even though Archie Manning was an iconic Saints quarterback in New Orleans.

"He never pressured us into playing sports, or into a specific sport, or telling us, 'Hey, let's go work on this,' or 'Let's do drills,' " Eli recalled.

"He didn't over-drill us. He was always there for us, he supported us if we wanted. He always wanted us to come to him and say, 'Hey, Dad, can you come work with me with my drop?' Or he might come catch some balls. He would do it all. He would run routes for us and do everything to help us out, but he didn't want us to be forced into something we didn't want to do."

Archie and Olivia Manning, the boys' mother, left Louisiana for New York early this week, as did Cooper. These are happy times in the Manning family. Nervous times too.

"When we watch them play, normally it's all about winning," Cooper said. "It doesn't matter how many interceptions Peyton throws, for instance, as long as they win in the end. But when they play each other, you want both of them to stay healthy, play well and have success. Because you know, no matter what, someone's walking out of here 0 and 1."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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