By Roger Director
Special to ESPN.com

He cursed.

It was the Manning kid. No, not Peyton. You might expect it from Peyton. We've all seen him yelling at the line of scrimmage, jawing at his teammates, calling his old kicker an "idiot," letting his mouth get the better of him after the Colts' loss to the Steelers in the AFC divisional playoffs last January.

No, this was Eli. The one nicknamed "Easy." The kid with the brown hair and permanent cowlick who does an awfully good impression of a guy with a blank look on his face.

Huddling with his Giants teammates before their first exhibition game against the Ravens on Aug. 11, Quarterback Opie let loose with an expletive-filled description of the opponents across the field in Baltimore. Precisely what Eli called the Ravens, Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress declined to say. Burress — a sure first-ballot pick for the Dour Hall of Fame — actually grinned, looking almost giddy for a second, recalling how Eli "showed us he was all fired up."

Was Eli's sudden saltiness a war whoop, a la William Wallace, leading his men into frothing combat and preordained victory? Or was it something less potent, merely a harmless, fleeting tweet? Burress doesn't seem to know the answer. Nobody does yet.

But we will begin finding out Sunday night, when Eli picks up a scrub brush and tries to scour away the memory of the Giants' first-round playoff loss to Carolina last season, among the dreariest defeats in the team's past half-century. Eli engineered impressive fourth-quarter comebacks against Denver and Dallas in 2005, and his 24 touchdown passes were the most for a Giants QB in 40 years. He threw for more than 3,700 yards, and the Giants won the NFC East.

Entering his third season, however, Eli Manning is still Peyton's little brother.

Big brother's big footsteps
Peyton Manning is arguably the best quarterback in the league. Without a doubt, he's "the smartest," which is what his dad, Archie, calls him. He throws touchdown passes in fusillades. He is bigger than Eli, who will be 26 in January, and is not exactly nimble (he can resemble a bear riding a tiny circus bicycle when he motors out of the pocket).

Five years older, Peyton has left Kong-sized footprints for Eli: first-team All-America quarterback (Eli wasn't); No. 1 draft pick (Eli was); NFL co-MVP in 2003 and the runaway MVP in 2004 (Eli has no trophies yet).

Peyton has everything but a Super Bowl ring. Everything else in football is in his rearview mirror, so to speak. But as he opens his eighth NFL season, still looking for a Super Bowl trophy to shed the label of being "unable to win the big one," he'll first have to cross paths with what could be an unsettling shadow of himself: his baby brother. If a season is a 16-game, feature-film-length marathon, opening day is a single snapshot.

In this case, it's a family portrait.

Finally, time to get it on
"Let's get to the game already," Eli said on the first full day of Giants practice back in July. He stood outside the cafeteria at the State University of New York's Albany campus, while players drove up in their Escalades and BMWs and flip-flopped in and out of the lunchroom during two-a-days. Eli came to camp "three or four pounds heavier," and began throwing armor-piercing passes immediately, all the while denying that the matchup against his big brother holds any special meaning.

Peyton echoed a disclaimer: "I'm not really worried about Eli. I'm worried about [Michael] Strahan and Osi [Umenyiora]. And Eli better be worried about Dwight Freeney, not me."

The Manning patriarch worries about more than that.

"I figured it was going to be a big game, but I was surprised at how big. I was with [sports agent] Sandy Montag in Orlando, when we were shooting the 'Battle of the Gridiron Stars,' and he told me the game was scheduled for the first big Sunday night game. There was no way the league and the network [NBC] would miss that opportunity," Archie Manning said last spring, soon after returning to his hometown of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We were having lunch at Landry's just outside the French Quarter. Business was slack. Archie isn't big on eating lunch, but we dug into the shrimp.

Archie's eyes still seem to focus on something five yards beyond him, as if scanning for blitzing linebackers, even though he retired more than 20 years ago. At 57, he is grayer than not, but maintains the dignified silhouette befitting a man at the top of football's version of Burke's Peerage. He works out regularly — he's a fiend for ab crunches — and weighs the same as he did when he was a junior QB at Ole Miss almost four decades ago.

People had their hands full surviving the hell New Orleans had become. Yet it was as if the sight of Archie Manning, a local icon, was part of the mental cleanup. Folks could look up from the mounds of woe to a future that wasn't quite as bleak, one in which questions less pressing than life and death were restored to the neighborly debate. They stopped by, nodded hello. How did Archie think his boys would handle it? How would the family handle it?

Since becoming aware of the matchup, Archie and his oldest son, Cooper, began girding for more big wind, a hurricane of hype. Cooper talked about it in the conference room of the investment company where he works. He stared out of windows high above the Mississippi and said, "I'm looking forward to the game, and I'm looking forward to it being over with. I just hope it lives up to its hype."

There isn't much better you can say about a man than how well his sons reflect on him. You can say that about Archie Manning. He retired in 1985 after 14 NFL seasons, a QB with guts and great talent who never played on a winning team. So gifted are his sons that the old man's reputation has been burnished in retrospect. He is one of those rare people who might be remembered as even better than he was. In any event, Archie had better wheels than either Peyton or Eli.

But maybe not Cooper.

Before Marvin Harrison was on the other end of Peyton's passes, Cooper Manning was the target. Peyton's preteen soul was stirred listening to audiotapes of his father's college games, but you cannot help feeling that some part of every ball Peyton lets fly is meant for the hands of his older brother. Cooper's football career ended abruptly when he was an Ole Miss freshman after he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis that could have left him paralyzed at any time from a tackle. He underwent harrowing surgery. The former All-State receiver is now healthy, but his right arm is permanently weakened.

He and Peyton played together during Cooper's last season at Newman High in New Orleans, where they had their own set of signals for routes only the two brothers knew, according to the book "Manning" by Archie and Peyton, written with John Underwood. When the book was published in 2000, Peyton had already emerged as an NFL star, yet he refers to 1991 as his favorite year, the year he shared the field with Cooper and "Manning to Manning was the talk of the town."

"Cooper and Peyton really competed a lot, they fought a lot," Archie says. "But Eli was so much younger. He's the little brother."

Cooper egged on Peyton. And Peyton has done the same for Eli. What smarter tutor could you have?

Brains and lineage are great assets, but Peyton's greatest talent might be that he throws with such backyard joy. The same blood at either point of the ball, his and Cooper's. Cooper knows Peyton's arm, has felt his passes thud against his pads. Has taken Peyton's throws into the end zone.

And, after all, there is nothing like hooking up on a pass with your brother. My older brother could throw a pass from telephone pole to telephone pole in the street where we grew up. And when I would go out for one of his passes, and he waved me farther, I would look up and see the ball flying through the blue sky far above the leaves in the trees, like a bird, and when it landed in my hands, I knew no greater satisfaction.

But Cooper has never gone out for a ball thrown by Eli. Never caught a pass in competition from his kid brother. So, getting some sort of firsthand comparison of the two brothers' tosses from the one receiver most likely to have felt the sting of both isn't possible. Cooper doesn't know how Eli's passes feel. Doesn't know how tight his spiral is compared with Peyton's. Doesn't know who throws the out-pattern better or who has a better touch. Cooper never ran under a 60-yard rainbow from Eli.

That's the open question about Eli: Who is he passing to?

Passing accuracy has never been Eli's strong suit, literally (just a 52.8 percent last season) and figuratively: Who does he connect with? Who does he get through to?

Perhaps, when you follow in footsteps, you run a risk of remaining in the shadows. Maybe you even get to be comfortable there. You're the little brother. Unassuming to a fault, can Eli stride up to center and employ some version of the inner resources his older brother hasn't completely claimed? Can he command Burress and Jeremy Shockey and Amani Toomer and Tiki Barber to work for him? Can Eli tell a story, huddle by huddle, that will compel and even whip his teammates to the Super Bowl?

"I think I can," is Eli's answer. He hates questions like this. You get the feeling that the worst torture you could inflict upon him would be to tie him to a chair and repeatedly ask him how he feels.

"I feel fine," he'd say over and over, "I feel fine," until after who knows how long — days, or even years? — you'd ask him again how he feels, and he'd dissolve into a sniveling mess.

At Giants camp, I asked him the 14 millionth question about playing against Peyton, and he confessed he wouldn't mind getting it over with. But other than that, he said, Sept. 10 was like any other game, "making sure the receivers run their routes and making the right reads and making some plays and putting some points on the board."

So I asked him about beating his big brother. I said, "C'mon, tell me one time you beat him at something. Just one time. Tennis? Ping-Pong? Did you ever beat him at tiddledywinks even?"

"Yeah, sure," he says, getting a little defensive. "Basketball. When I was around 17. He was home one time, and we played. And I beat him, and I think he was kind of surprised. It was kind of, get the ball in the paint, back in on each other and see who could go up over the other one. But I was playing high school basketball at that point, and he was playing football."

What were the Manning boys like as kids? The new "SportsCenter" ad offers a pretty good idea.

This answer didn't satisfy me. I'd heard that story before. I needed to know for sure that Eli Manning wasn't too shy to beat the piss out of his big brother, needed to know that Peyton didn't always kick his butt like he does (literally) in the new "SportsCenter" commercial.

The question has plagued me ever since I'd watched the "Battle of the Gridiron Stars" on TV a few months earlier.

Will a meaningless race foretell the future?
What possible relevance could some made-for-TV stunt have here? Just hear me out:

Peyton and Eli were on opposing teams. One of the events was a race on personal watercraft, a slalom out into the water and back. Peyton and Eli faced off against each other.

"He's picked on me my whole life," Eli said to the camera just before taking to the water. "I got my chance for redemption right now."

Eli charged out on his leg ahead of Peyton by at least a length. At this point, I figured the race was over. Eli was out front and cruising toward the first turn. He had the lead. All he had to do was hold it to beat big brother.

Peyton taught his little brother a lesson on the water during this race.

Somehow, he lost. Eli spun out of control. Somehow, Peyton overcame that big lead, rounded the buoys and beat his little brother, who putt-putted in way behind. Peyton raised his arms in smug victory and stomped ashore, muttering about how his little brother had been "runnin' his mouth out there," and looking satisfied he had taught Eli a lesson.

I watched this slack-jawed. It was only a ridiculous race, but Eli losing was unacceptable. There was no way Eli could lose after starting out in the lead. It wasn't as if one craft was faster than the other. I imagined being on Eli's Sea-Doo, with my big brother trying to make up a deficit. I know exactly what my big brother would have done. He'd have been yelling at me, stuff like:

"… Here I come, loser …"

"… What's the matter with you, don't you know how to drive that thing? …"

"… That's not the way to shift, moron …"

And I would have begun laughing. It would have been the type of goofy laugh that makes me lose control of the craft or have my foot slip off the accelerator and lose the race … or strike out … or double-fault … or roll a gutter ball … or blow a putt … or clank a free throw … or throw an interception.

My big brother could always get into my head. He had a free pass when we competed. And watching that race, I wondered whether Peyton has a free pass into Eli's head. And if he could get in, maybe others could. Maybe there is a vulnerable spot inside Eli. Maybe Eli isn't ready to beat Peyton on Sunday in the Meadowlands.

The watercraft race confirmed my fears. That little brothers can't win. That Eli would never be a leader and would always be a squirt. The one at the end of the family photo. The one who showed up at the Final Four last spring sitting next to Peyton — Peyton stylin' for the public in his home city of Indianapolis, and Eli, sheepish as usual, looking like he was wearing hand-me-downs. The one so quiet his father recalls frequently not knowing whether Eli was at home if Archie answered the phone and the caller asked for his youngest boy. The kid who was playing golf with Giants kicker Jay Feeley last spring when the club pro asked to play along, and Eli wound up having to call Cooper on his cell to help him figure out tipping etiquette.

Big brother is the winner. Big brother gets first dibs. Big brother is the one they remember, the one to be compared to, the one everyone assumes the little brother has to be like without bothering to know the newcomer at all.

The toughest test: brother vs. brother
It's ironic that a family as mutually supportive and ultra close-knit as the Mannings would be tested by having one brother pitted against another. Archie assured me that "Peyton and Eli won't make it a big news event, and they are not going to start yelling at each other about who can do this, who can do that. They're too close for that. They get along good. I've told my kids, I said, 'You really want to disappoint me, then don't get along, you know.' As you get older, I have seen it a lot … fighting among siblings. The reason is usually money or spouses. But my kids don't fall into that trap."

The Manning Bowl

Sunday night won't be easy for the Manning family. On Wednesday, Archie discussed his emotions  with "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio.

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    Between Peyton and Eli, somebody had to play quarterback at the Newman School. Wright Thompson discovers the missing links. Story
  • Anything but closeness makes Archie uneasy. Archie expresses regret that when Eli was a toddler, his career was winding down. He spent his last seasons injury-worn and grinding it out in Houston and, finally, Minnesota, away from his New Orleans home and his kids.

    "I didn't stroller Eli around the neighborhood the way I did with the other two," he says. "I was a good daddy. I did my time. But when Eli came along, that was tough. I enjoyed giving the other two — they were older — getting the other two and getting them out of my wife Olivia's hair … doing stuff, you know?"

    One result, he feels, is he didn't bond the same with Eli. It gnaws at him. He's reminded of it every time he feels the closeness he has with Cooper and Peyton. Archie doesn't know what to do about that, except to do what he has always done when faced with a challenge: take responsibility and work at it. Go to every game. Tell his kids he loves them. Spend as much time as he can with his grandchildren, Cooper's kids, playing and reading to them.

    Archie's father, Buddy, never saw Archie play a game past Archie's sophomore year in college. Never saw Archie Manning upset third-ranked Arkansas in the 1969 Sugar Bowl and never saw him lead the Saints down the field. In the summer that Archie turned 20, he was returning home from a wedding one afternoon when he discovered his dad dead of a self-inflicted shotgun blast.

    Not feeling close is a very serious matter to Archie.

    So, he and Olivia will be at the Meadowlands on Sunday night. And he will have a unique view among the crowd of 70,000-plus. No man has ever watched his sons do what Archie's boys will do that evening.

    As he looks at Peyton, what is he seeing from the sidelines? Is he looking at his stand-in, apt to fulfill his own yearning for the title status he never claimed among the Staubachs and Grieses of the world?

    And when he sees Eli, what does he see? Maybe Archie Manning, like the rest of us, is still searching.

    Roger Director's book on the New York football Giants, "I Dream in Blue," is due out from HarperCollins in September 2007.

    Peyton, Archie, Eli Manning
    Icon SMI
    Archie Manning insists that his boys not let anything — or anyone — come between them.
    Peyton, Eli and Cooper
    Brian Spurlock/US Presswire
    Peyton, Eli and older brother, Cooper, all followed their father's footsteps to the gridiron. Cooper's college career was cut short by a spinal injury.
    Eli Manning
    Getty Images
    Nicknamed "Easy," Eli Manning has a laid-back manner that serves him well in media-crazed New York.
    Peyton Manning
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    Peyton Manning has done everything an NFL quarterback can do in the regular season. The postseason, however, is a very different story.
    Eli, Archie and Peyton Manning
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    Archie, center, says it will be very difficult to watch his two sons trade passes Sunday night at the Meadowlands.
    Eli Manning, Peyton
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    Peyton, right, owned Indianapolis during the 2006 Final Four, while Eli came along for the ride.
    Peyton, Archie Manning
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    Archie tutored Peyton for years and now calls him the "smartest" quarterback in the NFL.
    Eli Manning
    Getty Images
    Eli followed in Archie's footsteps by playing his college ball at Ole Miss.
    Peyton Manning
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    Peyton was the only Manning to spurn Mississippi, opting instead to march to the beat of "Rocky Top" at Tennessee.
    Eli Manning, Peyton Manning
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    When Eli was picked first in the 2004 draft (and traded from San Diego to New York), Peyton stood by his side.