Eli emerging from shadow of big brother

SAN FRANCISCO -- Peyton Manning had just won the Super Bowl in the South Florida rain, washing away all of those big-game demons and doubts, and on the morning after he had one more question to answer, one last play to make.

Eli needed a hand. Back in New York, the little brother was already feeling the walls of the pocket collapse around him, and Peyton did what big brothers are supposed to do when their siblings are under siege.

He covered for Eli. Picked him up. Bought him some time.

"There is no doubt in my mind," Peyton said, "that he is a quarterback who will lead his team to a Super Bowl, probably more than one. ...There is no question Eli is going to be fine."

At the time, it sounded like Peyton was hoping against hope that New Yorkers would quit their big-city bullying of Eli. The younger Manning had just finished an 8-9 season, including a second straight one-and-done in the playoffs, and it seemed like a mob carrying pitchforks and torches was gathered on his front lawn.

Eli was everyone's favorite case study in bad body language. The bewildered expressions, the hangdog-ish shoulders, the lack of conviction in his voice. Oh, and what about those downfield divas throwing their arms in the air when they didn't see the ball?

What kind of quarterback and leader was this? Bring back Phil Simms or, better yet, Y.A. Tittle and his bloody head.

But then the 2007 season happened, the Ice Bowl sequel at Lambeau happened, and the great escape on the Tyree pass happened. Peyton was pumping his arms in a private box at the Super Bowl, and it made for a cute little televised scene.

The big brother ended up at the little brother's locker in Glendale, Ariz., and Archie's back-to-back Super Bowl MVPs hugged and chatted in a language all their own. Eli and Peyton were locked in a 1-1 tie, and beyond that, Peyton had been proved prophetic. Eli was going to be just fine after all.

Only Sunday night, in his surprise NFC Championship Game visit to Candlestick Park, Peyton's sudden appearance had an entirely different feel to it. The big brother said all kinds of nice things about the little brother, talked about how proud he was of the clutch Giants quarterback. Yet Eli no longer needed any propping up; in fact, Peyton was the one who could've used a pep talk.

He'd just missed an entire season (Eli has yet to miss a single start), nobody's sure if he'll play again after his neck surgeries and, of course, Eli has a great shot against his old New England friends to double Peyton's total of championship rings.

On top of that, the unthinkable has gone down: Some very smart people are wondering if Eli is turning out to be the Serena of the family, and Peyton the Venus.

When Richard Williams first predicted that his young Serena would someday blow past the not-quite-as-young Venus, many found the suggestion to be positively mad, not to mention unfair to Venus. But it turned out Richard Williams was dead on. Serena has won 13 Grand Slam singles titles, and Venus seven.

Archie Manning never forecasted Eli's conquest of Mount Peyton, but facts are facts: Eli is one more victory over Tom Brady away from owning two majors to Peyton's one, and that's the way quarterbacks keep count.

Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw have four. Troy Aikman and Brady have three. Eli would join the likes of Roger Staubach and John Elway with two.

If you polled general managers and coaches and asked them if they'd take Peyton's greater regular-season stats, his greater regular-season records, and his greater number of playoff appearances, or Eli's more impressive trophy case (assuming he wins No. 2), I'm betting the vast majority would go with the trophies. Those are the legacy makers.

In other words, if Eli does to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI what he did to them in Super Bowl XLII, he'll own the best NFL career in the household.

How perfectly ironic it would be for this ceremonial unseating to unfold in Indianapolis, right smack under Peyton's roof. Eli swears he doesn't care that this Super Bowl is being staged in his brother's dome sweet dome, and that he'd be happy to play this game at Hoboken High if asked.

And he's probably telling the truth on that. Eli has never had any use for angles and storylines that have little to do with winning the next football game on the schedule, and his single-minded approach has served him well. By becoming the first NFL quarterback to win five road playoff games, Eli has established himself as a franchise player who will take on all comers on all fields under all conditions.

At Candlestick, Eli also established himself as a quarterback who can weather a series of vicious hits. If Eli has always been an unartful but effective dodger in the pocket, finding ways to avoid direct strikes, the 49ers' pass-rushers didn't swing and miss too often.

Didn't matter. Eli remained calm enough and confident enough to throw that 17-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham on third-and-15, the kind of pass a future Hall of Famer makes.

Is Manning Canton-bound already? No, not quite. But for a franchise forever built around the defensive side of the ball, Manning can go down as the greatest offensive player the Giants ever dressed.

In two weeks he might be the first Giants quarterback to win two Super Bowls, something his big brother might consider. If Peyton does become a free agent, and the Jets do recruit him, the big brother might not want to step on the little brother's MetLife toes.

Peyton shouldn't worry about that. Family protocol or no family protocol, this is Eli's town now, and he has no intention of giving it up.

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.