Archie Manning never wanted the kid brother, Eli, to be compared to the big brother, Peyton. In fact, during Eli's formative years with the New York Giants, the father suggested that a more appropriate measuring stick was Phil Simms, a quarterback as tough as the marketplace and the fierce Meadowlands wind.
Only blood is thicker than Gatorade, and now that Eli has proven to be just as tough as Simms -- and to be the better football player, too -- it's impossible to ignore the fact that Eli has never buckled under the magnitude of Peyton's place in the game. Sunday night in Texas, Eli will face off against Tony Romo, an opponent he conquered on the road to his first Super Bowl title, an opponent who only wishes he had Eli's big-game gravitas. It's the renewal of a rivalry on opening night, a high-wattage matchup of flagship franchises with nine Super Bowl trophies between them.
But it will still feel like something of a warmup act to next Sunday's booking in MetLife Stadium, where the brothers Manning meet for a third and, possibly, final time. Peyton, 37, just reduced the defending champion Baltimore Ravens to rubble with an NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes, and it isn't likely that Eli, 32, will replicate that performance against the Dallas Cowboys.
And that's quite all right. Eli will never beat Peyton in the regular-season numbers game, not when the scoreboard shows big brother with a dozen seasons of at least 4,000 yards passing to little brother's three, and with seven seasons of at least 30 touchdown passes to little brother's one.
But Eli will belong in the same New Jersey ballpark because he made a prophet of Peyton, who celebrated his one and only Super Bowl triumph by predicting (to some muffled laughter) that his little brother (who had yet to win a playoff game) would someday ride in more than one ticker-tape parade.
Eli is a two-time Super Bowl MVP with an 8-3 postseason record; Peyton is a one-time Super Bowl MVP with a 9-11 postseason record. That's where Eli wins his own numbers game, and where he makes next Sunday as fascinating a September date as any baseball could offer, no matter what happens against Romo and the Cowboys.
A date his father and mother, Olivia, want absolutely no part of.
"We don't like it," Archie said in a taped interview for my Sunday morning ESPN Radio show. "The boys don't like it. They don't like to play against each other, but it's a football game and they don't get worked up. And I don't think they're going to make a media circus out of it from their end.
"But it's like Peyton, I think, has always said: It's a league game, and they're all important. You want to win. You want to win a league game. But Olivia and I, it's kind of hard on our family. We'll get through it."
They'll get through it like they got through Peyton's 26-21 victory over Eli in 2006, and like they got through big brother's 38-14 victory over little brother in 2010.
"I guess we should look at it as kind of an honor and a privilege to have two sons playing quarterback in the National Football League," Archie said. "We're kind of glad they're in separate conferences, and this may be the last one. We'll try to ... enjoy the journey." That journey could conceivably take a surreal turn in February if the Broncos and Giants end up meeting in the Super Bowl for a second time, and end up presenting a quarterback duel that would put Simms over John Elway in Pasadena to shame.
Can Archie imagine what Peyton versus Eli in MetLife Stadium would be like, blizzard or no blizzard?
"No," he said, "I hadn't gotten down that road. It's so hard. It's so hard for these teams to keep people healthy, and it's so devastating ... in this league now when you do lose someone. I'm kind of like [Peyton and Eli]. We just go week to week and game to game, and I'm happy that they're healthy right now and hope they can stay that way."
Peyton overcame a series of neck surgeries that cost him the 2011 season, and his job with the Indianapolis Colts, to reestablish himself in Denver as an otherworldly quarterback. His father said he feared Peyton's career might've been over two years ago, and recalled Peyton's early throws in rehab as amounting to nothing more than "a 10-yard lob."
Eli? He hasn't suffered a serious injury, or missed a start since replacing Kurt Warner in the middle of 2004, his rookie season. And yet there was a time six, seven years ago when Eli looked overmatched by the market, by Peyton's shadow, by the expectations tethered to a No. 1 overall pick who forced the drafting San Diego Chargers to trade him to the Giants. "There were times, gosh, I remember during that 2007 year," Archie said, "at one point that season before they went on and won a Super Bowl, I didn't know if they were going to run Eli or Coach Coughlin out of town first."
Eli survived and twice won the big game by outplaying Tom Brady, of all people, long his big brother's tormentor. Now Peyton is the one playing catch-up, trailing 2-1 in ring ceremonies. In his bid to even the score, Peyton got off to a hell of a start Thursday night, doing what no quarterback had done in 44 years.
"I hope some of that brotherly love rubs off on us," Eli's receiver, Victor Cruz, would say the next day. "He makes it look easy," Eli said of Peyton on the Giants' website. "I don't appreciate that. I know it definitely is harder than what it looked like, especially that second half, but he played pretty outstanding. It was fun to watch."
It will be fun to watch Eli try to beat Tony Romo to go 5-0 in Jerry Jones' palace. Just not as much fun as watching little brother prove that he's in the same ballpark with big brother next Sunday in Jersey.