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Like he said, Eli Manning is an elite quarterback

By Steve Politi, Special to CNN
updated 8:51 AM EST, Fri January 20, 2012
Eli Manning will lead the New York Giants against the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's NFC championship game
Eli Manning will lead the New York Giants against the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's NFC championship game
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Giants QB Eli Manning said he's in the same class as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady
  • The comment spurred debate on whether he was an elite quarterback
  • Manning had his best season in 2011 and is one win from the Super Bowl

Editor's note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. He can be reached at spoliti@starledger.com, or follow him on Twitter:@StevePoliti

(CNN) -- Looking back, all the fuss was a bit silly. Giants quarterback Eli Manning was asked during a radio interview before the season if he thought he was in the same class as Tom Brady, his more heralded counterpart with the Patriots.

What was he supposed to say? "No, actually, Tom is much better than I am. He is also more handsome. Everyone knows that!"

Of course not. He answered the question the way any proud athlete, with a Super Bowl MVP on his fireplace mantle, would:

"I consider myself in that class," he told 1050 ESPN in New York during training camp, back in August. "Tom Brady is a great quarterback, he's a great player and what you've seen with him is he's gotten better every year. He started off winning championships and I think he's a better quarterback now than what he was, in all honesty, when he was winning those championships.

"I think now he's grown up and gotten better every year and that's what I'm trying to do," he said. "I kind of hope these next seven years of my quarterback days are my best."

It was hardly controversial stuff. But because it came from Eli Manning, who goes out of his way to be bland during interviews, it was back page stuff for the New York tabloids. And because he put himself in the elite category of NFL quarterbacks, it became a story that lingered on sports radio for weeks.

Eli?

Elite?

After the season he's had -- and the postseason he's still having -- the debate is being settled. Manning has the red-hot Giants in the NFC Championship game, one victory against the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday away from a second Super Bowl appearance.

His numbers during the regular season were the best of his career: A franchise-record 4,933 yards, 29 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions (down from 25 last season). He was at his best when under pressure -- an NFL-record 15 of his touchdown passes came in the fourth quarter, helping to lead the Giants to six fourth-quarter victories.

He did all this in a season after two of his top targets, receiver Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss, signed with the Eagles and Raiders, respectively. And he did it despite a running game, once regarded as one of the best in the league, that was ranked dead last in production.

"He told the New York media he was an elite quarterback, and he was right when he said it," Giants defensive tackle Justin Tuck said. "I've been here seven years with him, and I think he's playing the best ball he has in those seven years."

But Manning will never be defined by numbers alone, not when three other quarterbacks -- all in the NFC -- threw for more than 5,000 yards in the pass-happy NFL this year. Manning is at his best in big games, and many times, he's done it against his more highly regarded contemporaries.

In leading the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XLII, he defeated Tony Romo, the Cowboys quarterback who many thought was a better player; Brett Favre, who holds most of the NFL passing records; and Tom Brady, who has three Super Bowl victories to his credit.

This season, he outplayed Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the reigning Super Bowl MVP who had -- statistically speaking -- arguably the best season for any quarterback in league history.

"He makes big play after big play," Giants CEO John Mara said in the victorious locker room after the 37-20 victory over the Packers. "I never cease to be amazed. He's pretty special."

Mara was talking to the media just a few yards away from Manning, who was celebrating with his family. His father, Archie, who quarterbacked for the then-awful New Orleans Saints, was there. So was his mother, Olivia, and their oldest son, Cooper, all basking in the glow of victory.

The most famous Manning, however, was not: Peyton, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback, missed the entire season with a neck injury that still has not fully healed. His potential return is such a question, that even actor Rob Lowe tweeted that he heard he would retire.

The Colts and Manning's family denied the rumor. But this postseason, at least, Eli Manning is the lone member of the family in the postseason. If he were to beat the 49ers and win the Super Bowl, he'd get his second championship before Peyton and put himself in an exclusive club.

Only 10 quarterbacks have won two Super Bowl titles. Seven of them are in the Hall of Fame, and two others (Brady and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers) are still playing. If the first title didn't completely put him in the elite category, a second one would end the debate.

"It's easy to say, 'Yeah he won, but ...'" former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, who has three titles, said. "When you win a second Super Bowl or multiple Super Bowls, it eliminates a lot of those buts. It puts you in the conversation of the all-time greats and in the conversation for the Hall of Fame."

Eli isn't thinking about a legacy. He's not thinking about anything other than the 49ers defense and another road game in the playoffs. The Giants are 2 ½ point underdogs, but with four straight victories and a vastly improved defense, nobody would be surprised if they won.

A few weeks ago, Manning was asked if he regretted the answering the are-you-elite question the way he did.

"Well, the question was if I thought I was an elite quarterback and basically, I was just saying that I did," he replied. "I'm usually not into the business of ranking and rating quarterbacks and comparing myself to other guys. Looking back, I thought I gave an honest answer, and I don't regret anything."

His answer was honest. It was also accurate. Because after the season he's had, who could question that he belongs in Brady's class any more?

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