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Manning mania leaving Brady an afterthought

It's not every Super Bowl where the team with the league's worst record gets as much attention as the two that will be competing for the NFL's most cherished piece of sterling silver.

Or when Chad Ochocinco, at long last making it to the ultimate platform to hold court with his trademark flamboyance, offers no material of interest...and no one would even care if he did?

Or when Tom Brady isn't the second-most talked about quarterback in the days leading up to a championship game appearance, but the third?

This may be officially known as Super Bowl XLVI, but a more appropriate title for this latest renewal of football's grandest game would be Manning XXIV/VII -- as in 24/7.

It's the first time Indianapolis is getting to host the NFL's showcase spectacle, and the city has been pulling out all the stops to make a lasting impression on the fans and media that have swarmed upon its streets in massive numbers.

These folks know how to put on a party. And Brady, one of the league's most recognizable faces, finds himself in the foreign position of being the outcast wallflower for the first time in his brilliant and transcendent career.

As evidenced by the endless bombardment of blue No. 18 jerseys adorning the walkways, it would take any visitor but an instant to recognize that Indianapolis is undeniably Peyton Manning's town. And the legendary quarterback's running tit-for-tat with owner Jim Irsay over his future with the franchise he almost single-handedly put back on the NFL map isn't merely an interesting sidebar to Sunday's showdown between Brady's Patriots and the New York Giants -- it's THE story.

And when the twisting soap opera between Manning and Irsay is in need of an interlude, the focus shifts to the member of the league's first family of signal-callers who'll actually be in uniform for the contest and what it means to his burgeoning legacy.

While Eli Manning's opportunity to permanently etch his own name among the sport's hallowed fraternity of quarterbacks by winning a second Lombardi Trophy -- or one more than his more revered older brother -- has received plenty of notoriety in advance of his Giants' Super Bowl sequel with the Patriots, the place Brady would hold in history if he's able to take New England back to the NFL's summit has been virtually ignored.

And those leaning on the Giants' side in the prognostication department have been quick to point out the two late rallies the younger Manning has engineered in the last two matchups between the teams, the first of course coming in New York's stunning win over the heavily-favored Pats in Super Bowl XLII four years ago, as well as the sixth fourth-quarter comebacks New York's poised field general has executed to help bring his club to the doorstep of another world title. It's almost as if we've forgotten Brady's own stellar accomplishments in those crunch-time situations, having executed a game- winning drive in all three of the Super Bowls New England came out on top under his command.

It could be that Brady is simply taken for granted due to his sustained level of excellence, or maybe it's because it seems more like an eternity than the seven years that have passed since the Patriots last hoisted the championship hardware. And the fact that he's been outshined by Eli Manning two straight times in head-to-head bouts and is coming off an admittedly ho-hum performance in the AFC title game probably has had some bearing on that public perception.

And that's precisely why Sunday's game is as much about restoring a reputation that should in no way be tainted by the outcome of those two previous encounters as it is to Eli Manning's standing in the historical hierarchy. A Patriots victory does more than simply push Brady past boyhood idol Joe Montana for the most postseason wins by a quarterback in NFL history and make the certain Hall of Famer one of only three triggermen to earn four Super Bowl rings (along with Montana and Terry Bradshaw) -- it gives an unquestioned icon a deserved place back in the spotlight for a greatness that's been suddenly overlooked.

Before giving a prediction on how Sunday's matchup could play out, here's a trivia question. What college has the most players on the combined active and reserve rosters for Super Bowl XLVI? (Answer below). A quick hint: it's not a team from the SEC, Big 12 or the Big Ten.

A CRYSTAL BALL FOR CANTON

An annual highlight of Super Bowl weekend is the announcement of the incoming class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which will be revealed amidst great fanfare on Saturday night. Here's one writer's forecast for who will get to don those garish gold jackets in August, though keep in mind this isn't necessarily an essay on who should be included. It's merely a (somewhat) educated estimation based on the committee's past leanings.

One trend that has crept up in the last few years is only one player from a particular position group making the cut in a particular election, excluding those recommended as senior nominees. Using that criteria, here are seven finalists that may be receiving the good news:

Jack Butler, CB: I'll admit I don't know much about Butler, who went to four Pro Bowls and intercepted 52 passes (second-most in NFL history at the time of his retirement) over nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1951-59. But the veteran's committee traditionally has a great deal of pull, as evidenced by the fact that 20 out of 22 senior candidates have gotten in since 1998.

Cris Carter, WR: Hard to believe that a player that ranks second only to Jerry Rice all-time in both receptions (1,101) and touchdown catches (130) is on his fifth attempt, but it's obvious that the Hall voters form some issue with either Carter's past demons or the numbers amassed by wide receivers in the modern era, as fellow finalists Tim Brown and Andre Reed have also been barred from inclusion in previous elections despite deserving credentials. Carter's resume is superior to both of them, so we'll keep beating the drum until the balloters finally relent.

Charles Haley, DE/LB: One of a select few who have been named All-Pro at two different positions, Haley was also a finalist in 2010 and 2011 but lost out in favor of Rickey Jackson and Richard Dent, respectively. The ex-Cowboy and 49er was one of the premier pass rushers of his time and a proven winner, having been a part of a record five Super Bowl champion teams, but his temperamental reputation may be his biggest obstacle.

Cortez Kennedy, DT: A finalist for the fourth consecutive time, this could be the year Kennedy finally breaks through. His track record is a worthy one, having garnered eight Pro Bowl accolades and the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award in 1992 in 11 standout seasons with Seattle.

Bill Parcells, Coach: "The Big Tuna" was on the ballot in both 2001 and 2002 but came up short (Marv Levy and George Allen were elected as coaches in those years), and hasn't been eligible lately because of his return to the sidelines with the Cowboys from 2003-06. With two Super Bowl victories, one AFC title and 10 playoff appearances in 19 seasons, it can be argued that he's even more deserving than those other two. Plus, as the mentor to the coaches of the two teams taking part in Sunday's game, wouldn't it be appropriate that Parcells got his due right now?

Willie Roaf, OT: The former Saints and Chiefs protector was worthy of induction as a first-year eligible in 2011, but probably missed out only because both Marshall Faulk and Deion Sanders rightfully got in on their initial tries. As an 11-time Pro Bowler with nine All-Pro citations, it would be awfully hard to deny Roaf this time around.

Dick Stanfel, OG: Another senior nominee, Stanfel was named to five Pro Bowls in a playing career that spanned just seven seasons, having retired at age 31 to become an assistant at Notre Dame. As previously stated, there's been a bias towards the old-timers lately, though the ex-Lion and Redskin did come up short after being put up for induction by the veterans in 1993.

TRIVIA AND TIDBITS

The answer to the above question: Boston College. That's right, the little Catholic school about a half-hour's drive from the Patriots' headquarters has a game-high six players on the payroll of Sunday's participants. Four of them are Giants, with outside linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka (an Indianapolis native as well), guard Chris Snee, rookie linebacker Mark Herzlich and punt returner Will Blackmon all ex-Eagles, while New England counts injured center Dan Koppen and reserve defensive lineman Ron Brace among the alumni. And don't forget that Giants head coach Tom Coughlin had a successful three-year run as BC's sideline boss from 1991-93 before taking over the then-expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, not to mention he happens to be Snee's father-in-law.

The Hoosier State will also be well-represented at Super Bowl XLVI, with Kiwanuka and Giants rookie offensive tackle James Brewer both hailing from Indianapolis and the Patriots fielding three former Purdue Boilermakers: longtime left offensive tackle Matt Light, outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich and special-teams stalwart Niko Koutovides.

And getting back to Herzlich. By now most know his inspirational story, a projected first-round draft pick who was fighting for his life just one year after being the ACC's most dominant defensive player as a junior at Boston College in 2008. After beating both the disease and the long odds of making the Giants as a college free agent in training camp, he and Patriots rookie offensive tackle Marcus Cannon -- himself a well-regarded prospect whose stock plummeted after developing non-Hodgkins lymphoma just prior to last year's draft -- are two of the feel-good tales of the Super Bowl along with New England's dedication of this season to Myra Kraft, the late wife of owner Robert Kraft who passed away after a long battle with cancer in July.

And here's one final note that may be of interest. Though the Patriots are the team more synonymous with recent Super Bowls, having now been to five in the last 11 years, the Giants are actually the ones with the edge in the experience factor. Nineteen members of New York's active roster have played in the game as opposed to 10 for New England, and the Giants still have 15 veterans left from the outfit that shocked the Pats in Glendale four years ago. Only seven Patriots remain from that nearly-perfect season, with tackle Vince Wilfork the lone defensive starter still around from Super Bowl XLII. Incidentally, one of the Giants with Super Bowl seasoning is backup offensive tackle Tony Ugoh, part of the Colts team that lost to New Orleans in Miami to conclude the 2009 campaign.

AND THE PICK IS...

With the last two clashes between these teams having gone right down to the wire and a pair of quarterbacks that are proven performers in the clutch, the best guess may be the one that has the ball last. But while both of those contests have been relatively low-scoring affairs in which neither side could generate much offense in the first half, points figure to be easier to come by in the advantageous conditions of Lucas Oil Stadium. The Giants played indoors three times during the regular season (they went 2-1), and those games produced a total of 58, 73 and 71 points.

And since this season has been the year of the quarterback, odds are whomever prevails in the individual battle between Manning and Brady will be the deciding factor, as well as which defense is better equipped to disrupt the pass-heavy game plan its opponent will likely feature on game day.

If that's indeed how it unfolds, then a strong case could be made for the Giants to have New England's number once again. New York boasts three elite pass rushers on its front line in second-year sensation Jason Pierre-Paul and Super Bowl XLII holdovers Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. Though the Giants weren't able to get too much heat on Brady in November's regular season meeting, they've really turned the pressure up a notch during the five-game win streak they'll be bringing into Indianapolis, having recorded 20 sacks over the surge, and Umenyiora's been playing out of his mind since returning from an ankle injury just prior to the playoffs.

The health variable seems to be in New York's favor as well. Though both clubs are substantially different than when they squared off in Foxborough back in Week 9, and the Patriots have won 10 straight since losing that contest, remember that the Giants won that game without the services of leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw and wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, another major difference-maker during Big Blue's playoff run. And the ankle sprain New England tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered in the AFC Championship is a huge concern, as his presence as both a red-zone force and unheralded blocker are so important to what the Pats do offensively. If he's not close to 100 percent -- and it's highly unlikely he will be -- that could really put the Patriots in a bind.

But perhaps the most important element to Sunday's outcome will be the turnover department. It's certainly no coincidence that the Giants have flourished down the stretch by taking care of the football, with Manning having thrown just one interception over his last four outings. The Patriots have been more error-prone as of late, combining for five giveaways in their two playoff wins, and they turned it over four times in their earlier loss to New York. Judging by those results, New England seems more likely to make a critical mistake that could loom very large if the game is close.

I'm expecting a shootout here, with both quarterbacks putting up big numbers that'll keep up with this season's theme. I'll go 38-34 Giants, with Manning coming through once more to claim his second career MVP honor.