Manning's status no longer in doubt

Listen to a presidential campaign long enough and you're bound to hear the phrase: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

But while Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Anarchists might come up with four different answers in 2012, chances are the fans of the New York Giants will be unanimous in their response.

Without a doubt...yes.

Back then, as their 2007 team -- playoff-worthy via the Wild Card route and NFC Super Bowl representatives thanks to three straight postseason road wins -- headed into an Arizona showdown with the history-primed New England Patriots, most would've been happy with something short of an all-time rout by the Giants' then-undefeated opponent.

Instead, thanks in large part to the heroics of a previously underappreciated quarterback, Big Blue emerged with a 17-14 victory in Super Bowl XLII in what will long stand as one of the NFL's most improbable upsets.

Fast forward to this week, and the Giants again find themselves on familiar turf.

Forgotten entries into the NFC playoffs, winners of three straight January games -- including two on the road against the conference's No. 1 and 2 seeds -- and again on their way to a championship chance against a New England team positioned as at least a three-point favorite in most circles.

But in spite of the odds, the fans of the football Giants aren't just hoping to show up this time. They're expecting to win.

The reason? It's simple.

The quarterback.

While he still travels in a prodigious shadow cast by his older brother and lines up for New York's Super Bowl XLVI clash across from two-time league MVP and supermodel-magnet Tom Brady, Eli Manning has taken a prodigious leap in status since first dipping his toe in the elite waters back in Arizona in February of 2008.

"He's been able to stand in there and make the most difficult plays," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "He's literally taken this team on his shoulders."

Though this year's Giants were a game worse in the standings then the 2007 version, a more-polished Manning was significantly better than his first Super Bowl season by nearly every measure, increasing his totals for completions (359 to 297), completion percentage (61.0 to 56.1), passing yards (4,933 to 3,336) and touchdown passes (29 to 23).

Not to mention the jump in public perception from a boyish "Gilligan" to "Cool Hand Luke."

"This is a significant moment for Eli and how he will be perceived," said Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who won three Super Bowls in 12 NFL seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. "If Eli were to win Sunday, he is no longer Peyton Manning's little brother. It elevates him to a higher status. Not saying he would be regarded as better than Peyton. But if someone wants to make the argument, at least he has provided them with ammunition."

There weren't many who held Manning in such praise following a trying rookie season in 2004.

Widely reviled after a draft-day stubbornness moved him from San Diego to New York, that year's No. 1 overall pick was an awkward work in progress as a seven-start successor to Kurt Warner, winning just once while completing less than half of 197 passes and throwing nine interceptions to just six touchdowns.

Manning successfully nudged both ratios past the 50-50 mark in the subsequent three full seasons, but was still viewed solely as a pretender to the Manning name -- and the NFL penthouse -- until orchestrating that final drive against the Pats that included a desperation fling to David Tyree and a precise fade to Plaxico Burress.

Nonetheless, he was still chastised during this year's preseason for claiming he was an elite quarterback in the same class of Brady.

"I thought I gave an honest answer," Manning said about the unforeseen controversy over his remarks. "I didn't regret it at the time or think anything of it at the time."

These days, it seems no one's arguing. In fact, the chatter has turned from whether Manning's elite to whether he's now Canton-worthy.

Of the eight non-active passers who've won at least two Super Bowl titles, seven are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including names like Starr, Bradshaw, Staubach, Montana, Aikman and Elway.

Just two active quarterbacks have won at least two titles: Brady and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.

"The second [Super Bowl win] validates the first one," said Bob Griese, who led the Miami Dolphins to two titles in the 1970's. "It probably helped me get into the Hall of Fame. Lots of guys win one."

The only exception to the dual Super-winning rule is Jim Plunkett, who guided the Raiders to a pair of championships between 1980-83 but has not been elected to the Hall of Fame.

"At Thanksgiving or Christmas, Eli probably would like to be able to say to Peyton, 'You might have been a great quarterback, but how many Super Bowls did you win?, Staubach said. "'I'm sure it would be very meaningful to him."

For his part, the younger Manning claims no such familial envy.

In fact, when asked this week about the suddenly iffy career status of brother Peyton, who missed the entire 2011 season with the Indianapolis Colts after neck surgery, he was nothing but complimentary.

"Peyton has had an unbelievable career and in my opinion is the best I've ever seen play football," Eli Manning said. "My goal is to get to his level of play. That's something I've worked on.

"I am five years younger than Peyton, but growing up we would always compete. When I got a little bit older, 15 or 16 years old, we could finally start being on the same level and compete in playing basketball, ping-pong or pool. Competition is a great thing. It brings out the best in people. It does make you work harder, to try to get to that level where you can compete with your older brother."

As for winning a career-defining game in big brother's home stadium, as Super Bowl XLVI will be held in Indianapolis, Manning claims it's a non-factor.

"I'm excited about being here," he said. "My mindset is I'm here to play a game. This is just a Super Bowl venue. I'm not looking at the fact that this is where Peyton has played his career. I'm just trying to go out there and play my best football and try to get a championship for the New York Giants."