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May the Best Manning Win
Michael Silver
September 11, 2006
Eli and Peyton face off for the first time in the Sunday-night opener, and they don't particularly want to talk about it (even with each other). Making NFL history as the first brothers to start at quarterback in the same game, they'll add another chapter to the Manning family saga-and when it's over, you won't want to be around the one who lost
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September 11, 2006

May The Best Manning Win

Eli and Peyton face off for the first time in the Sunday-night opener, and they don't particularly want to talk about it (even with each other). Making NFL history as the first brothers to start at quarterback in the same game, they'll add another chapter to the Manning family saga-and when it's over, you won't want to be around the one who lost

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On a tree-lined street in a shaken city, two men and their mother took a detour down memory lane. Following lunch in New Orleans's Garden District on a warm July afternoon, Peyton Manning had a sudden urge to see the house in which he first dreamed of becoming an NFL quarterback. With his mother, Olivia, riding shotgun and his younger brother, Eli, in the backseat, Peyton steered a Honda pickup toward Seventh Street and parked in front of a goldenrod-yellow wooden cottage. He opened the cast-iron front gate and waited as Olivia reluctantly followed, while Eli stayed in the car and chatted on his cellphone. Looking back at the youngest of her three boys, Olivia smiled and thought, Eli wouldn't do this in a million years.

At first glance the house appeared to be a single-story shotgun structure, but Peyton, who lived there until he was almost seven, knew otherwise. He had fond memories of the large upstairs bedroom that he had shared with his older brother, Cooper, the second story hidden by the extended shingled roof in front. This was a 19th-century camelback house, designed to fool building inspectors who rode by on horse and buggy into undervaluing the property. It was on that second floor that Peyton had learned to compete, battling Cooper and their father, Archie, in heated contests with a foam basketball. This was where he was determined to go.

After ringing the bell, Peyton smiled as an elderly man opened the front door. Reaching out to shake hands, Peyton introduced himself and asked to come inside. Although he didn't buy the home from the Mannings when they sold it in 1983, the owner was aware of its history and recognized the Indianapolis Colts' star. He invited Peyton and Olivia inside but rebuffed the quarterback's request to go upstairs. "I'm sorry," the man said. "It's just not in good enough shape." Peyton pressed his case, at one point ascending a couple of steps before being told--again--that the second story was off-limits.

Olivia took the man at his word and went back to the car, where Eli had finished his phone conversation. The third-year quarterback of the New York Giants was two when the family moved a half dozen blocks away to the house his parents still occupy, and he seemed utterly uninterested in revisiting the past. But back inside Peyton persisted. A few minutes later he returned to the car and said, "O.K., y'all can come on in." As Eli shrugged and followed, his big brother turned back and told Olivia, "And I'm going upstairs."

This Sunday night in East Rutherford, N.J., Olivia Manning will be upstairs in a luxury suite at Giants Stadium, part of a sellout crowd watching her sons make history. A former Ole Miss homecoming queen who began dating a Southern football legend-to-be during her freshman year, Olivia has experienced a lifetime of thrills and chills as the most emotionally invested fan of the four men in her life. She and Archie once attended 17 of their sons' basketball games in a single week. "One day when the boys were young, I pulled out of my driveway and headed up the one-way street going the wrong way," Olivia recalls. "That's when I realized, O.K., I'm losing it--too many games."

What makes Sunday's different is that Peyton, 30, and Eli, 25, will become the first brothers to start at quarterback in the same NFL game. Given that Peyton's Colts went 14--2 last season and won the AFC South for the third year in a row, while Eli's Giants were 11--5 and took their first NFC East title since 2000, the matchup would be sexy enough without the family drama. That the brothers were each drafted with the No. 1 pick--and that their father played 14 years in the league--adds to the intrigue. Throw in the backdrop of New York City and NBC's nonstop promotion of its new Sunday night NFL slot, and what you have is the pro football's most hyped season opener, ever.

Think of it as the league's answer to Venus and Serena Williams at Centre Court in Wimbledon. "It's kind of exciting to be part of football history," Olivia says, pausing to sip ice water in her living room. "I don't want anybody to say, 'Oh, poor Mrs. Manning.' This is a great thing."

Olivia smiles as she says this, but should we believe her? After the game, one of her boys will be miserable, a mother's concern long after the kids have left the nest. To know this, merely mention last season's playoffs and watch the color drain from Olivia's face.

January was as bad for the Mannings as August was for Pluto. In his first postseason start, a wild-card game against the Carolina Panthers at Giants Stadium, Eli threw three interceptions and suffered a 23--0 defeat. A week later in a divisional-round clash at Indy, the Pittsburgh Steelers pounded Peyton and the top-seeded Colts and then held on for a stunning 21--18 victory. Faced with yet another long off-season of he-can't-win-the-big-one chatter, Peyton became so upset during his postgame press conference that he criticized his offensive linemen.

"It's not easy to be around either of them after a loss," Olivia says. "Your heart just hurts for them."

Nearly eight months later two quarterbacks seek redemption, and neither is thrilled about discussing the uncomfortable circumstances: One will jump-start his season at the other's expense. It is why, as the 32-year-old Cooper says, Peyton and Eli "seem to have developed a case of lockjaw" in recent months. While both Mannings profess to being excited about the matchup--"It's going to be an awesome atmosphere," says Peyton--they'd rather play it down. Referring to each team's All-Pro pass rusher, Eli said during training camp, "[The Giants' Michael] Strahan and [the Colts' Dwight] Freeney don't care if it's two brothers playing quarterback. For the other 52 guys on each team, it's a football game, not a [story]."

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