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The brothers huddled in a stadium tunnel, hands tucked into their pockets, heads bowed as if in prayer. As equipment bags were shuttled back and forth behind them, Peyton and Eli Manning stole one last moment after a blowout game that brought joy to neither of them. Long Eli's protector and sometimes his tormentor, Peyton steered the conversation away from his Colts' 38--14 battering of Eli's Giants and instead brought up New York's Week 3 opponent, the Titans. The Colts play Tennessee twice a year, and Peyton's knowledge of the Titans' defensive schemes is vast. After doing everything in his power to beat Eli, Peyton was already eager to help him.
Satisfied that his little brother was of sound body and mind, Peyton hugged him, slapped him on the backside and scheduled a fraternal chalk talk. Eli's eyes came to life.
"I'll call you Tuesday," Eli said.
Only a handful of people can relate to what the Mannings experienced on a hyped-up Sunday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, a tussle of siblings played out before a national TV audience. In the week leading up to the game, archival footage from the brothers' youth looped endlessly on sports programs, the boys in plastic helmets and tube socks, a toy football always in flight. In Indianapolis the game was real. Peyton threw for 255 yards and three touchdowns and Eli tossed an interception and fumbled three times as parents Archie and Olivia watched impassively from a luxury suite, unwilling to show favoritism to either son. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 333 sets of brothers have played in the NFL (including the AAFC and the AFL) through the 2009 season, but none are as well-known as the Mannings' middle and youngest child, whose dad was an NFL quarterback for 14 seasons. Three of the last four Super Bowls have had a Manning in the game, with Peyton winning a title in the 2006 season and Eli's coming the following year, in accordance with their birth order.
"If Eli had won a Super Bowl and Peyton didn't, Peyton would be going crazy right now," says Devon McDonald, the former Colts and Cardinals linebacker who competed against his twin brother, Ricardo, a former Bengals and Bears linebacker, in the 1990s. "I hear about that brotherly love stuff, but trust me, the competitiveness is there. My brother came out a year before me and was a fourth-round pick. I ended up being a fourth-round pick. If he'd been a first-round pick, I'd have been happy for him, but I'd also be thinking, What about me?"
Tiki Barber, the former Giants running back and twin brother of Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber, says Peyton and Eli's first professional meeting, a 26--21 Colts victory in 2006, was instructive in how they approached the second. "Eli and Peyton are both intense, more so than Ronde and I," Tiki says. "They don't let their family situation distract them from what they have to do. It's literally all X's and O's for them. The intensity has to do with the fact that they're brothers but more to do with the fact they are insanely focused on winning. If that means kicking your brother's butt, they will do it."
As Peyton carved up New York's secondary—and Eli's face grew longer with every Indianapolis completion—the complications inherent in the matchup became clear. The better Peyton played, the worse Eli seemed to perform, the younger brother failing to keep pace with his elder. For years the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, played insipid, sloppy tennis when they faced each other in tournaments; as they're learning to compartmentalize their feelings those matches have gotten more competitive. "It's a mixture of emotions," Tiki says of facing a sibling. "Your instincts say, I should be rooting for him."
Tiki and Ronde lived together for their first 21 years and shared a bedroom for the first 19. They always assumed they'd play on the same NFL team—as they did in college at Virginia—but in 1997 reality set in.
"A month before the draft we finally had the conversation, that, 'Dude, we're not going to be together anymore,'" Tiki says. "It was a hard conversation. I'd never known a life without having Ronde by my side. After I got drafted by New York, [Giants coach] Jim [Fassel] was going to draft Ronde with the Giants' next pick, but [Bucs coach] Tony [Dungy] got him before then. It was one of the toughest things to happen in our lives."
The Giants and the Bucs met five times with the Barbers on the rosters, and Tampa Bay won three of those games, though Tiki likes to point out that Ronde didn't play in the first matchup, a 20--8 Bucs victory in November 1997. When the two finally did meet on the field, in October '98, Tiki says it was impossible to treat it as a normal game. In one instance during Tampa Bay's 20--3 win, Ronde blitzed, Tiki stepped in to block, and both of them held up instead of cracking the other. "As we became better players, it got more intense," Tiki says. "I remember a night game in Tampa when [Ronde] laid into me on the sideline. I go, 'What are you doing?' He whispered, 'I have to make it look good—the whole sibling rivalry thing.'"