Eli vs. Peyton? Eli or classmate Big Ben is an even better question

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Eli hasn't always been appreciated in New York, but two titles change a lot of things. (Getty Images)  
Eli hasn't always been appreciated in New York, but two titles change a lot of things. (Getty Images)  

People want to compare Eli Manning to his older brother, Peyton, and it's easy to understand why. Both won Super Bowls. Both were Super Bowl MVPs. And both are among the best quarterbacks out there.

But I'd suggest there's another quarterback more suitable for comparison, and it's not another Manning. It's Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.

Like Eli, he won two Super Bowls. Like Eli, he's known for fourth-quarter comebacks. And, like Eli, he plays on a team known for its physical defense.

Most important, like Eli, he was part of the 2004 draft, which yielded Manning, Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. My question is: If you were to return to that draft and pick quarterbacks based on what you know now, who's your first choice?

I make it a photo finish between Eli and Big Ben, giving Roethlisberger --- who was the 11th overall pick -- the slight edge.

The emphasis there is on slight. He's gone to one more Super Bowl (3) than Manning, and while he doesn't produce the prodigious numbers of a Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees, he does produce big plays in big games.

I don't need to recite his history. You know it already. Nobody is better at extending plays than Roethlisberger, and almost nobody is better in clutch moments -- with Roethlisberger 10-4 in the playoffs, including 2-1 in Super Bowls.

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He's also 80-33 in regular-season play and led the Steelers to four AFC Championship Game appearances in his first seven years.

Of course, Manning is right there with him. He's 8-3 in the playoffs and 2-0 in Super Bowls. He also has two more Super Bowl MVP trophies. More important, he's 2-0 in championship games vs. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, producing last-minute touchdown drives in each.

Both were memorable, with Manning's wide receivers -- David Tyree in Super Bowl XLII and Mario Manningham in Super Bowl XLVI -- stealing headlines for improbable catches that bordered on the miraculous.

But Manning doesn't get the credit he deserves for making those plays. With Tyree, Manning somehow escaped an almost certain sack to throw the ball downfield; with Manningham, he dropped a deep sideline pass through the smallest of windows, with Manningham cradling the ball just before he was hammered out of bounds by safety Patrick Chung.

Manning is the flavor of the day because he's the most recent Super Bowl winner, and I have no problem with that. He just beat Tom Frickin' Brady, for crying out loud. He's a marvelous quarterback who is more durable than Roethlisberger and has just as many Lombardi Trophies.

Plus, he just won a second Super Bowl with another fourth-quarter comeback. I measure quarterbacks by how they operate when you absolutely, positively need something to happen, and nobody was better this season than Manning. He set a league record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes and led the Giants to six regular-season comeback victories.

But Roethlisberger has been there and done that. In fact, in his rookie season (2004) he set an NFL record with five fourth-quarter comebacks and wound up with six after the playoffs. His 19 comeback wins and 25 game-winning drives were the most through a quarterback's first seven seasons, and he was the only quarterback to produce 20 fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories before he turned 30.

Roethlisberger may not produce as many touchdown passes as Manning, but he has been more accurate and more effective. His regular-season winning percentage, for instance, is .708, ahead of Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Brees and Rivers, and his 92.7 passer rating is over 10 points higher than Eli's (82.1).

He has one more playoff appearance (six), two more conference championship appearances (four) and one more division championship (four), and, yeah, I know, he also has Dick LeBeau and one of the NFL's toughest defenses. But the Giants are built on defense, too, and while this year's unit was a disappointing 27th overall, it flexed its muscle in the playoffs, allowing no opponent more than 17 points and only one more than 21 yards on any play.

As I said, it's a close call. Roethlisberger takes more sacks and suffers more punishment, partly because he holds the ball longer than most quarterbacks and mostly because his offensive line has trouble protecting him -- and I'm being kind there.

Yet he continues to play on, and he continues to win.

The guy is tough ... but so is Manning. Rewind videotapes of his conference championship victory over San Francisco -- a game where he was hit 20 times and sacked six -- and don't tell me he's not courageous because he is. Furthermore, he didn't commit a turnover that afternoon and completed his latest playoff run with nine TDs and only one interception.

For the record, he has 17 touchdown passes and seven interceptions in 11 playoff games; Roethlisberger has 20 TDs and 17 interceptions.

But until this season, Roethlisberger was saddled with a rushing attack that wasn't on par with the Giants, with Pittsburgh finishing below New York four of the five seasons prior to 2011. The lone exception: 2007 when the Steelers ranked third and the Giants fourth.

I think you get the idea. Basically, we're splicing hairs here. My point is: The margin between Eli and Roethlisberger is thinner than it is between Eli and Peyton.

Eli Manning has become the quarterback the Giants envisioned when then-general manager Ernie Accorsi pulled off the 2004-draft deal with San Diego, sending Rivers and three draft picks to the Chargers for Manning. The guy not only wins Super Bowls; he wins on the road, completing his seventh straight playoff victory there or at a neutral site.

But Roethlisberger wins there, too. Remember when Pittsburgh came out of nowhere to win Super Bowl XL as a wild-card entry? The Steelers had to win four straight away from home, including a divisional victory at top-seeded Indianapolis, and it was Roethlisberger who led them -- making a game-saving tackle vs. the Colts on the return of a fourth-quarter fumble.

So let the debate begin: Manning or Roethlisberger. Between them they have four Super Bowl victories and six conference-championship game appearances in eight years. I'll take that ... which means I'll take either.

Only I still lean ever-so-slightly toward Roethlisberger.

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