There was no way to avoid Eli Manning on Sunday.
Nor will there be any way to avoid him as long as he and the New York Giants remain in the playoffs.
Peyton's little brother was THE topic the first week of the playoffs.
On Sunday's pregame show, Keyshawn Johnson and Emmitt Smith declared on ESPN that Eli would lose again. On CBS, Boomer Esiason and Dan Marino, both having played his position, defended him.
On the postgame, after the Giants beat the Bucs, it was all Eli all the time. Except for a few moments with Michael Strahan and an interjection about one of the Barber twins because Ronde had said a few semi-unkind words.
Much was made of the fact that Eli was more celebratory than usual, an extension of the careerlong analysis of his body language and laid-back demeanor. And after Qadry Ismail praised him on ESPNNews, the "This is my schtick" anchor replied: "Yes, but I'll get him at some point. It's part of me to go after Eli."
The question is why.
Eli seems like a nice young man, as all of Archie and Olilvia's three sons tend to be. But he's harder for the media to get to know and less articulate in public than his more accomplished older brother.
Put him in a commercial? Only if Peyton is the star. Heck, even Matt Leinart had more lines than Eli in one of this season's Manning family commercials.
Stats? He plays eight games a season in a stadium that is more often than not a wind tunnel, even in warmer months. Why have the Giants won eight straight road games? Eli's completion percentage is 68 on the road, 52 at home.
But on Sunday, it was suddenly a "new Eli." He had "arrived" because he had thrown four touchdown passes in a valiant effort to hand New England its first loss in the regular-season finale, then had finally "won" his first playoff game, which was treated as some landmark rite of passage.
Earth to commentators: Eli did not "win" that game by himself.
He had a major role it, but so did Strahan, Corey Webster, Ahmad Bradshaw, Amani Toomer, Brandon Jacobs, Antonio Pierce, Michael Johnson, Fred Robbins, Osi Umenyiora, David Diehl, Grey Ruegamer, Chris Snee, Gerris Wilkinson, Kevin Boss, Steve Smith and a bunch of other guys.
In other words, a team won.
Manning has had other games just as efficient. In 31/2 years as the Giants' starter, he has engineered eight comebacks in the fourth quarter or in overtime, a pace that puts him in an elite class close to the Montanas, Elways, Favres and, yes, the Peyton Mannings.
The most recent was bringing the Giants back from a 16-7 deficit in Chicago to a 21-16 victory with a couple of drives almost as proficient as the 92-yarder that ate up 8:37 of the third and fourth quarters and put away Sunday's game in Tampa. That was one in which he played badly early, prompting a Chicago columnist to write that he wouldn't trade Rex Grossman for him. Yes, Eli can be in Grossman's class as a subject for barbs.
The most notable comeback was last season, when he rallied New York from a 24-7 deficit in Philadelphia by completing 16-of-17 in the late going (and the one incomplete pass was a spike to stop the clock.)
Yes, he throws interceptions, because he often forces balls, a trait common to young QBs.
Ben Roethlisberger &
with Eli and Philip Rivers one of the three first-round QBs from 2004 who made the playoffs &
does it, too. He threw three Saturday night against Jacksonville, a stat widely ignored by the TV folks because Ben already has a Super Bowl ring.
But Eli always takes heat.
After that New England game in which Eli threw four touchdown passes, a ranter on New York talk radio was carrying on about the late interception Manning forced.
"Awful! Awful!" the guy screamed, inviting callers to join him.
Those who appreciate Eli are his teammates and television analysts who used to play the position at a high level: Ron Jaworski and the aforementioned Marino and Esiason.
Esiason, in fact, was conducting a Quarterbacking 101 class for a few reporters in the lunchroom at Heinz Field before the Jaguars-Steelers game the other night, and Eli's name came up.
Boomer's theory: Manning has better on-field rapport with Boss, a fifth-round rookie tight end, than with the injured Jeremy Shockey. That's because Shockey sometimes freelances his routes while the rookie does what he's told so Manning knows exactly where he is.
On the other hand, that's why Eli's game Sunday wasn't perfect.
Boss was open for an apparent touchdown but Manning missed him. That's perhaps because Plaxico Burress, another freelancer, ended up in the same area. And he also missed an outlet pass to Bradshaw, another of the nine rookies (eight of them were the Giants' entire draft class) who played in Sunday's game.
But talk show screamers and some television "experts" don't think about new GM Jerry Reese, who drafted a group that also includes starting cornerback Aaron Ross, Smith and Johnson, who like Bradshaw is a seventh-rounder.
As far as they're concerned, Eli is the entire main course. With Strahan, Toomer and Burress as side dishes.
As playoffs heat up, it's all Eli all the time
There was no way to avoid Eli Manning on Sunday.