Back-to-back, fourth quarter heroics from a pair of gutsy QB's lead to Super Bowl victories. The debates between the faithful rage on, but there's already a clear cut winner .
On trails blazed years ago by the original "Comeback Kid" Joe Montana, and paved by a more recent legend in Tom Brady, two members of the NFL draft class of 2004 have shown that the art of the comeback is alive and well in postseason play. For now, we can bask in the glory of pure, unadulterated determination - and wave goodbye to the perpetual lopsidedness of a game that for all intents and purposes had become more of a footnote than a meaningful event. It's a sad thing when someone loses passion for what was once a favorite holiday like Christmas, or gives up hope on an old friend. Scores like 55-10 and 52-17 can ruin the magic of the Super Bowl for even the most ardent of us. That's why it's a blessing as NFL fans to be able to say that the best game of the season was the last game of the season, because it doesn't happen often enough.
What made these last two championships so special were the aforementioned pair of quarterbacks drafted in the first round on April 24th of '04. Quite possibly shaping up to be the best QB draft class since the Marino/Elway/Kelly threesome of 1983, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers are proving that all three teams that got them would have been in great shape no matter who they ended up with. But while hearty debates amongst fans of these teams involve all three players, anyone who dives into the deep end of the community pool here at CBS Sports knows that there's only one with legs; one that has been raging on for years that has a life all it's own. When you hear somebody say the name "Elvis", you know exactly who they're talking about. And three little words tell you everything you'd need to know about this ongoing deliberation... Ben versus Eli.
Teams have rivalries, and fans have rivalries. It's part of the game, and it rests on multiple levels that range from benign dislike to malignant hatred. There's usually a deep-rooted history between sides when you talk about true rivalry - with tales of historic battles, euphoric moments of victory and crushing blows to the spirit - all which feeds the beast that grows as the years pass. When it comes to "Ben vs. Eli", the beast is fed only by fandom's blind endorsement of it's own. It's safe to say that Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have little interest in our quest to prove which of them is "better".
We can talk about their stats, which favor Ben. We can talk about their championships, which after this past Sunday also favors Ben. We can talk about endurance (Eli's strong suit) and toughness (which appears to be Ben's). We can talk about decision making and pocket awareness which at times is a strength and a weakness for both men. If you want to look at the ability to read a defense and change up a play at the line for positive results, Manning's the guy. And when it's all said and done there's no way to rationally resolve any of it, because there's no way to know how Ben would have been as a Giant (which would have been a reality had the Chargers not agreed to trade Eli for Philip Rivers, which is the sole reason the Giants selected him) or how Manning would have performed as a Charger. Different teams and circumstances - don't even attempt to make projections.
There is one undeniable fact; that both Ben and Eli have shown a penchant for cutting their teams loose from the grasp of defeat and finding new and electrifying ways to march them seemingly infinite distances to refuge. The Oasis. In the words of Jonathan Winters in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World - "The big dubble-yuh I tell ya... it's the big dubble-yuh!!". They can frustrate you and make you stand on your seat in the same possession, let alone the same game. They can go stretches of games that make you wonder where their heads are at, and they can be on fire for weeks - invincible. Neither of them have a Jerry Rice to throw to, or an Emmitt Smith to hand off to. Both have had to deal with questionable play calling from their respective offensive coordinators, and both have had the pleasure of working with solid running games (when healthy) and terrific defenses.
Without being given a chance in hell and without the greater NFL community's expectations draped over his shoulder, Eli was able to enginner two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII - the second with a beautiful touch pass on a fade pattern with 35 seconds remaining. As everyone with a microphone or computer keyboard put it, he'd "grown up right before our eyes". He became the mount Everest of poise, maturity and leadership - compared to his brother and other greats in the game's history, not so much for his stats but for his guts. Forever the toast of New York, regardless of what the future holds for him.
With expectations of completing the Lombardi trophy six-pack and unfairly qualified as facing "a 9-7 team from a weak division", Ben was able to engineer a 78-yard drive and complete six of eight passes in 2 minutes to put his team ahead with only 42 ticks remaining on the game clock. Everyone will talk about Santonio Holmes' amazing catch and his ability to get both feet down, and they should. But Ben put the ball exactly where it had to be - where no one else but Holmes could grab it. Ben has quickly built himself a reputation and statistical resume that rivals the biggest names in the game during their first five years in the league. Forever the toast of Pittsburgh, regardless of what the future holds for him.
What is more impressive? Overcoming the pressure of fighting the school bully - who everyone thinks will kick your ass in the blink of an eye - by landing the blow that coldcocks him and proves you can fight with the best of them? Or nearly losing a fight you should win against a weaker kid, but having the tenacity under pressure to overcome a surprising shot to the gut that would have sent most others running with their tails between their legs?
So who wins? The answer's simple.