Different paths for Rivers, Manning lead to same destination

Forever linked by a draft-day deal, two quarterbacks now find themselves taking different roads toward the same destination. In just four years, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers have led their teams to a conference title game, one step shy of the Super Bowl.

Entering the 2004 NFL Draft, both the New York Giants and San Diego Chargers knew which quarterback they wanted most. Manning's pedigree demanded that he'd be the first quarterback taken in a class that also included Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and J.P. Losman.

Fearful they would lose Manning before going on the clock with the fourth overall pick, Giants GM Ernie Accorsi made a decisive move to make Manning the team's franchise quarterback.

After Manning was drafted first overall by the Chargers, San Diego traded him to the Giants in exchange for Rivers, whom the Giants had taken fourth, and the Giants' third-round pick that year and their first- and fifth-round selections in 2005. Such an improbable draft-day exchange has permanently linked Manning and Rivers, whose careers are a parallel portrait for a comparison and examination.

Both quarterbacks replaced proven veteran leaders. Manning unseated two-time MVP Kurt Warner just nine games into his rookie campaign and has since started 55 consecutive games, with a record of 30-25. Rivers replaced the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year in Drew Brees. He played in just four games in two years before starting each of the Chargers' last 32 regular-season games, while posting a 25-7 mark. Both quarterbacks inherited talented teams chock-full of Pro Bowl talent.

Manning received help from Tiki Barber, Plaxico Burress and Michael Strahan to help the Giants earn three consecutive trips to the playoffs, while Rivers received aid from LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Shawne Merriman to win two division titles in two seasons as a starter. Both young QBs have tasted early success and shown remarkable durability. Even in this season of growing pains, both Manning and Rivers have led their teams to multiple postseason wins.

For the second consecutive season, Manning has thrown more than 20 interceptions. However, he has eight touchdowns and one interception in his last three games -- against the Patriots, Buccaneers and Cowboys -- while posting a QB rating over 100 in each. Rivers struggled during the Chargers' 1-3 start but has led his team to nine wins in its last 10 games, including two over the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts.

How have their different styles and personalities yielded similar results? Manning, who was once criticized by former teammate Tiki Barber for his lack of charisma, has struggled to convince Giants fans that he is ready to play the leading man on the Great White Way.

At center stage in the league's largest media market, Manning seems ill-suited for Madison Avenue, which covets more the presidential charms of his older brother Peyton.

On the other hand, Rivers' energetic rants seem out of place in the laid-back city near picturesque La Jolla. Rivers was seen taunting opposing quarterback Jay Cutler in a Monday night game in Denver, and jaw-jacking with hecklers at the RCA Dome last week in Indianapolis.

According to teammate Shaun Phillips, though, Rivers' style has been well accepted.

"We know his character," says the fifth-year linebacker from Purdue. "Philip is a good guy. He talks a lot, and he backs it up. We expect him to act that way, because he's that way every single day. He's a high-energy guy who doesn't even swear. We support him 100 percent."

Personality may get you free swag and invitations to offseason golf tournaments, but true leadership is measured by consistent, productive wins. Both Manning and Rivers have earned the respect of their teammates by continuously dusting themselves off and playing through pain and injury.

Both quarterbacks have yet to miss a game since becoming full-time starters. Even in a locker room of strong personalities, Manning's gutty four-touchdown performance in the season finale against New England earned him newfound respect, even though it came in a loss to a team in search of perfection.

On offense, Manning has found new weapons who, as rookies, will someday owe their success to the quarterback who decided to share the ball and trust untested talent. Success in the postseason has come to WR Steve Smith, TE Kevin Boss and RB Ahmad Bradshaw -- the Giants' stars in waiting. They will now look up to Manning the way other playmakers value their quarterbacks.

In the postseason, Rivers has placed his mark on a Chargers offense that had solely relied on the talents of Tomlinson and Gates. But when Rivers began to find other explosive weapons in Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson and Darren Sproles, the Chargers learned they could lean on their young quarterback and not fall on their face.

Youth and talent always makes for a wonderful story full of conquest and failures. Both Manning and Rivers have had their share of good and bad moments throughout their young careers, and there will be many more to come. As each chapter unfolds, theirs is a story not unlike the draft class of 1983 that included John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. Another 2004 class member, Roethlisberger, already has beaten Manning and Rivers to a Super Bowl ring.

But now, just two wins shy of possessing a championship ring themselves, both Manning and Rivers are playing more than a game of football; they're playing for history and a legacy which turns critics into fans. And believers begin to worship two kid quarterbacks who are growing up before our very eyes.

Solomon Wilcots, a former NFL defensive back, is an analyst on the NFL Network and a color commentator for CBS football telecasts.

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