Two years ago, when the New York Giants were preparing to face the New England Patriots in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI, Peyton Manning played the delighted host, submerging his own concerns about his injured neck and his fraying relationship with the Colts to become a ticket procurer and restaurant-reservation purveyor for his brother. This week, with the Denver Broncos getting ready to take on the Seattle Seahawks in East Rutherford, N.J., for Super Bowl XLVIII, it is Eli's turn. In the moments after Denver secured its spot in the game last Sunday, Eli stood beside Peyton in the Broncos' locker room, warning that Super Bowl week is chaos, a reminder that Peyton surely did not need.
The routine was re-established. Whichever brother is not in the game is in charge of removing as many of the ancillary concerns as possible from the one playing. And so this week, Peyton and Eli have traded text messages, Peyton telling Eli the number of tickets he would need -- a number that, Eli said Thursday, he has hit, scrounging them up mostly from teammates.
"He was very helpful in dealing with family and friends and taking that burden off me," Eli said on Thursday. "We've learned in playing a few of these. You try to get all that stuff done this week."
They've played in a few of these, all right. Counting the upcoming game, the Manning brothers will have appeared in a total of five Super Bowls -- three for Peyton, two for Eli, with Eli holding, for at least 10 more days, the edge in victories. Until Peyton's injury and subsequent wrenching departure from Indianapolis, the Mannings had remarkably parallel careers, enjoying an uncommon stability that Peyton, two years ago, was convinced was the reason for their shared success: The brothers had had little coaching turnover to wade through, with each enjoying an uninterrupted run with a key coach (Tom Moore for Peyton, Kevin Gilbride for Eli) to that point in their careers.
If there has been envy from Peyton over Eli's Super Bowl success -- which is often used to underscore Peyton's own mixed postseason record -- it is not apparent. The brothers, separated in age by five years, have grown closer as adults because of their shared career, and they are strikingly noncompetitive with each other. They have dreaded the occasional games over the years in which their teams have faced off.
Two years ago, Peyton was so concerned about karma that, after watching the Giantswin their wild-card game while lifting weights at the Colts' facility, he returned there for the divisional round. When the Giants won that, Peyton was afraid to tell his little brother that he would not return to Indy's weight room for the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers, so instead he essentially snuck into Candlestick Park, making his own travel and ticket arrangements.
Peyton no longer watches Eli's games on television after -- years ago -- finding himself standing on a hotel bed, screaming at the television after a referee's blown call, all hours before his own game even kicked off.
Eli said that he usually watches games with no rooting interest and he does not get nervous before he plays in his own games. But on Thursday, Eli said watching Peyton play is nerve-racking, adding that he's not envious of his brother -- though he finds his own sense of ambition stoked a bit.
"I am proud of Peyton, and if I'm not going to be playing the game, he's who I'd want to be playing," Eli said. "And so I think going to a championship game like last week and kind of just being in that excitement and seeing the crowd and seeing the coaches after that game, it definitely adds a little fire under you to get back to that scenario. You miss that and, having been there before and knowing that feeling, you get jealous of that feeling and that excitement and everything going along with it."
Not that the brothers watch games the way normal people do, anyway. Peyton, perhaps the greatest student of the game ever to play, usually watches the defense, and because he missed the entire 2011 season, he was able to offer Eli some tips on what he had seen going into that NFC title match in San Francisco -- discussing, it turned out, the defense the 49ers ended up running on Eli's touchdown pass to Mario Manningham in the fourth quarter.
The sharing of scouting reports, too, is part of the routine. The Giants played the Seahawks this year, a 23-0 home loss Eli would probably sooner forget -- except for the insight gained that he now plans to lend Peyton. And, of course, nobody knows the vagaries of how the notoriously swirling winds of the Meadowlands -- not as bad as in the old Giants Stadium, Eli said -- could affect playing conditions at MetLife Stadium like Eli does.
"I might have a few things for him, but I don't want to reveal that because I don't want to give that to Russell Wilson," Eli said. "Any tips, wind-wise, I will tell him in private."
It was in a private throwing session back in New Orleans almost three years ago, when Peyton was at his lowest physical state, before the surgeries led to the faded scar that now maps his remarkable return, that Eli told Peyton he could see that he could not complete his throwing motion. That was before it became obvious that Peyton would have to leave Indianapolis, before Eli won his second Super Bowl (in a stadium that sported a towering picture of his brother on its façade). Only a few weeks after Eli's triumph -- which Peyton celebrated beside him -- that picture came down for good when his brother was released, setting in motion Peyton's stunning return to the top of the game.
Much has been made of how capturing a Super Bowl championship with a second team would enhance Peyton's legacy. That hardly seems necessary, in a family so used to success that it has a well-worn plan for how to manage it.
"I think Peyton's already created his own legacy," Eli said. "He's played at a very high level for a long period of time, and he's overcome injuries and obviously set numerous records and been on a lot of playoff teams, playing in his third Super Bowl. I don't think that's something that he's worried about. There will always be arguments about who is the greatest, or who is the best. I think if you're in that argument, if you're one of the names thrown around in there, I think you've already created a pretty good legacy."