In his eighth NFL season, the New York Giants quarterback heads into his team’s Feb. 5 Super Bowl with the Patriots having taken his game to another level.

FOXBORO – The debate raged for years: Who was the NFL’s best quarterback, New England’s Tom Brady or Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning?


This year, the debate died.


Peyton is no longer even the best quarterback in his family.


In a season in which his big brother was sidelined by a neck injury, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has proven to be a major pain in the neck to opposing defenses.


“I think Eli’s playing probably one of the best (levels of) football of any quarterback in the game,” Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said on Thursday. “(There are) a lot of questions about Peyton. Now his little brother Eli, he stepped up his game big time.


“He can always be compared to some of the greats in the game now because of his production. He took that team over and, (I’m) not saying he’s the only one, but his play alone moved them in the right direction with guys around him.” 


“Eli is the key to that team right now,” Patriots defensive end Mark Anderson said. “He’s the engine right now


It is as if a review of this year’s game films provides a trip back in time for the Patriots.


“Eli’s done a good job not turning the ball over, hitting big plays, converting on third down,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “Their third-down conversion numbers are significantly up from the regular season playing against better teams, better defenses, so he’s doing a great job.


“He’s an outstanding quarterback. He can hurt you with his legs. Not that he’s looking to run for 100 yards or anything, but converting on third down, scrambling out of the pocket, keeping plays alive. We’ve seen that before. He does a good job.”


Yes, the Patriots have seen all of that before – the third-down conversion, the scrambling out of the pocket, the ability to keep a play alive all encompassed in David Tyree’s once-in-a-lifetime catch for the 32-yard gain that ultimately led to Plaxico Burress’ touchdown reception with 35 seconds to play and the Giants’ 17-14 upset in Super Bowl XLII.


Conversely, just as the Patriots did on the night of Feb. 3, 2008, at University of Phoenix Stadium, the NFL has seen Manning go fo(u)rth this season, his 15 fourth-quarter TD passes eclipsing the previous league record of 14 held by Colts past and present, Johnny Unitas and one Peyton Manning.


One of those, a 1-yard toss to tight end Jake Ballard with 15 seconds to play capped off an eight-play, 80-yard drive in the game’s final that earned the Giants a 24-20 win over the Patriots when the two teams met at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 6 of this season.


“He does everything you’re looking for as a quarterback,” Brady said. “I’ve seen it first hand what he can do in the fourth quarter of these games. He’s done a great job bringing his team back. (He’s) a great leader. You always hear that coming out of New York. The guys really have a lot of respect for him and so do I.”


The respect has no doubt grown during the Giants’ playoff run.


In each of the Giants’ three postseason wins, Manning has tossed a fourth-quarter TD pass to wide receiver Mario Manningham, the last a third-and-15 gem from the San Francisco 17 into the back of the end zone – a major play in New York’s 20-17 overtime win over the 49ers in their NFC Championship Game last Sunday.


Manning’s reward?


A trip to play the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb 5 in the house (Lucas Oil Stadium) that his brother helped build.


Now in his eighth NFL season, Eli is the “other Manning” no more.


This Eli isn’t coming; he’s arrived.


Manning’s 4,933 yards passing during the regular season were a franchise record for a team that dates back to 1925.


“He’s got a lot of skill and he uses all his weapons, spreads the ball around and makes you defend everybody,” Belichick said. “And he wins. That’s really what a quarterback’s job is – to manage the game so his team can win. That’s what he’s done.”


Contact Glen Farley at gfarley@enterprisenews.com.