While it hurts to fathom, especially from the eyes of a New England native, Eli Manning is undoubtedly the best clutch quarterback going right now in the NFL.
Yes, Tom Brady led the Patriots to a comeback victory on Sunday over the hated Jets, but it marked the first time he had done so since the AFC title game last year against Baltimore. Most importantly, in that time frame the Patriots are 4-4 (4-3 in 2012, and their Super Bowl loss to the Giants). According to Pro Football Reference, Brady's efforts in the blowout comeback against the Bills in Week 4 are considered a game-winning drive -- that statistical anomaly can be thrown out for the remainder of this argument.
Brady is 35 years old as of August. The younger Manning brother is 31, and will turn 32 in January. The 3 1/2 year age gap between the two most recent Super Bowl quarterbacks speaks volumes to the accomplishments that Manning has done in his time in the NFL.
Before digging into the nitty-gritty of the statistics, let's look back at how it all began. Manning was taken No. 1 in the 2004 NFL Draft. He was originally supposed to play in San Diego, but some fancy finagling led him to East Rutherford. In his first season with the Giants, Manning was groomed under Kurt Warner (remember him as a Giant?), and had his first career fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive in Week 17 against the Cowboys. In that game, he threw for three touchdowns and a meager 144 yards to lead the G-Men to victory.
The following season, Manning was named starter, and led New York to an NFC East crown before a shellacking in the first round of the postseason.
Brady, in his first season, led the Patriots to a Super Bowl title and five game-winning drives in 2001, including two in the postseason.
Right now if you're keeping score, it's Brady 5-1 over Manning.
But since Manning's first Super Bowl win at the expense of New England's perfection, the tides have turned. In 2007 and 2011, both years that the Giants defeated the Pats in heartbreaking fashion, Manning engineered 12 fourth-quarter comebacks, including those on football's biggest stage. Brady had six comebacks in those two seasons.
At age 31, Manning has 23 fourth-quarter comebacks and 27 game-winning drives. At the same age -- the beginning of the 2008 season, which was completely lost due to injury -- Brady had 20 comebacks and 28 game-winning drives. Injury notwithstanding, those numbers are startlingly close.
Brady still holds the advantage in Super Bowl titles, MVP awards, and overall statistical dominance -- his best season was the record breaking 2007 campaign (4,806 yards, 50 TD, 8 INT), Manning's was actually in 2011 (4,933 yards, 29 TD 16 INT) -- but in times where it counts, Manning leads the scoreboard at his age compared to Brady. And, he's 2-0 against Tommy and the Pats in the Super Bowl.
Why you ask, does this argument arise at this point and time? Because Manning and Brady both led game-winning comeback drives on Sunday, and the speculation that Brady had lost his clutch touch came to a cold stop. Manning hasn't been subject to as much talk of not being a clutch performer, and neither was Brady four years ago.
Could we be witnessing the same rise and subsequent demise in Manning four years from now that Brady has been subject to in the first six weeks of the NFL season? Outside of one Super Bowl title -- and that could quite possibly come this season -- the statistics in close games between T.B. and Eli are almost identical.
Manning has the Giants atop the NFC East, and poised to make another deep postseason run. Brady has the Pats back in the top spot in their division, but almost by default. The comparison between the two quarterbacks is more than justified, it's borderline scary how closely resembled the two actually are.
Yes Brady has more personal hardware, but Manning has taken a team to new heights whle still having plenty of years left in the prime of his career. It's not out of the question to think Manning could win an MVP or two, but his personal statistics would have to increase well beyond their average of 25 TD's and 10-plus interceptions.
Brady isn't ready to hang up the cleats any time soon, and his performances late in games seems to have a taken a turn for the better, but Manning's mantra of being a clutch-performer is growing almost every week. He's transformed from a game manager to a game changer, along the same lines as Brady in his heyday.
While this debate can continue until both retire from football and the stats can be permanently ingrained in the history books, Brady has been surpassed by the younger Manning and could use a string of big wins -- including maybe another Super Bowl title -- to cement himself as the greatest of all-time when it matters most.