Even as Eli Manning prepares to face the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI in the same city Peyton Manning produced so many unforgettable performances until a neck problem shut him down for the entire 2011 season, there is not even a hint of a sibling rivalry.
"No, not at all," Eli said this week. "Peyton's my hero, and we're extremely close. It's nothing like that at all. I don't feel that way, and I never have. Peyton's my biggest mentor."
Two brothers, son of star quarterback Archie Manning, growing up in New Orleans, trying to be just like dad, and not even a scintilla of jealousy in the relationship. Can this really be?
It absolutely can.
"People think Eli is playing in his shadow, but Eli doesn't get into that at all," Archie Manning said. "It's never really bothered Eli. They're so close, and Peyton has always been Eli's best mentor. Eli's like the rest of us. We miss Peyton playing, but Eli's just playing. He's got good people around him, good people on offense around him. That's where his mind-set is, not on playing better because Peyton's not there and the pressure is off."
It almost seems too good to be true, that there could be this many great quarterbacks among two generations of one family, without a trace of envy and with only support from all parties involved. But Archie insists that is the case.
"All your children are different, and my children are different," said Archie Manning, whose oldest son, Cooper, abandoned his football dreams after high school because of a neck problem (a different one than Peyton now has). "But Peyton and Eli have always been close."
Eli himself insists there is no underlying envy or hostility -- even subconsciously -- about his older brother's success. Nor is there any reason to think that Eli's accomplishments this year, which include seven fourth-quarter comeback wins and three straight playoff road wins leading up to the Super Bowl, is tied to Peyton's absence.
The brothers can thank their upbringing in the Manning household, where Archie was an adoring father and his wife, Olivia, a doting mother. Had it not been for their efforts, their sons' careers might have turned out far differently.
"Archie had the advantage of knowing what the pressures are and the booby traps and land mines," said Dr. Richard O'Brien, a professor of psychology at Hofstra University. "He kept them from having that sense of entitlement, and put them in a position where they knew they had to work."
Peyton and Eli remain extremely close, and speak by telephone every Friday evening and on Mondays as well. Football is not always the biggest topic of conversation.
"We just talk about a lot of stuff, brother stuff," Eli said. "We really don't talk much about football."
Peyton paid Eli a surprise visit at Sunday's NFC Championship Game in San Francisco, and the two met briefly afterward.
"I couldn't be more proud of Eli and how he's played all year," Peyton said. "He really worked hard this offseason. He really wanted to have a good year and he sure has. Indianapolis is lucky to have this kind of game."
It is a genuine relationship between two athletically gifted men who respect one another as brothers first and quarterbacks second. "I had a chance to be around Peyton when he spoke at our Boys Town event, and he's one of the most impressive professional athletes I've ever been around," said sports psychologist Dr. Jack Stark, who has worked with professional, amateur and Olympic athletes. "It's partly the maturity in how Peyton treats his brother. He's smart enough to know Eli doesn't need him. He really downplays that. It's about as normal as you can get."
Sports psychologist Dr. Marshall Mintz, a professor at Rutgers University who also consults with the U.S. Olympic team, said Eli's self-assurance is an important part of the relationship that allows him to thrive despite Peyton's success.
"Eli is very much focused on himself in a positive, egocentric approach," Mintz said. "It allows him not to get caught up in any kind of comparative stuff with Peyton or anyone else. My sense is that if Eli wasn't a good football player, he'd be a good teacher, psychologist, writer, or whatever field he went into. It's because he's been brought up in a very nurturing, caring environment."