That was in August, when Manning was asked whether he considered himself an "elite" quarterback like Brady. Manning said simply that he belonged "in that class." But in New York, where blowing things out of proportion is practically a civic duty, even most Giants fans regarded it as heresy at the time. By Sunday night, it could be fact.
So ready or not, it's time for the "other" Manning vs. Brady, Part II. Both are back in Sunday's Super Bowl, four years after they first clashed, each with plenty still to prove.
"It's not my job to list quarterbacks," Manning said this week. "He's obviously a future Hall of Famer."
Yet Brady has looked like anything but that in his last 11 postseason games, posting a 6-5 mark, including a 2008 Super Bowl loss to Manning and the Giants. For most of those, he's been knocked around a lot, picked off more than usual and tagged with a quarterback rating that wouldn't qualify as a low-grade fever. Measured against the nearly impossible standard that Brady set at the start of his career -- 10 straight postseason wins and three Super Bowl titles -- merely average would be a more accurate description.
Perception still lags behind that reality, in no small part because everything else about Brady still screams "winner." Now 34, he is still boyishly handsome, still as charming as ever, still the most sought-after endorser and the one athlete even his peers would kill to be. He returns home every night with two sons to look after -- and a supermodel wife.
Yet those who know Brady have long marveled at how well he hides a competitive streak even Michael Jordan would admire. And despite outward appearances, they wonder how Brady is managing it now, coming up short of his ultimate goal every season since 2005, after winning three in four years. Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer ticked off a laundry list of things he's been studying in the three seasons he's sat behind Brady: mechanics, poise, and attention to detail, even the tone of voice he uses to command respect in a huddle.
But the one thing Hoyer worries will never rub off is Brady's raw desire.
"At the end of just about every practice, I run out there and try to get the last few reps with the first team," Hoyer said. "And just about every practice, whether it's a steamy day in training camp or a short walk-through after watching film, he runs out there, grabs me and says something like, `Get the hell out of here!' -- only it's not always even that nice. ...
"Everybody outside this team looks at him and thinks `pretty-boy QB.' But Tom doesn't try hiding it from us," Hoyer said. "He's a killer."
Manning, too, shares that trait and has been honing it for nearly as long. Like Brady, he was the baby of the family and quickly learned he could get his way by being demanding one moment and wheedling the next. Like his father, Archie, the longtime Saints quarterback, and older brother Peyton, who almost single-handedly vaulted the Colts to the top of the NFL heap, Eli burned to win all the time, too. But he wasn't above playing the trump card -- his mother, Olivia.
"He would pin me down," Eli, now 31, recalled growing up with Peyton, "and take his knuckles and knock on my chest and make me name the 12 schools in the SEC. I didn't know them all at the time, but I quickly learned them. ... I don't suggest anyone else try it out, but it definitely made me learn the schools of the SEC. Once I figured those out, he moved on.
"There were 28 teams in the NFL at that point, so all teams in the NFL. I had to get my studying on for that. Then once I figured that out, the one I never got was the 10 brands of cigarettes. When he really wanted to torture me and knew I had no shot of ever getting it," he added, "that's when I just started screaming for my mom or dad to come save me."
Contrast that with the story Brady told about growing up with three older sisters.
"I didn't have to share clothes. I didn't have to fight over the bathroom. They were pretty easy on me. They dressed me up a few times in their clothes and painted my nails once, but it was nice," Brady said without a shred of embarrassment. "They'd bring all of their girlfriends over to the house. It was pretty cool."
Brady is as smooth on the field as away from it. He had success almost from the moment he slipped into the starting lineup in New England in the second game of the 2001, an opportunity that came after front-liner Drew Bledsoe suffered a sheared blood vessel in his chest following a hit from the Jets' Mo Lewis. In a sense, Brady was still seething about being platooned with Drew Henson during his final season at Michigan and falling all the way to the sixth round -- No. 199 -- in the 2000 NFL draft. Once he got the job, Brady wasn't going to let go.
Manning, on the other hand, was drafted No. 1 overall in 2004 by the Chargers. They promptly traded him to the Giants for quarterback Philip Rivers, the No. 4 pick, a swap that rumor had it was engineered by Archie. Either way, Manning arrived to much fanfare and not a little resentment.
Kurt Warner, a Super Bowl winner in St. Louis a few years earlier, was New York's starter at the time, but even he didn't envy Manning the situation he walked into.
"He's got the name to live up to, the way he wound up there, and he's in New York, where you can be the best thing since sliced bread the first quarter, and the worst thing to ever walk the earth by the second," said Warner, who started that season 5-4 before giving way to Manning. "He won maybe once the rest of the way, but you couldn't tell that by looking at him after any one game.
"What you did see was his resolve, his consistency and that didn't change," Warner said. "I can't say from a football standpoint I saw a whole lot else."
Asked this week why the Giants stuck with Manning through a rough start, owner John Mara explained the organization prided itself on taking the long view. Then someone asked Mara if he remembered the scouting report then-general manager Ernie Accorsi filed on Manning.
"Just that he has something that very few players have: the ability to put a team on his shoulders and carry them," he recalled. "The one line I remember from the report is, `He can't really run with the football. It's just not in them unless it comes from Olivia and I never timed her."'
That patience paid off with an improbable win in the 2008 Super Bowl. The signature play from that game serves as a kind of tableau. The Patriots came with yet another kitchen-sink blitz and linebacker Adalius Thomas got hold of Manning's shirt and tried to throw him to the ground. Instead, Manning ducked down, used the momentum to spin away, then set his feet and fired a high strike 32 yards down the field, where David Tyree made a spectacular grab by pinning the ball against his helmet as he fell to the ground.
Manning has been less spectacular, but more efficient, since. As the Giants de-emphasized the running game, he's picked up the slack and produced some of the finest fourth-quarter performances the league has seen -- a record 15 touchdown passes in the regular season and six game-winning drives.
That kind of leadership gave him even more credibility in the locker room. A few days before the Giants traveled to Indy, Manning got up and spoke in front of the whole team.
"He talked about what he'd learned, both on his own and from Peyton," said David Carr, Manning's backup. "He didn't tell guys, `Don't go out and party every night.' He just reminded them the best party they'd ever had was the one after winning the Super Bowl, not the ones before."