METAIRIE — There is no debate when it comes to Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Among NFL quarterbacks, they are the crème de la crème, the best of the best, no questions asked. Each is elite in the true sense of the word.
Then there is Manning’s younger brother Eli, a two-time Super Bowl MVP and a giant among football Giants in New York. Known as the Comeback Kid for his fourth-quarter heroics, he’s good and has a seven-year, $106.9 million contract to prove it.
Yet his critics, among them former Giants quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst Phil Simms, are reluctant to place him among the game’s so-called elite quarterbacks. Where Manning fits in the NFL pecking order matters little to him and the New Orleans Saints (5-7), who face the NFC East-leading Giants (7-5) at 3:25 p.m. Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
“As of now, it’s not really a concern,’’ Manning said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “I am not worried about where I rank among other quarterbacks or how people rank me. My concern is trying to play good football, get wins for the Giants and having a good season.”
For eight games, the Giants played good football, jumping to a 6-2 mark and seemingly taking command of the NFC East. But they have come back to the pack after losing three of four, including a 17-16 defeat at the suddenly streaking Washington Redskins on Monday night.
Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III arguably outplayed Manning, providing more ammo to those who say Manning belongs in the second tier of quarterbacks with Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger, among others.
“It’s hard for me to put Eli in the category with Brady, Peyton and Drew,’’ said former Saints and Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora, an analyst for WDSU-TV in New Orleans. “But if he ain’t there, he’s about a fraction of an inch below them.
“The fact that he and his team have won the two Super Bowls, and he’s been the MVP of both of them, boy, it’s hard not to put him in that category. He’s done so many great things in his career, although it’s shorter than those other three guys. He’s had a lot of come-from-behind wins. He’s special, he’s special. But again, I have a hard time sticking him in that elite status.’’
Mora paused, reloaded and took dead aim.
“He’s been a little inconsistent,’’ he said. “Maybe it’s the loss to the Redskins. If they had won, maybe I might not be thinking this way. But boy, those other three guys — Brady and Peyton and Drew. To me, there’s no question that they are elite.’’
For Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, there is no doubt that Eli Manning fits in that category. Spagnuolo saw plenty of Manning’s heroics while serving in a similar capacity on Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s staff in 2007-08.
Manning led the Giants to a 17-14 upset of the unbeaten New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, earning a spot in NFL history with a dramatic collaboration with receiver David Tyree on the winning touchdown drive.
“There aren’t many (quarterbacks) that are elite, and he’s one of them,’’ Spagnuolo said. “He is the kind of guy that doesn’t get rattled. He sits big in the pocket. People will say he’s not a scrambler, yet you can always find some plays in a game where he gets himself out of trouble, puts the ball downfield right on somebody and makes a big play.’’
Manning seemingly established himself as one of the elite last season while his older brother sat out with a career-threatening neck injury. Last February, Eli led the wild-card Giants to their second Super Bowl title in five seasons, again beating the Patriots (21-17) and again earning MVP honors.
Now Peyton is back, playing for the AFC West champion Denver Broncos and enjoying an MVP-caliber season. Meanwhile, Eli has struggled (85.3 passer rating, 16 TD passes, 11 interceptions) and went through a three-game span without a touchdown pass.
Still, he has the Saints’ undivided attention.
“Obviously, we have our hands full this week,’’ interim coach Joe Vitt said. “We’re playing the defending world champions in their building. They’re coming off a tough loss to the Washington Redskins, and that football (team) always performs well under Tom Coughlin off of a loss. Eli (Manning) is playing at a high level. He is tough, he’s smart, he’s accurate.’’
And, according to his critics, still trying to move up in class.
Rookie cornerback Corey White, the fifth defensive back in the Saints’ nickel package, was ruled out of Sunday’s game. Vitt said White, who missed two games with a knee injury before playing on special teams last week, did not suffer a major setback. He said the team is hesitant to put a young player on the field after he missed significant playing and practice time since being hurt Nov. 11. … T Charles Brown (knee) will be out for the third straight week. … For the Giants, S Ken ny Phillips (knee), S Tyler Sash (hamstring) and TE Travis Beckum (knee) will not play, and WR Hakeem Nicks (knee) is questionable.