So let's compare Eli Manning to Alex Smith.
What, you say? That Alex Smith? The 49ers quarterback who was nearly tarred and feathered and ridden out of town by the San Francisco faithful since shortly after his top overall drafting in 2005?
Why bother? Everybody knows Eli Manning, on his worst day, stands head and shoulders above Smith.
Well, not this year. In the NFL's biggest surprise this side of Victor Cruz, Smith has exhibited many of the tendancies New York fans see in Manning. And while the overall stats may not be comparable, the fact that Smith has emerged as a legitimate throwing threat begs comparison.
So here we go.
COMEBACK ABILITY: Manning has five comebacks from fourth-quarter deficits this year, and his fourth-quarter passing ranked best in the league. But Smith put together the fourth-quarter comeback of the year to make last week's NFC semifinal one of the greatest playoff games in history. He brought his squad back on 80 and 85-yard touchdown drives in the final 3:34. The last one was a zipped throw to the front of the end zone to tight end Vernon Davis with nine seconds remaining to beat the Saints.
COMPOSURE: Manning has become as cool as a case of beer at a tailgate when under pressure. He knows when to take a sack, when to throw it away, and has kept what had been a habit of forcing throws into the end zone and tight spots to a minimum. It helped him cut his 25 interceptions of last year to 16. That all came through eight years of experience, however. Smith has shown some of the same qualities in throwing just five picks this year, only it took him a journey through three head coaches and seven offensive coordinators to gain that kind of maturity. It has come to the surface now, though.
PRODUCTION: You want numbers? How's a career-high 4,933 passing yards with 29 touchdowns hit you? That was the total Manning put up in a career year that spurred the NFL's ninth-best scoring offense (24.6 ppg). Smith's numbers -- 3,150 yards on 143 fewer attempts than Manning's 589, were quite good as well. The difference is, Smith had a strong running game, led by the league's No. 2 rusher Frank Gore, to set things up for him. Manning did it mostly on his own as his ground game stumbled until the last couple of games in the regular season.
OVERALL COMPARISON: Of course, if you had to take one horse in this race, it would be Manning. He's been to the championship game before, even won a Super Bowl. But Smith doesn't have the wide eyes of a newcomer, either. After what he's been through -- his own coaches before savior Jim Harbaugh questioned his toughness and leadership skills -- a little game pressure won't bother him.
All in all, the quarterback matchup stacks up as one worth noting. The final nod, though, will go Manning's way.