We never cease to be amazed by how quickly life changes in the NFL.
Of course, we never cease to be amazed by the bottom of our beer steins, which we stare at 10 or 12 times a day as part of the strict CHFF training regimen. So take our starry-eyed wonderment for what it's worth.
Last year, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were the undisputed kings of the NFL – with the only question their respective places in the hierarchy of pro football history.
This year, Brady has gone under the knife and, after this week's news that his knee is infected
, his career is in jeopardy less than a year removed from one of the greatest seasons in league history. Manning, meanwhile, has become yesterday's news: He's in the midst the worst statistical season (80.0 passer rating) since his rookie year, and his Colts are struggling through a very un-Colts-like 3-3 season.
Enter Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, the two cornerstones of the 2004 draft who have emerged as probably the marquee quarterbacks of the 2008 season.
Each is a Super Bowl champion and each leads a 5-1 team that has a legitimate shot at winning another Super Bowl. And the two square off Sunday in what may go down as the biggest inter-conference battle of the 2008 season.
The game is generating the same kind of QB-centered hype that had been reserved in recent years for Brady and Eli's older brother.
So the question in today's NFL is this: Who's the better quarterback? Who was the better first-round selection? Who would you take today? We size up two of the best quarterbacks in the game and find that it's no contest.
There's really no comparison between the performances of the two players in the regular season. Big Ben boasts better numbers in almost every imaginable passing category, and his team has routinely been better, too.
Eli's career performance looks like this:
- 1,105 for 1996 (55.4%), 12,774 yards, 6.4 YPA, 85 TD, 68 INT, 74.9 passer rating
Big Ben's career performance looks like this:
- 1,004 for 1,588 (63.2%), 12,836 yards, 8.1 YPA, 93 TD, 57 INT, 93.0 passer rating
It's pretty cut and dry.
Big Ben has completed a higher percentage of his passes for a much greater average per attempt, for more TDs and fewer INT, and a passer rating that's nearly 20 points higher than Eli's.
In fact, as we noted earlier this season
, Big Ben's passing numbers are among the very best in the history of the game. Eli's have been well below the average passer rating of about 80.0 that defines the modern passing game.
Advantage: Big Ben
Big Ben has played for teams that have been consistently better on defense. But Eli has been surrounded by a greater abundance of offensive talent (Tiki Barber, anyone?), while his teammates on the defensive side of the ball haven't been too shabby, either.
At the end of the day, Pittsburgh has performed better as a team, and they've done it in a conference that, until this year, has been much tougher than the NFC.
- The Steelers are 39-15 (.722) in the regular season with Big Ben as a starter.
- The Giants are 31-24 (.564) in the regular season with Eli was a starter.
Advantage: Big Ben
Manning and Roethlisberger share a unique historic bond: they're the only quarterbacks in history to lead their teams to three straight road playoff wins, followed by a Super Bowl victory. They did it just two years apart – 2005 for Big Ben, 2007 for Manning.
(The fact that these historic anomalies happened so close together might make a greater statement about the structural changes in the league's playoff system than it does the quarterbacks themselves, as we've discussed before.)
Manning's Giants have reached the playoffs three times in his four seasons. They're 4-2 in six playoff games. Manning has performed better than he has in the regular season, but only about average by the standards of an elite QB in the playoffs.
Eli in the playoffs – 98 of 164 (59.8%), 1,131 yards, 6.9 YPA, 8 TD, 5 INT, 84.2 rating
Roethlisberger's Steelers have also reached the playoffs three times in his four seasons. They're 5-2 in seven playoff games. But Big Ben's playoff numbers, though better overall than Eli's, have been well below his regular-season production.
Ben in the playoffs – 118 of 189 (62.4%), 1,547 yards, 8.2 YPA, 12 TD, 11 INT, 85.1 rating
This is no contest. Big Ben has a scrumptious sandwich named for him, made at Peppi's, the Pittsburgh sandwich shop chain.
It has all the prerequisites of a great sandwich: it's big and meaty and greasy and grand in its awesomeness. More importantly, we have the recipe
Eli is remarkably deficient in the sandwich department. It's a condition made all the sadder by the fact that he grew up in a city of great sandwiches, like the po'boy and the muffaleta. We'd expect more from the people of New Orleans. But this has been a deriliction of dietary duty by Eli fans.
Advantage: The Roethlisburger
Big Ben is an elite quarterback by almost any measure. But he hasn't developed the reputation of an elite QB in the eyes of the general population, which is wooed more by anecdotes than by Cold, Hard Football Facts.
One reason is that there are few signature moments on Big Ben's resume that the pigskin public can instantly recall.
Eli has no such problem. His signature moment is the John Hancock of pigskin declarations, written large enough for the whole world to see.
In Super Bowl XLII, Eli's Giants knocked off one of the most dominant teams in NFL history, the 18-0 Patriots. And the Giants won that game because Eli pulled off the greatest drive in NFL history
The drive, of course, was punctuated by a play many consider the greatest in Super Bowl history: Manning, under extreme duress, somehow pulled away from three different New England defenders who seemed ready to gobble him up, and then heaved a ball downfield to David Tyree, who made his miracle catch for a first down.
Unless Manning cures cancer one day while dropping back in the pocket, this moment will forever be the one that defines him, and it's one fans will talk about for decades to come.
Advantage: Eli in landslide
Few quarterbacks not named Tom Brady have burst onto the scene with the explosive power of Big Ben. In his rookie year, he led the Steelers to a 15-1 record and an appearance in the AFC title game. It was easily the best performance in history by a team led by a rookie quarterback. He followed it up with a Super Bowl victory in his sophomore season, supplanting Brady as the youngest QB to win a Super Bowl.
Manning stumbled and bumbled his way to quarterbacking elitism. He didn't start until the 10th game of his rookie year, and lost his first six starts, before earning a victory in the 2004 finale, a 28-24 win over Dallas.
As recently as the end of the 2007 regular season (during which Manning posted a below average 74.0 passer rating), nobody considered Eli an elite NFL quarterback. In fact, check out this story from the NY Daily News
published late last season: the Giants, read the headline, are "stuck with Manning ... like it or not."
The truth is that, just a year ago, four years into his career, nobody considered Eli anything but an average quarterback. He rose to elite status only through the performance of his Giants in the 2007 playoffs.
Advantage: Big Ben
Eli Manning was selected by the Giants with the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft. And the Giants paid a hefty price to get him.
The pick was originally held by San Diego. But after Eli refused to play for the Chargers, San Diego was forced to sell him off to the highest bidder. So the Giants sent the Chargers their first pick in the 2004 draft (No. 4 overall, which San Diego used to take Philip Rivers), along with their third-round pick of 2004, and their first-round and fifth-round picks in 2005. Then, of course, they paid Eli No. 1 pick money.
The Giants could have sat at No. 4, kept all those additional draft picks, and taken Roethlisberger, who Pittsburgh grabbed with the No. 11 overall pick.
Head to head
Eli and Big Ben have battled once before, back when they were relative nobodies in their rookie seasons of 2004.
Roethlisberger got the better of the day, as his Steelers won 33-30 on their way to a 15-1 season. Manning, meanwhile, was making just the fifth start of his career. But it was his breakout performance, as Eli completed more than 50 percent of his passes for the first time, topped a 100 passer rating for the first time, and had his first multi-TD passing day.
Eli – 16 of 23 (69.6), 182 yards, 7.9 YPA, 2 TD, 1 INT, 103.9 passer rating.
Big Ben put up bigger numbers but a lower passer rating, though he had started every game since Week 3 of his rookie year.
Big Ben – 18 of 28 (64.3%), 316 yards, 11.3 YPA, 1 TD, 2 INT, 84.8 passer rating
But when push came to shove, Big Ben did the shoving. Roethlisberger led the Steelers to 10 fourth-quarter points, highlighted by the game-winning 67-yard drive in the fourth quarter. Big Ben went 4 for 4 for 59 yards on the critical drive, to set up the decisive TD run by Jerome Bettis.
THE FINAL VERDICT
Weigh all the evidence and one thing becomes clear: Big Ben quickly established himself as a winner in the NFL and he's put up historic passing numbers. Eli was considered nothing more than an ordinary QB, even by his own fans, as recently as last year, and his numbers are pedestrian. Big Ben's teams have consistently been better, and he even has a tasty sandwich named in his honor.
Eli boasts the signature moment that fans will remember for years to come. But anecdotes and Cold, Hard Football Facts don't always see eye to eye. Anecdotes may not always be wrong, but Cold, Hard Football Facts are always right.
So, in this instance, the answer is obvious: Big Ben wins the battle of the Class of 2004.
But the best part is that we may get a chance to judge these two marquee performers again on February 1 in Tampa.