In a candid, wide-ranging interview with Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz on Monday night, Manning discussed the tumultuous state of his franchise and his uncertain future in Indy, and he didn't sound particularly warm and fuzzy.
Sure, Manning enjoyed watching his kid brother, Eli, lead the New York Giants to a 20-17 overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on Sunday, and he'll undoubtedly be cheering hard for the NFC champs to defeat Tom Brady and the rival New England Patriots at Lucas Oil Stadium on Feb. 5, just as he did four Super Bowls ago in Arizona.
Deep inside, however, I suspect he'll be squirming with discomfort. If it makes Manning feel any better, he'll have plenty of high-profile company.
While we're going to have to wait another 11 days to find out who wins Super Bowl XLVI, the matchup's biggest losers can already be identified. Here's my Top 5, in inverse order of internal anguish:
[ Dan Wetzel's NFL podcast: Tom Brady's struggles and Eli' Manning's toughness]
5) Albert Haynesworth: When the Patriots traded a fifth-round draft pick to the Redskins to acquire the former All-Pro defensive tackle last August, there was concern that his lousy attitude and/or penchant for off-field drama could derail the experiment. As it turned out, Haynesworth got released in early November (shortly after a 24-20 defeat to the Giants) for a more cut-and-dried reason: He stunk. In six games, he had three tackles and no sacks. Seriously, how bad do you have to be not to be able to stick on the league's 31st-ranked defense? Either Haynesworth's skills have really declined at 30, or he hadn't sufficiently recovered from a back injury or he dogged it in a not-so-obvious fashion. Whatever – a couple of months after arriving in New England, something he characterized at the time as "career-saving," Haynesworth was cast off and claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He promptly said he should have been with the Bucs all along but had resisted signing there as a free agent in 2009 because he'd just bought a big boat and feared he'd be distracted by Tampa's plentiful waterways. Yes, he's a very thoughtful man. And on Super Sunday, he'll think about this: The Bucs went 0-8 after signing him; the Pats have won 10 straight since cutting him. Even if he's not as motivated by winning as many of his peers, Haynesworth will undoubtedly chafe when the amount of the two teams' Super Bowl shares are revealed. After all, maintaining a boat is quite expensive.
4) Bill Cowher: As I reminded you not so long ago, there has long been a belief in NFL circles (one enunciated on multiple occasions by Jerome Bettis, who played for Cowher in Pittsburgh) that the highly-successful-coach-turned-broadcaster has been laying in wait for the Giants' job. Um, it may be time to come up with a new plan. Given recent events, it seems to me that Cowher, who has been out of coaching since 2006, should plan on doing his "NFL Today" gig from a rocking chair – or he might want to start becoming a little more receptive to the overtures he gets from other franchises every year at this time. That's because, after taking the Giants to a second Super Bowl in five seasons, Tom Coughlin isn't going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Even in New York, his job should be safe for a long time, and earlier this week Coughlin told cbssports.com's Pete Prisco that he has no plans to retire. Sorry, Bill – it ain't happening.
[ Related: Tom Coughlin won't ease up his approach ]
3) Randy Moss: Back in August, Moss' agent, Joel Segal, announced that the mercurial receiver was retiring after 13 seasons. I'm pretty sure that was Superfreakian code for, "Yo, please call and make me an offer – especially you, Bill Belichick." Watching Moss implode during the 2010 season was part black comedy, part horror flick. Upset over his contract situation, Moss began loafing early in the year (Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said Moss was "putting his foot on the brake" in the second half of their Week 2 clash), and after that Brady all but ignored him. He was traded to the Minnesota Vikings in early October and seemed almost immediately to regret his departure from New England, something that became apparent less than a month later, when he conducted a bizarre postgame news conference following the Vikings' defeat to the Pats at Gillette Stadium, calling Belichick "the best coach in football history" and lavishing love upon his former team while ripping his current coach, Brad Childress. That spectacle, along with Moss' infamous rant against a caterer at the team's training facility two days earlier, contributed to Moss' abrupt release. He ended up getting claimed by the Tennessee Titans and contributing almost nothing, and he has since been out of football. Two months ago there was a report that Moss would listen if the Pats were to call – hopefully, he didn't kill too many brain cells holding his breath. A high-ranking Patriots source told me that if Moss had been more realistic about his contract demands in 2010 and had put his head down and played hard, he'd almost certainly still be with the team today. In other words, he'd be fighting to earn his first Super Bowl ring, instead of waiting vainly for the phone to ring.
2) Peyton Manning: I know Manning is sincere in his support for his kid brother, but as a competitor, this Super Bowl has to be killing him. Either Brady, his chief rival for 21st century football supremacy, will take a 4-1 lead in rings, or Eli will surpass him for family bragging rights with a 2-1 advantage. Oh, and it's all happening in Peyton's town, albeit one which he may soon be forced to leave (if he's even able to bounce back from his neck injury and continue his career), which is yet another reason he's in a bad mood. I'm sure it thrills him to no end that he'll have to clear out of the Colts' training facility next week so that the Patriots can practice there and that New England, as the home team, will use Indy's locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium on game day. So, it's possible Brady will get comfortable in two of Manning's lockers; perhaps he'll leave him notes in both. Two years ago, in the walkup to Indy's Super Bowl XLIV defeat to the Saints, Manning was already being anointed the greatest quarterback of all time by many people in my business. Now, even before Eli takes his shot at winning a second title, we're already hearing garbage from people like Michael Irvin that Peyton's the second-greatest QB in his family. Yeah, next week's going to be an awesome experience for Archie and Olivia's middle child.
1) Rex Ryan: If Super Bowl week will be uncomfortable for Manning, it's a full-fledged fiasco for Sexy Rexy. The Jets' coach must wistfully watch a media circus involving not his favorite public personality (himself) but, instead, the two franchises he has openly targeted and – as of right now – failed to surpass. The Patriots, with whom the Jets have vied for AFC East supremacy (and the team they eliminated from last year's playoffs, which triggered a whole lot of gloating), have reestablished themselves as the Team of the Century. The Giants, the object of Ryan's competitive taunts since he took over as coach before the '09 season, not only humbled him in a late-December victory that essentially killed the Jets' playoff hopes, but they also improved to 5-0 in NFC championship games (Ryan is 0-2) and are the clear-cut Kings of the City. In Ryan's 2011 book, "Play Like You Mean It," he wrote, "I have news for you. We are the better team. We're the big brother. People might say they are the big, bad Giants, but we are not the same old Jets. … To me, it seems clear that right now we are the better team and we are going to remain the better team for the next 10 years. Whether you like it or not, those are the facts, and that's what's going to happen. I know it's going to happen because our style of football is different. We are going to take over the town whether the Giants like it or not, so those fans on the fence that like both teams are going to be Jets fans in the end. The truth is, if I am going to watch one game, I am going to see the Jets, without a doubt. We are better." Uh, what was that you were saying, Little Bro? You'd think Ryan might have backed off after hearing taunts like "it's time to shut up, fat boy" from Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, but the man can't help himself. (To be clear, as a journalist, I am not complaining about this in any way.) Before the AFC championship game, Ryan, a former Baltimore defensive coordinator, went on New York's WFAN and proclaimed, "First off, the Ravens are going to win this game." Alas, they didn't – and now there's no question that Ryan is the Biggest Loser of Super Bowl XLVI, regardless of what happens in the game.
Speaking of questions, here are our final two of what has been a long, intensely inquisitive season, in order of the remaining two title contenders' relative strength as of my latest coin flip.
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