SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The Giants’ Eli Manning has been forced to escape the shadow of superstar big brother, Peyton. San Francisco’s Alex Smith? He only has a pair of Hall of Famers in Joe Montana and Steve Young hanging over him in 49ers lore.

Two No. 1 pick quarterbacks a draft apart, Manning and Smith meet Sunday in the NFC championship game with a shot at the Super Bowl after each has faced immense scrutiny over the years while playing on opposite coasts.

Manning made his mark by winning the 2008 Super Bowl. Smith took a significant step toward finally silencing the skeptics — for the time being, anyway — by leading last week’s thrilling, last-second 36-32 victory over Drew Brees and the favored Saints in a spectacular playoff debut. Early on, there were the questions about whether Manning would ever become an elite NFL quarterback like the other big-time QBs in the family, including father, Archie.

It calmed down for a time once he won a title. Then, the criticism returned last season, when Manning threw 25 interceptions. That’s when he boldly let it be known he should be in the same conversation as Patriots star Tom Brady and the rest of the NFL’s best lining up under center.

“I consider myself in that class,” Manning said in August.
Smith, drafted No. 1 from Utah in 2005 one year after Manning was the top pick out of Ole Miss, won’t begin to compare his situation out West to what Manning has endured. “His is a little different. To be Peyton’s little brother, No. 1 pick, you go to New York with the Giants, obviously that’s a lot of pressure,” Smith said. “I don’t think anyone has been in the situation he has. Those are pretty unique circumstances. Your older brother is arguably the greatest quarterback ever and a lot of expectations on you and then you go to the big city like New York. I didn’t have to face those things.”

Smith got booed by his home fans at some point in nearly every game at Candlestick Park in recent seasons before leading a remarkable turnaround this year under first-year NFL coach Jim Harbaugh. He’s been benched and belittled by more than one of his coaches along the way.

“I was saying this a few years ago and got laughed at, but Alex was a guy that had about 60 percent of his ability, his potential brought out in him because of all kinds of circumstances,” said Trent Dilfer, ESPN analyst and Smith’s former teammate. “What he was really relying upon to survive in the NFL was his mental and emotional strength, toughness, giftedness, whatever you want to call it. He is so mentally strong, so resilient, refuses to let the demons affect him negatively. … I knew once somebody came here and was able to develop him and train him like he started to get trained with Norv (Turner) in 2006 that you would start to see some of the physical stuff come out. I’m just so happy for him because he found a guy in Jim Harbaugh who coached him the way he needed to be coached.”

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