The sun, the surf, the hazy purple sunsets weren't good enough for the First Family of Football. The Mannings deemed San Diego too dysfunctional a team for their second prodigy...

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The sun, the surf, the hazy purple sunsets weren’t good enough for the First Family of Football. The Mannings deemed San Diego too dysfunctional a team for their second prodigy. He deserved better.

So they got him Broadway.

But before you can nuzzle with supermodels, sip cappuccinos in SoHo and rub elbows with Regis, you have to endure this place. You have to thrive in the nine-story, steel-and-concrete bowl that rises from the Jersey swamps. And on the empty, frozen weekends in December when nothing goes right, Giants Stadium is the closest thing to hell on earth.

Eli Manning needed none of this. He didn’t need the New York Giants. He didn’t need New York and he didn’t need to be starting games so early in his introduction to the NFL. If the Chargers were the worst franchise in football, as many around the league were saying last spring, then what are the Giants with a flimsy offensive line and mediocre receivers?

His family begged to get him here, holding up San Diego until a draft-day trade could be made. And then what did it get him but a pile of headaches and 24-hour derision on two sports radio stations. With nothing around him, the apple of Mississippi’s eye became a piñata in his own home stadium.

The Giants, desperate for anything to sell in an eroding season, put him in the starting lineup a month ago, then expressed shock when the roguish Baltimore Ravens thundered through the line last weekend, chasing him around the field and leaving him with an unprincely 0.0 quarterback rating.

Yesterday was supposed to be his undressing. The Steelers came into Manning’s new house with their own rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, taken 11 picks after the boy who would be king. And even though they are separated by three hours on draft day, never could two players be in more different situations.

While Manning has fled pass rushers and looked desperately for receivers who can’t get open, Roethlisberger has enjoyed a wealth of gifted receivers, burly linemen and two battering running backs who wear down opponents. This, more than any other reason, is why Roethlisberger is undefeated as a quarterback and Manning is still looking for his first victory.

Archie Manning was so busy worrying that his son would find himself in a wasteland like the Saints who tarnished his once-impeccable career, that he sent Eli to about the worst place possible: the Saints of the Northeast.

The Steelers came into yesterday’s game on an 11-game winning streak. Their second-best receiver, Plaxico Burress, didn’t play. Not to worry, Antwaan Randle El took his place and caught five passes for 149 yards. Duce Staley, the second half of the running-back duo, also was out of the lineup. In his place Jerome Bettis ran for 140 yards.

Roethlisberger doesn’t have to win games as much as he simply has to keep from losing them. Manning has to find a way just to keep the Giants close.

Late yesterday, after a surprising 182 yards passing in a 33-30 defeat to the Steelers, Manning said, “It feels different because we hung in the game, we had a chance to win it.”

He looked sheepish as he talked, ducking into the collar of his oxford shirt that was tucked under a blue sweater. The quarterback who would be king still looks like he’s at a party at the Sigma Chi house, his face blanching as the questions come at him like machine-gun fire.

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger ambled through the Steelers’ locker room in an untucked black shirt and black pants. A giant silver cross dangled like a Mercedes medallion around his neck. He looked confident, assured. What a difference 12 wins can make.

“The good thing is I have so many great weapons,” he said knowingly. “Everybody stepped up.”

Someday Manning will be Roethlisberger, too. He’s handled too many difficult things for something not to work. But for now, with half a team around him, he will be eaten alive by his new city.

“Things are magnified here 10 times,” said Jeff Feagles, the former Seahawks punter who now plays for New York. “When he got into training camp it was an indoctrination to the media. Now that he’s playing it’s picked right back up. But he has a great demeanor, and I think coming from the background he’s had has had him prepared.”

New York gave him a break yesterday, in part because his tight end, Jeremy Shockey, dove and caught a pass in the end zone and Amani Toomer found himself open late in the game. The rating this week was a far superior 103.9.

But it’s going to take time. And this is the worst place for that.

Les Carpenter can be reached at 206-464-2280 or