Alex Smith, Eli Manning have had much to live up to

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — 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.

49ers QB Alex Smith had to follow two Hall of Famers; Giants counterpart Eli Manning (left) had just his big brother - and that's plenty. (Associated Press)

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49ers QB Alex Smith had to follow two Hall of Famers; Giants ... more >

“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 was 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.”

Sunday’s game will mark the second time two former No. 1 pick QBs will square off in the conference championship. Vinny Testaverde and John Elway met in the 1998 AFC championship game.

Manning and Smith have their teams on a roll. Each led five fourth-quarter comebacks during the season, then Smith had another in last Saturday’s thriller in which he hit Vernon Davis from 14 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 9 seconds left.

There was the near miss for Manning at Candlestick back on Nov. 13, a 27-20 loss to the 49ers when he had a chance to win it in the closing minute but had a fourth-down pass batted by defensive tackle Justin Smith.

That gives Manning some added incentive as he arrives again in the Bay Area.

“This is where you want to be. We always talk about finishing and playing your best football at the end of the season. That’s what we’re doing now,” Manning said. “We’re playing great football on both sides of the ball. We have to continue to do that. We’re playing smart. We can’t turn the ball over.”

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