This year's Super Bowl has the potential to be one of, if not the, most entertaining championship games ever played. Besides pitting the top two teams from their respective conference, each participant followed similar paths over the regular season and used like formulas to achieve their success.
Both the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints flirted with perfect records deep into the schedule, only to close out the regular season with mini-losing streaks. Of course, this may well have been impacted by the importance quotient dropping off due to already having clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Interestingly, in somewhat of a contradiction of conventional NFL wisdom, neither team exhibits the balance normally associated with dominant teams. Instead, both teams rely heavily on prolific offenses led by each conference's best quarterback to overcome somewhat mediocre defensive units. The Colts' Peyton Manning was awarded a record fourth MVP trophy for this year's efforts in a surprising landslide over the Saints' Drew Brees.
Manning only enhanced his status as the NFL's media darling with a strong postseason against two of the league's best defenses and a plethora of politically correct sound bites. And, to kick off this year's Super Bowl countdown, rookie Head Coach Jim Caldwell had everyone scurrying for their "Webster's" and added to the Manning legend as he attributed "hypermnesia " as an active ingredient in his quarterback's secret sauce.
It is unclear whether the NFL's equivalent of "Aquaman" possesses this particular super power, clairvoyance, or x-ray vision, but we do know that he has proven to be pretty hard to stop on the football field. In particular, the Saints will have their work cut out for them, considering they were the 25th ranked defense in the regular season and a couple new weapons have emerged for the Colts in the postseason.
Indianapolis already sports two players that hit the century mark in regular season receptions in wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark. With defenses keying on them in the postseason, however, Manning simply adjusted and made stars out of young wideouts Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. The pair has combined for 360 yards and three touchdowns in its two playoff contests.
The Colts possess an anemic run game that finished dead last in the NFL this season, but generally only use the run to keep defenses honest. De facto offensive coordinator Manning will order up the run when the Saints show nickel and dime packages, but will be happy to fill the air with "Wilson Official" game balls. Expect him to repeatedly attack a Saints' vulnerability with a steady stream of passes to Clark.
New Orleans Defensive Coordinator Greg Williams obviously is aware of the many ways that the Colts can beat his team through the air, so he made no secret of his plan to get after Manning. Taking a page out of former Bears and Eagles coach Buddy Ryan's book, Williams wants his defenders to levy "remember-me " hits and limit Manning's time to find open receivers with the same relentless pass rush exhibited against Brett Favre in the NFC title game.
Saying it and doing it, though, are two different things. On a typical day for Manning, rarely does any part of his body other than his feet touch the turf and his "plain Jane" Colts uniform remains tidy white. He was sacked an NFL low 10 times, thanks to an offensive line that specializes in pass protection, a superior ability to read opposing defenses, a quick release and "Michael Jordan-like" treatment from NFL officials.
In all likelihood, Manning will roll up yardage and light up the scoreboard, but the key for the Saints, as it has been all year long, will be to force turnovers. Led by All-Pro safety Darren Sharper, New Orleans accumulated 39 takeaways and eight defensive TD's during the regular season and have continued this trend in the playoffs. A couple key targets might be the inexperienced Collie and Garcon as Saints' defenders try to strip the ball after catches.
For all the fan fare about Manning and the Colts' passing game, Brees and the Saints were at the top of the rankings all season. New Orleans averaged more than 400 yards and almost 32 points per game, approximately 40 yards and six points more than the Colts. The MVP voting outcome notwithstanding, the Saints' signal caller topped Manning in most statistical categories including touchdowns (34 to 33), interceptions (11 to 16), completion percentage (70.6 percent to 68.8 percent) and overall rating (109.6 to 99.9.)
Brees is a master at spreading the ball around with precise accuracy. His favorite target continues to be lanky Marques Colston, who should get plenty of looks throughout the day. He will also stretch the field with Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, and throw plenty of passes underneath to his running backs.
The Colts are particularly adept at shutting down tight ends, so expect a slow day for Jeremy Shockey. This may prove to be a very favorable matchup for the Saints, since it consumes a Colts' strength with a player who will still be somewhat limited by an ankle injury anyway.
An often overlooked aspect of the New Orleans offense is their running game, since they have no one who finished in the top 20 rushers, but their running back by committee approach could have a big day against the Colts' suspect run defense. The Saints are much more physical upfront and should be able to open up some nice running lanes.
Similar to their opponents, this offense will present a huge challenge to a Colts defense that finished 18th in the regular season. Additionally, with All-World defensive end Dwight Freeney limited by a torn ankle ligament, Brees will have more time to survey the field while elusive running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas should be able to take advantage. Expect the former to break off a couple long runs on screen plays.
One more subtle matchup could prove to have a large impact to the outcome of the game. The Colts have struggled with special teams coverage, while New Orleans features one of the most explosive returners in Bush. With both offenses likely scoring freely, a long return might be a turning point in the contest.
Keys to the Game
- No stage fright
- Sustain drives to keep Manning off the field
- Disguise defensive schemes
- Pressure Manning into 1-2 turnovers and to limit time
- Create fumbles by stripping the ball from young receivers
- Bush break a return and a couple screen plays
- Jam Clark to disrupt timing and limit production
- Secure ball
- Put the ball in the end zone
- No cheap points
- Avoid press clippings and do not underestimate Saints
- Continue to play strong run defense in the postseason
- Generate pass rush from other players not named Freeney
- Avoid turnovers
- Contain Saints' return game
- Correct play calls by Manning
- Cover Bush in the flat and limit long gains
- Officiating position towards protecting Manning and his receivers
If the Saints avoid nerves associated with playing on the big stage for the first time, this game will go into the record books as the highest scoring Super Bowl in history. Both quarterbacks will take turns leading their team up and down the field from start to finish. By game's end, the combined passing yardage could approach 800.
Although he is scheduled to play, there is no way that Freeney will be able to be effective with a torn ligament as he will lose speed, drive, and maneuverability. Similar to the Cardinals game, expect Bush to break free for a touchdown on a punt return or screen play, or both.
Manning will counter by dropping some picture perfect tosses into the hands of Wayne, Clark, Garcon, and Collie. Ultimately, this track meet will come down to the wire with this year's top quarterback prevailing over the NFL's next best. Drew Brees and company will finally bring home the coveted Lombardi Trophy for their long suffering fans.
For additional coverage and unique perspectives go to yesterday's post: Super Bowl XLIV: Random Thoughts on Hypermnesia, Kim Kardashian and More .