In any NFL game, a number of key plays can be looked at as turning points. In a game of great magnitude like the Super Bowl, even small plays can loom large in the ultimate outcome of the game.
In Super Bowl XLIV, the real turning point for the Colts was neither the Tracy Porter interception returned for a touchdown nor the onside kick recovery by New Orleans; it was a poor audible by Peyton Manning in the second quarter.
At the time, the Colts were leading 10-3 with 9:04 left in the second quarter. Joesph Addai had just gained nine and a half yards on the first play of the drive to the Colt 31-yard line. On 2nd-and-1, Manning came to the line and saw the defense was playing soft. He called an audible, changing the play from a pass to a run.
The Saints linebacking unit led by Jonathan Vilma (who deserves a load of credit for his awareness) abruptly changed their defensive setup and moved toward the line of scrimmage, angling toward the offensive right side.
Manning could have recognized this change, checked off the audible, and gone back to the original pass, but he did not. Instead, Addai ran wide right, meeeting the teeth of the incoming Saints' linebackers who had read the audible.
The result was a loss of three yards, and it was 3rd-and-4.
There were a few problems with this play, both generally and specifically.
First of all, 2nd-and-1 with a 10-3 lead in the second quarter is an optimal moment to call for a deep bomb to Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Austin Collie, or Pierre Garcon. If the pass falls incomplete, it's 3rd-and-1.
The play may not have worked, but it will also keep the defense more honest later in the game rather than squeeze up to the line on short pass plays.
Secondly, if the Colts are going to call a run on that play, it should be a trap or a draw up the middle. Even if it's stuffed, it would not lose three yards. Running wide to the right gave the Saints an opportunity to stop Addai for a big loss.
The biggest problem with the play though was that Manning audibled it. Something else had been called and he changed the play to something worse.
Through the years, Manning has rightly been lauded for his keen intelligence on the field, for his masterful ability to read defenses, and for his ability to change plays at the line of scrimmage that often result in the margin of victory.
However, it has to be said, and hasn't been said often, that there are times when Manning has made very poor decisions at the line of scrimmage, times when he has changed the play call to a run and the run gets swallowed whole.
In the competitive environment of the NFL, it is inevitable.
Manning is not the perfect play-caller and more often than not his audibles are beneficial to the Colts.
Still, it must be noted that during the past season Manning audibled a fairly large number of runs that were crushed for losses. He and the Colts did not seem to learn from this repeated mistake.
In the Super Bowl, Manning should have known better, and if a pass play was changed to a run it should not have been wide right, it should have been up the middle.
Nevertheless, given all of the above,Manning did call some run audibles at the line in the first quarter that were very successful. For example, at the 4:29 mark of the first quarter on 2nd-and-10 of what would be a 96-yard TD-drive, Manning, seeing the Saints ready to blitz, audibled to a draw up the middle to Addai that netted 15 yards.
Later on the same drive, again on 2nd-and-10, he audibled another draw that brought a first down.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
This particular 2nd-and-1 was such a key turning point in the game though because this was their only real possession of the second quarter, making it all the more precious.
On the ensuing 3rd-and-4, Pierre Garcon dropped a beautiful pass right in his bread basket. If he had made the catch, he had wide open space for 30 yards or more.
The Colts punted and never saw the ball again until under two minutes were left in the quarter and they were at the their own one-yard line. They meekly surrendered that possession after an inspired defensive stand by the Saints.
The 2nd-and-1 play was key to maintaining the Colts only drive of the second quarter, gaining a first down there could have been the first step to increasing their lead. The Saints had yet to find their true rhythm on offense and grabbing another touchdown to make it 17-3 or a FG to make it 13-3 would have put the Colts further in the driver's seat.
As it turned out, the Colts could have used that lead when the Saints exploded later in the quarter against the soft coverage of the Colts.
NFL games often come down to the smallest details, and in this game it was the Saints who got those details right. The Tracy Porter interception could also be pointed to as the key moment in the game, but this small seemingly insubstantial 2nd-and-1 audible put the Colts on their back feet, where they remained until midway through the third quarter.