Colts-Saints means offense vs. offense
Super Bowl XLIV viewers will be treated to star quarterbacks, nonstop action
For the first time since 1993, when the Dallas Cowboys faced the Buffalo Bills, the No. 1 seeds in each conference will meet in the Super Bowl. For whatever crazy reason, it has been hard for No. 1 seeds to not only make the Super Bowl, but win it. The last top seed to win a Super Bowl was after the 2003 season, when the New England Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers.
Super Bowl XLIV features the best of the best.
It's Peyton Manning going against a Saints team he grew up following; Manning's father, Archie, was one of the Saints' greatest quarterbacks.
It's Drew Brees and the league's No. 1 offense going against Manning and one of the league's most dangerous possession offenses.
It's New Orleans in its first Super Bowl, ending its 43-year-old drought by beating Minnesota 31-28 in overtime. The city bounced back from Hurricane Katrina. Now, its residents get to watch their team as a Super Bowl participant in Miami.
It's offense going against offense.
Here is the first round of questions heading into two weeks of Super Bowl hype.
1. Is there a significance of having the Saints and Colts in the Super Bowl?
Absolutely. The presence of both teams shows how the league has changed from one geared toward defense and running to an emphasis on passing. Blame the Colts for changing the trend. When they won the Super Bowl after the 2006 season, the Colts were the first team to rank outside the top 10 in scoring defense to win the title since 1983. The Saints ranked 25th in yards allowed per game, and they gave up 21.3 points a game. The Colts ranked 18th in yards allowed and yielded 19.2 points a game.
Both teams win with their offense, and they survive on defense. The NFL has become an offensive league. The Minnesota Vikings are loaded with stars on defense -- Pat Williams, Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield, to name a few -- but the Saints were able to score 31 points on them. The Colts' defense was on the field six plays a game more than their offense in the regular season, but that didn't stop the team from winning 14 games.
2. What's the biggest strategic decision the Saints have to make?
How to handle the Colts' three-receiver formation. Manning was a little surprised by how the New York Jets defensed Indy's three-receiver set. The Colts opened Sunday's 30-17 victory over the Jets in a two-tight-end alignment, but Manning admitted nothing positive happened in that formation. The Colts had a four-play drive that amounted to nothing and had a three-and-out in the two-tight-end set. So Manning switched to a three-receiver set that basically won the game.
To Manning's surprise, the Jets got out of their 3-4 scheme against the three-receiver set and the Colts took advantage of the matchup. The Jets took nickel linebacker Bart Scott off the field, leaving them in a four-man line with one linebacker, David Harris, and six defensive backs. Manning couldn't believe slot receiver Austin Collie drew man coverage against Drew Coleman, who is more a safety than a corner.
Jets coach Rex Ryan knew cornerback Lito Sheppard struggled in the Dec. 27 game against the Colts, so he had Dwight Lowery start at corner going against Pierre Garcon. Lowery didn't fare any better, as Garcon had 11 catches for 151 yards.
3. What's the history between these two teams?
On the field, there isn't much history. They have met only 10 times since 1967 and the series is tied 5-5. The Colts have won the past two meetings, beating the Saints 55-21 in 2003 and 41-10 in 2007. Those two wins ended five-game Saints winning streaks. Manning is 2-2 against the Saints, but that includes a 19-13 overtime loss during Manning's rookie season. Brees has faced the Colts only one time as a Saint: the 41-10 loss.
4. Will running be a big part of this Super Bowl?
Doubtful. This is a passing league and both teams love to pass. There isn't a 1,000-yard runner in this game, and both teams use the pass to set up the run. The Colts enter most games knowing they are at a disadvantage running the ball because of their offensive line. The Colts have a former Arena League II player at right guard, a short 6-foot-3 left tackle playing on a sore foot, a former undrafted left guard and a banged-up right tackle. Joseph Addai had a respectable 80-yard, 15-carry game in the AFC championship, but that success was more a byproduct of Manning's passing.
Offensive coordinator Tom Moore tried to call more running plays, but Manning audibled to the pass because he liked what he saw at the line of scrimmage. Addai and first-round rookie Donald Brown aren't frustrated, even though both average less than 4 yards a carry, because they know this offense revolves around Manning. Pierre Thomas of the Saints might be the most effective runner in the Super Bowl. He had a 5.4-yard average in the regular season, but only 793 yards total.
5. Which quarterback has an edge?
You'd have to figure it's Manning. More and more, Manning continues to grow as one of the greatest quarterbacks in history. Manning is now 9-8 in the playoffs and is headed to his second Super Bowl. Brees is going to his first Super Bowl, but has won only three playoff games (in five attempts).
There is a learning curve for quarterbacks who advance to a Super Bowl, and Brees hasn't encountered the final step yet. First of all, the football itself is different in the Super Bowl than it is during the regular season and playoffs. The ball has more paint on it, which makes it harder to handle. Manning has been through a Super Bowl and has won one. He understands. Brees won't know what to expect until the game starts, and if it's humid, grasping the football might be even harder. Brees doesn't have hands as big as Manning's and might have some difficulty. Even in the NFC Championship Game, Brees wasn't his usual self throwing the football. Some of his passes were wobbly, and hard for receivers to catch. The edge might be slight, but it would favor Manning and the Colts.
6. What is the injury status of each team?
The Colts are in good shape. Kicker Adam Vinatieri is the only player not expected to be active for the game. Though he has recovered physically from knee problems, the organization feels more confident using Matt Stover. Cornerback Jerraud Powers missed the AFC Championship Game because of a foot injury, but the two-week break should allow him to heal up and play. Addai banged up an already-sore shoulder in the first quarter of Sunday's game, but he was able to return. Safety Melvin Bullitt was shaken up after a hard impact with Jets halfback Shonn Greene, but he came back after a brief rest and finished the game.
The Saints are a little more banged up. Tight end Jeremy Shockey played on Sunday despite a knee injury that clearly hindered his ability on routes. Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins has a hamstring injury and was inactive. Wide receiver Robert Meachem had an ankle injury, but it wasn't serious.
7. What team will benefit more from the extra week of preparation between the championship games and the Super Bowl?
The Colts should have a slight edge because of Manning. After Sunday's win, Manning told the story of how he prepared for the Jets. He had enough time to go back and study the Colts' games against the Baltimore Ravens in 2005, when Ryan was Baltimore's defensive coordinator. Manning actually found a few blitzes and coverages Ryan didn't use during the regular season.
"I'm glad we have two weeks,'' Manning said. "I'm mentally tired.''
The extra time will give him a chance to study old film of Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who loves to blitz and who could make radical changes to his defensive schemes. He could switch to a 3-4 approach on some passing downs, or he could go with a 4-3. Williams' pressure packages pounded Vikings quarterback Brett Favre for more than 15 hits during Sunday's victory.
Saints coach Sean Payton took about $250,000 out of his salary to add Williams to his staff. The Saints pretty much know what to expect. The Colts play a lot of Cover 2, and they aren't much of a blitzing team.
8. Are there themes that might emerge during the hype of Super Bowl week?
Colts receiver Reggie Wayne will wear a hard hat whenever he gets a chance that says, "Wayne's Construction: Super Bowl Under Construction.'' This hard hat goes back to training camp. Wayne rented a dump truck and drove it to training camp in Terre Haute, Ind., to make a point to teammates about the hard work that was going to be involved in trying to get to the Super Bowl. The Colts were entering camp with a new coach, Jim Caldwell, and were trying to replace longtime Colts great Marvin Harrison at wide receiver. There were plenty of issues along the offensive line, and the defense was working under a new coordinator, Larry Coyer.
Even though the Colts have one of the flashiest quarterbacks in the history of the sport in Manning, they really are a lunch-pail, no-nonsense type of team. During preparation for the Jets, Manning kept mentioning how the game had to be a "60-minute grind'' if the team wanted to advance to the Super Bowl. The Colts won their first 14 games and might have gone 16-0, but they weren't blowing out teams like the undefeated 2007 New England Patriots. Seven of those wins were the result of fourth-quarter, game-winning drives by Manning. Everyone gets the point. The Colts are grinders. The Saints are survivors. Payton stressed how, after Hurricane Katrina, the Superdome had holes in the roof and the city had plenty of businesses to rebuild.
9. Aside from the end, which point of the game should viewers watch closely?
Don't think about leaving in the final two minutes of the first half. Manning is the master of turning games around with scoring drives heading into intermission. During the regular season, he scored 58 points with two-minute drives in the second quarter. He had touchdown drives in the final two minutes of the half in each of the Colts' two playoff games.
"We are an up-tempo team and the two-minute offense makes you go faster,'' Manning said.
He wasn't sure if his 80-yard, four-play drive before the half against the Jets won the game, but it may have. The Colts trailed 17-6, and Manning was having trouble against the Jets' blitz. Manning got three consecutive completions to Collie, who had catches of 18, 46 and 16 yards for the touchdown. As good as the Colts are in the final two minutes, the Saints are statistically better. They led the NFL during the regular season with 72 points in the final two minutes before the half.
10. What is each team's biggest weakness on defense?
Both teams aren't great at stopping the run, but they aren't horrible either. The Saints were victimized for 122 rushing yards by Adrian Peterson and gave up 165 rushing yards overall to the Vikings. With Charles Grant on injured reserve and Sedrick Ellis playing with a banged-up knee, the Saints aren't great at stopping the run. They gave up 4.5 yards a carry during the regular season, but don't expect the Colts to do much on the ground. They win through the air.
The Colts are a little better than people think at stopping the run, even though it doesn't show overall in the stats. In Week 2, the Colts gave up 239 yards on the ground to the Miami Dolphins, but Manning came back to win the game in the final few minutes. Colts general manager Bill Polian made sure the Colts have gotten bigger at defensive tackle and linebacker, and they are solid enough at safety to be passable against the run. It doesn't matter -- the quarterbacks will determine who wins this game.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
SUPER BOWL XLIV