- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Brees (32-of-39, 288 yards, two TDs) outdueled and outperformed Manning to win Super Bowl XLIV 31-17, furthering the Manning riddle in the process. Although Manning might be one of the greatest game managers and quarterbacks of all time, yet another Super Bowl slipped away. Years from now, he may hold every significant passing record, but great quarterbacks are judged -- rightly or wrongly -- by Super Bowl rings.
Manning has one, and now Brees has one at Manning's expense. Though Manning may have revolutionized the game with his no-huddle style of play, he has one Super Bowl ring to Tom Brady's three. Eli Manning has as many rings as his brother.
But the story of Super Bowl XLIV was the coaching of Sean Payton and the great play of Brees. Here are the five things we learned in this game:
1. Gambling man: Payton is a riverboat gambler, and his willingness to gamble paid off. He made three risky decisions in the Saints' Super Bowl victory. In many ways, I think this might be one of the greatest coaching jobs in Super Bowl history. Payton was nearly flawless.
Trailing 10-3 with 1:55 left in the first half, Payton went for it on fourth-and-goal at the Colts' 1-yard line and failed when Pierre Thomas was stopped for no gain on a run to the right. The Saints' defense bailed out Payton by stopping the Colts on three running plays and giving Brees a chance to drive for a field goal before the half.
Payton's biggest gamble of the game was a successful onside kick at the beginning of the second half. It allowed the Saints to get a quick 58-yard touchdown drive.
Another smart move by Payton was his challenge after a pass to Lance Moore was ruled incomplete on a two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter. By watching stadium replays, Payton noticed Moore had extended the ball over the goal line before it was knocked away. Referee Scott Green overruled the on-the-field call. The two-point conversion gave New Orleans a 24-17 lead.
2. Williams, Saints adjust: In the first quarter, Manning moved the ball well against Gregg Williams' defense, which was trying to confuse him with a three-man line. In the end, however, the Saints' defensive coordinator got the best of Manning.
Williams has 27 sub packages, but he didn't use too many. The one that worked the best was a 3-3-5. The Saints opened the game in a 3-4, with Sedrick Ellis as the nose tackle and Marvin Mitchell joining Scott Fujita, Jonathan Vilma and Scott Shanle at linebacker.
On the Colts' second possession, Williams replaced Mitchell with a corner in the 3-3-5. Although the scheme didn't fare well at first (Manning engineered a 96-yard touchdown drive), it featured some confusing packages and blitzes that eventually forced Manning into mistakes.
3. Freeney guts it out: Dwight Freeney is one amazing athlete. Like Curt Schilling in 2004, Freeney performed well on one of the most-publicized ankles in sports history. Playing on a right ankle injury that would sideline many players for as long as six to 10 weeks, Freeney made an impact.
Credit Freeney with being smart and dedicated in his recovery. The smartest thing he did was waiting until game day to test the ankle. Freeney suffered a third-degree ankle sprain in the final minutes of the Colts' AFC Championship Game victory over the Jets. He resisted the urge to test the ankle Friday and Saturday, obviously fearing a reinjury that would set him back. Instead, he didn't put on cleats until Sunday, and relied on a great taping job and enough pain medication to get him through the game.
He started out by bull-rushing left tackle Jermon Bushrod on passing plays and then was able to dust off some spin moves. The fact that Freeney was able to get a sack and draw double-team blocking helped the Colts' defense.
Freeney struggled in the second half, which was expected because of the 25-minute halftime. Hines Ward of the Steelers learned that a year ago coming off a knee injury. He did some good things in the first half of the Steelers' Super Bowl victory over Arizona, but the long halftime slowed the adrenaline. Ward tired out. So did Freeney, who had to constantly adjust his tape to get some burst off the line of scrimmage. Freeney wasn't a factor in the second half, and Brees had time to work the offense.
4. Powers' absence felt: The more significant injury for the Colts turned out to be the foot of cornerback Jerraud Powers, who had missed Indianapolis' two previous playoff games and required surgery to repair a fracture. Powers didn't practice most of the past two weeks and was used only for a few plays in the nickel.
Powers was one of the best rookie cornerbacks in the league this year, but his injury forced the Colts to use Tim Jennings for the entire game. Brees followed the trend of most Colts opponents; he kept throwing at Jennings. During the season, Jennings gave up five touchdown passes and had about two of every three passes completed against him. Kelvin Hayden played well. Jacob Lacey did a decent job, but the weak link was Jennings.
It was quite apparent that Brees had supreme confidence in what he could do against the Colts' secondary. He knew he could complete just about every pass he wanted to against Jennings. Brees was able to work a lot of completions into the middle of the field. With Freeney wearing down and the Colts unable to get a pass rush in the last three quarters, the Colts' secondary was totally exposed by Brees, who earned Super Bowl MVP honors.
5. Thomas' impact: Thomas doesn't get enough credit for what he adds to the Saints' offense. Reggie Bush may be the headliner, but Thomas is the dependable back who makes the plays when the Saints need them.
Thomas' ability to break tackles in critical situations helped the Saints win their first Super Bowl title. He was particularly effective on a 16-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter that gave the Saints their first lead. Thomas is a fearless runner, and he does have some elusive moves. He's a no-nonsense back who gets yards quickly without much flash. Not only does Thomas get the tough yards, he also has good hands; he caught six passes for 55 yards Sunday.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
8hEric D. Williams