Super Bowl outcome in QBs' hands
Brees, Manning -- similar in many ways -- will ultimately determine SB XLIV winner
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Each quarterback is accurate. Each is creative. Each can complete drives in short periods under extreme pressure.
Manning is a master of the two-minute, no-huddle offense. As early as his rookie year in 1998, Manning was groomed to be a Johnny Unitas-type of quarterback. Offensive line coach Howard Mudd immediately went to work during Manning's rookie season, trying to teach him the line adjustments needed for a sophisticated passing game. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore taught him nuances of making play-adjustment calls at the line of scrimmage.
Because of Manning's ability to work as hard in the film room as he does on the field, he continues to evolve and improve as a passer and a playcaller. This season might have been his best, as he registered an NFL-record seven fourth-quarter comebacks and put up an incredible 79 points in the final two minutes of first halves.
Brees may have a slightly different style than Manning, but the results are close to the same. Brees' best qualities are his accuracy and how quickly he gets rid of the football. Like Manning, Brees can move an offense quickly; he tied Manning with 79 points in the final two minutes of first halves.
Ultimately, the quarterback who does the best in this game will end up with the Super Bowl ring and most likely the game's MVP award. Here are the 10 biggest topics heading into Super Sunday:
1. Freeney's health: Dwight Freeney's ankle injury is being described as the most publicized ankle problem since Curt Schilling's during the 2004 baseball playoffs. The only difference might be that Freeney won't be wearing a bloody sock during the game. Freeney has a third-degree right ankle sprain, a ligament tear so bad he has had to wear a bigger-sized shoe.
Basically, he is trying to recover from a six- to 10-week injury in two weeks. Although it's possible he could be on the field for a dozen or so plays, the odds of Freeney being a major pass-rushing factor are slim. The swelling in the ankle is going down each day, and Freeney hopes to test the ankle on Friday and Saturday to see if there is a chance he could suit up.
The Colts can win without him, but it won't be easy. Freeney would go against Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who gave up more than a third of the 20 sacks on Brees this season. If Freeney can play, though, his threat of rushing the passer must be accounted for in the Saints' blocking scheme.
2. Saints' defensive mettle: Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams caused a stir recently by saying he'd like his defense to deliver a few "remember me'' shots to Manning. In some ways, Williams is being misinterpreted. All season, he has tried to turn what had been a soft Saints defense into a fast, nasty bunch of defenders. His "remember me'' thoughts were more to motivate his defense than to get into Manning's head.
The process started in OTAs (organized team activities) and April meetings, when Williams told defenders he wouldn't tolerate a lack of hustle and aggressiveness. Williams' defenses are known for creative blitzes, hits on quarterbacks and forcing turnovers. In his first year as New Orleans' defensive coordinator, Williams is still developing the unit's personality. The Saints pounded Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC title game. Williams knows getting hits on Manning won't be easy.
3. Manning vs. Williams: In case you are wondering, Manning has the edge in his meetings with Williams, who has faced Manning seven times (losing five of those meetings) as a coach for four different teams. Williams was defensive coordinator of the Titans when Tennessee beat Manning and the Colts 19-16 in the 1999 divisional playoffs, Manning's second season.
Two weeks ago, Manning faced a similar challenge going against the New York Jets' aggressive defense. Jets coach Rex Ryan blitzed a lot, but Manning figured out Ryan's tendencies and beat the Jets with matchups out of the three-receiver offense. Expect a chess match between Manning and Williams.
4. Williams' wrinkles: Moore said Wednesday that Manning already went back to game film of the Titans' Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams in 2000 to study Williams' blitzes. The Saints' personnel offers Williams the ability to employ a hybrid defense. Though the Saints primarily use a 4-3, Williams has integrated a lot of 3-4 packages that could confuse Manning.
By going to a 3-4, Williams replaces a slower defensive lineman with a faster linebacker. Williams said he has 27 different sub packages, and he'll test many of them early in the game to see which ones work the best. In Williams' six previous meetings against Manning, he had primarily 4-3 personnel. Manning will be looking through more than a decade of Williams' film to find looks out of the 3-4.
5. Coyer's calculated risks: On the flip side, the Colts aren't as predictable as they were on defense in the Tony Dungy era. New defensive coordinator Larry Coyer was known in Denver for being a smart coach who is willing to gamble with a few blitzes. Under Dungy, the Colts stay mostly in a two-deep zone, trying not to give up the big play and trying use speedy but smaller athletes.
Coyer will try a few blitzes, but he can't get too aggressive. Brees and head coach Sean Payton love to put offensive players in motion to see whether a defense is covering in man or in zone. Mostly, the Colts will be in zone, but Coyer knows if he can mix in some blitzes, he could try to throw Brees off rhythm to a small degree.
6. Colts versus the run: Perhaps the most important challenge for the Colts' defense is to hold up against the run. The Saints have an underrated offensive line that was one of the best in the league this season. Three Saints blockers were Pro Bowlers, and the Saints were able to get a reasonably balanced offensive attack.
The Saints averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 131.6 yards per game on the ground. If the Saints run the ball well, the Colts are in trouble. Successful running will force the Colts into more single-safety sets that will move one safety near the line of scrimmage. That will create play-action passing opportunities for Brees, which could mean big plays for New Orleans.
7. Colts' comfort level: One underestimated advantage for the Colts is their familiarity with the Super Bowl, which allows them to stay in a routine. The Super Bowl was in Miami three years ago, when the Colts beat the Chicago Bears 29-17. The Colts have 25 members from that team in town for this Super Bowl. The Colts feel at home.
The Saints are making their first Super Bowl trip and must adjust to the new surroundings. The Colts are staying in the same Fort Lauderdale beach resort they had three years ago. Several players have the same rooms. First-year head coach Jim Caldwell tried to maintain the same schedule as in the past. Plus, Fort Lauderdale is much quieter than the Saints' hotel headquarters in the heart of downtown Miami.
8. Impact of Clark and Wayne: Expect Colts tight end Dallas Clark and wide receiver Reggie Wayne to be more active than they were during the Colts' first two playoff games. Tight coverage contained Clark and Wayne in victories over the Ravens and Jets. That allowed Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie to be the main targets for Manning.
Because Williams will try a lot of blitzes, Wayne and Clark -- who each caught 100 passes in the regular season -- will get a little more single coverage. Once Manning spots that, he will try to get them more involved earlier in the game. If Clark and Wayne get hot early, the Saints are in trouble.
9. Special teams: The Colts must wary of the Saints' return teams. Reggie Bush and Courtney Roby each could burn the Colts for a long return, which could be a major turning point in the game. Bush is a threat on any play, whether it's as a returner, a runner or a receiver out of the backfield. Roby averaged 27.5 yards during the regular season on kickoff returns. The Colts can't lose the special-teams battle because they can't afford to give Brees good field position.
10. Pressure factor: Most of the pressure falls on Manning. This is a historic game for him. He needs a second Super Bowl ring to substantiate the stats of his great career. Manning still stings from Tom Brady's three Super Bowl rings to his one. Ben Roethlisberger has one more Super Bowl ring than Manning.
Brees is naturally pressured himself, but he's the underdog. He can be loose because he isn't just being judged by his history in the playoffs. He's in the process of establishing himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. To his credit, Manning loves this type of pressure.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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SUPER BOWL XLIV