Updated Feb. 7, 2010 @ 4:10 a.m. ET
QB — MVP Manning gets nod. Brees' throws vs. Vikes lacked zip. Edge: Colts
RB — Deep Saints backfield has edge on Indy's 32nd-ranked attack. Edge: Saints
REC — Emergence of Garcon, Collie gives Colts a bit more firepower. Edge: Colts
OL — Tough call, but Saints' line coming off great effort vs. Vikes. Edge: Saints
DL — Indy Pro Bowlers Freeney, Mathis excel on edges. Edge: Colts
LB — Underrated Brackett, Session keep making key plays for Colts. Edge: Colts
DB — Saints FS Sharper a stud all year. Indy secondary is banged up. Edge: Saints
ST — New Orleans' return game a lot more explosive. Edge: Saints
Coach — Payton deserves major props, but so does rookie coach Caldwell. Edge: Even
GAME AT A GLANCE
Date and site: Sunday, Feb. 7 at 6:25 p.m. EST, Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.
Type of Turf: Natural.
Season records: Saints 15-3 (8-2 home, 7-1 away, NFC South champion); Colts 16-2 (9-1 home, 7-1 away, AFC South champion).
Season records vs. spread: Saints 9-9-0; Colts 11-6-1.
Last meeting: Sept. 6, 2007, at RCA Dome, Indianapolis (-6½) won 41-10.
All-time series: Tied 5-5-0.
The Saints' miracle season has a final chapter. They will play in their first Super Bowl, facing off against the Colts, who are going for their second title in four years. Peyton Manning and Drew Brees face off in an epic quarterback battle, perhaps the best QB showdown in the big game since John Elway and Brett Favre in Super Bowl XXXII.
That game was a classic, and this one promises to be an offensive thriller as well. Manning took over in the second half of the AFC title game, beating a previously dominant Jets defense, and he has been the league's most consistent quarterback. Brees was not at his best in the overtime victory in the NFC championship game, but he threw three TD passes and led the way for New Orleans' biggest party perhaps in years.
Both teams have faced the pressure of being the front-runner this season. The Colts started with 14 consecutive wins, and the Saints opened 13-0. Although success is relatively new for the Saints as a franchise, many players were with the 2006 club that almost faced the Colts in Super Bowl XLI, also in Miami.
Offense is the best side for both teams, but they each have playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The Colts have a fast-flowing, attacking defense that has as much speed as any unit in the NFL. And the Saints are a turnover-forcing group that can turn a game on a dime with a big play.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Some believe Manning had his finest season as a pro. Although he was rattled early against the Jets, he got into a rhythm at the end of the first half running the two-minute drill, which he is the best in the NFL at orchestrating. The Saints are going to have to do their best to not only limit Manning's possessions but also defend the two-minute offense.
Manning's fine season came despite having to adjust to new playmakers. WR Reggie Wayne and TE Dallas Clark remain, but the development of WRs Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie has been huge. Manning makes them better, of course, but they have played with confidence, body control and maturity.
Although the Saints have had some success beating very good quarterbacks (Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Favre), none of those games was played on the road. They won't have the benefit of the Superdome crowd — which played a role in the Saints' NFC title win — as a 12th defender.
They'll have to try to throw off Manning's timing in other ways, which isn't easy. Expect Gregg Williams to employ a similar game plan to what he rolled out for Favre. The Saints appeared willing to take a few penalties to establish a physical tone, hitting Favre as often as they could. Although Manning is in better physical condition, his rhythm can get thrown off by getting hit often in games, like he was in the first half of the Jets game.
Manning was sacked only 10 times in the regular season, an unreal total for 571 pass attempts, though that number rose to four sacks on 83 pass attempts in the postseason. The Jets hit Manning three times early on, sacking him twice, but they failed to sustain that pressure. It will be difficult for the Saints to keep the same kind of pace defensively for 60 minutes and they will have to mix pressure and coverage, zone and man defense.
Wayne, one of the league's more precise route runners, is the top intermediate and deep threat and has exceptional hands. After tweaking his bothersome right knee in practice Friday, Wayne appears ready to go and likely will draw Saints CB Jabari Greer, who did a nice job when he was matched up with Vikings WR Sidney Rice. Greer is an underrated coverage man, and he can play tough and physical or with finesse. He's especially good in man defense. But covering Collie and Garcon could be tougher than expected. The Vikings had success picking on Saints CBs Randall Gay and Tracy Porter, who both had their ups and downs in the game.
Collie and Garcon combined for 18 receptions for 274 yards and two TDs against the Jets and had several big catches with Wayne stifled. Garcon has become the team's home-run hitter. The Jets chose to pressure, and the young receivers burned them in single coverage. It's something the Saints must note.
Clark also poses problems of his own. Ask a linebacker to cover him, and he can stretch the seam. Put a corner on him, and the physical edge goes to Clark. Look for Saints SS Roman Harper, who often covers good receiving tight ends, to see a lot of Clark.
The running game often is an afterthought for the Colts, but it can be effective. Manning goes to the line with two pass plays and one run and isn't afraid to check to a running play if the defense clearly is playing coverage and he likes what he sees. Williams used a number of disguised coverages against Favre, checking out of what they showed, so there should be a nice cat-and-mouse game there.
If the Colts have success running the ball with Joseph Addai and Donald Brown, it could spell trouble for the Saints. They had difficulty tackling Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, who bounced off contact, though neither Addai nor Brown shares Peterson's strength or physicality. They mainly have success with the inside and outside zone series and also with their well-run stretch play.
The Colts' offensive line is a no-name group but an effective one. They tandem-block well and are smart and efficient. The Saints' front four on defense is quick off the ball and can disrupt blocking schemes. DE Will Smith can bend the edge or set it against the run. DT Sedrick Ellis can collapse the pocket, DT Remi Ayodele is a high-motor plugger, and Anthony Hargrove sees a lot of time as the third tackle on passing downs.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
The Colts' bend-but-don't-break cover-2 zone, which is designed to limit big plays, will force the Saints to be patient if it's well executed. New Orleans' offense was the league's most potent in '09, and the balance between the passing and running games has made it difficult to defend. Few defenses have been able to stop New Orleans' offense for a full game.
The Saints line the field with playmakers on every down, and head coach Sean Payton, who makes the play calls, utilizes his weapons as well as any offensive guru. Brees is an efficient, smart leader, much like Manning, and he generally avoids mistakes. The Colts gave up some big plays through the air in the first half vs. the Jets, and there's no doubt CBs Kelvin Hayden and Jerraud Powers (left foot; questionable after limited participation in practice Friday) will be targeted by Payton. Brees will make them pay if they don't get those problems corrected. In the red zone, Indy has to be aware of WR Marques Colston, who uses his good size to make plays on jump balls in the corner of the endzone. If Powers is unable to play, rookie Jacob Lacey would be a capable replacement, as he proved during the regular season.
Indianapolis can play nickel and dime in an effort to stop Brees, but that will open it up for RBs Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell to find holes and keep the chains moving, and it also may give Brees an opportunity to hit some of his talented receivers underneath. Bush is particularly adept at creating in space and turning what looks to be a short gain into a much longer one. In order to disrupt the Saints' timing, the Colts are going to need to get pressure on Brees.
The Colts' defensive front seven is made up of mostly smaller, swift players. Indianapolis doesn't blitz much, and it will rely on its front four to get a push. If Brees is getting hit often and doesn't have time to throw downfield, the Saints' offense could sputter, as it did in the second half against the Vikings.
A key matchup, then, will be OLT Jermon Bushrod against DRE Dwight Freeney. Bushrod, a first-year starter, has struggled at times, although he was successful in stopping Jared Allen from sacking Brees in the NFC championship game. Payton will have to help Bushrod with a tight end or a chipping back against Freeney — who may have more moves in his repertoire than any other pass rusher in the league. However, an ankle injury suffered in the AFC title game kept Freeney from practicing all week and threatens to limit his effectiveness, or possibly even prevent him from playing altogether. If the latter should happen, Raheem Brock would likely replace Freeney, providing a stout run stopper but a less effective pass rusher than Freeney. DLE Robert Mathis also will challenge ORT Jon Stinchcomb, so it's likely that the Saints at times will sacrifice using TEs Jeremy Shockey and David Thomas as receivers in order to protect Brees.
In order to wear down the Colts' D-line, the Saints could focus on running between the tackles. The Saints' O-line, which features three Pro Bowlers, will exploit their size advantage, and New Orleans could have success pushing back the pile on the right side, where ORG Jahri Evans and Stinchcomb form an imposing tandem. Brees and the passing game have often opened things up for the rushing attack, but the Saints may take an opposite approach to loosen up the Colts' zone and set up play-action.
The Colts' linebackers are fast, smart and make plays. MLB Gary Brackett, the team's defensive leader, is playing at a Pro Bowl level, and WLB Clint Session is very active.
The Colts are far more experienced at placekicker than the Saints, although New Orleans' Garrett Hartley didn't allow inexperience to stop him from coming through vs. the Vikings. Hartley, who has made 24 of his 26 career field-goal attempts, including the playoffs, doesn't have great range, but he shook off doubts about his ability to deliver in the clutch by making the game-winning 40-yard kick in overtime in the NFC title game. Colts PK Matt Stover is in his 20th season. He doesn't have great leg strength, but he has shored up the position since taking over for the injured Adam Vinatieri.
A pair of rookies — the Saints' Thomas Morstead and the Colts' Pat McAfee — punt and handle kickoffs for their teams. Morstead doesn't have a booming leg, and Manning could have some short fields if the Saints have to punt from deep in their own territory. McAfee has been excellent for the most part.
When it comes to the return game, the Saints have a clear edge. Bush has the potential to break a big punt return with every opportunity, but he made a huge mistake against the Vikings by muffing a punt inside the Saints' 10-yard line late in the first half. KR Courtney Roby, while not as dynamic as Bush, also has big-play ability, as he showed against Minnesota with a 61-yard return. Indianapolis' return units are average at best. KR Chad Simpson and PR T.J. Rushing are not nearly as menacing.
FIVE KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Stopping Manning on third downs
The Saints struggled against the Vikings, allowing them to convert 7-of-12 third-down attempts in the NFC title game. For the season, they ranked 14th on third downs, and the Colts converted more than 49 percent of their attempts. Peyton Manning is an expert at putting his team in a good position on first and second downs, giving himself good options on third downs and putting the "D" in a tough spot. Gregg Williams has to decide at what distance to go and time of the game he'd like to pressure and when he'd like to play coverage.
2. Brees vs. Colts' secondary
Drew Brees hasn't been intercepted in 63 postseason passes, and he threw only 11 in 514 regular-season attempts. He's a 70 percent passer who has had some success against cover-2 and Tampa-2 systems this season. But the Vikings did a really good job containing Brees, despite his three TD passes, so you can expect the Colts to take a page from Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's script in the Super Bowl. The Colts gave up some deep plays with coverage breakdowns against the Jets but have been a solid group this season despite their youth.
3. Controlling the ball
Neither offense is considered a ball-control unit, though the Saints ranked 11th in time of possession. The team that has the ball the most likely will have a major edge. Give Peyton Manning 12 possessions, and he usually wins. The Saints are the better running team of the two, able to pound it with Pierre Thomas, slice it with Reggie Bush and run it in short-yardage situations with either Lynell Hamilton (ankle; questionable) or Mike Bell. The team that has some success with the running and short passing game has a chance to play defense by keeping the opposing offense off the field.
4. Greer vs. Wayne
Reggie Wayne was held down by Jets CB Darrelle Revis somewhat in the AFC title game, but he will be featured more in this one, assuming his bothersome right knee doesn't act up. Jabari Greer, who helped hold Sidney Rice to four catches in the NFC title game, has some of Revis' physical nature and can run, too. He's a man-cover corner who has come up big for the team, but Wayne might be his toughest assignment in terms of being precise and assignment-sound. There might not be a more polished wideout in the game, and you know Peyton Manning would like to feed his go-to guy, who scored a TD in SB XLI.
5. Shock factor
Saints TE Jeremy Shockey was limited to one catch for nine yards vs. the Vikings, hampered by a knee injury that left his availability limited for the game. By the end, it was David Thomas out there more than Shockey. But with two weeks' rest, Shockey's knee should be healthy. You know how much this game means to him, given that he missed the Giants' Super Bowl title two years ago with an injury. He is, in some ways, the X-factor of the Saints' offense, and good receiving tight ends can be a thorn in the side of cover-2 defenses such as the Colts' system.
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