MIAMI — Want to play four quarters against a Peyton Manning-led team and not end up as unwilling participants in a Disney World commercial? Follow these steps:
Play with abandon. Play keep-away. Pass with precision. Play sound on special teams. And when Manning misfires, make him pay.
All of those steps are easier said than done, but the Saints executed their five-pronged attack to perfection in defeating the Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV, and it was the difference between winning and losing. If New Orleans isn't anything but stellar in any of those areas of Sunday's game, it is still waiting for its first group hug of the Lombardi Trophy.
And if the Saints were scared, they wouldn't have had a chance.
All night, the Saints' took risks, and most of them paid off, most notably when head coach Sean Payton called for an onside kick to start the second half with New Orleans trailing 10-6. Rookie Thomas Morstead, the club's kickoff specialist, struck the ball with the side of his foot and aimed left. It was a looping ball reminiscent of a soccer pass, and if Colts WR Hank Baskett had caught it, Indianapolis would have had great field position. But Baskett mishandled the kick, and the Saints' Chris Reis recovered at the New Orleans 42. Six plays later, Saints RB Pierre Thomas caught a screen pass from Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees — who threw only one incompletion in the second half — and weaved through the Indianapolis defense for a 16-yard touchdown. The very, very vocal contingent of Saints fans at Sun Life Stadium were jubilant.
The Colts? They were stunned, and who could have blamed them? The Saints were taking the fight to them.
That was Payton's plan.
"Well, we were going to be aggressive," Payton said, explaining why he called on Morstead, who said he only seriously started practicing onside kicks "about a week and a half ago," to attempt the pivotal bouncing kick to start the second half.
Added Payton, "When you do something like that, you just put it on the players, and they were able to execute."
And when you empower your players, as we saw in Super Bowl XLIV, good things can happen. Look no further than when Saints CB Tracy Porter, with the Colts driving trailing 24-17 with 3:24 left and facing a 3rd-and-5 from the New Orleans 31, made the pivotal play of the game. Colts WR Reggie Wayne ran a slant, but Porter saw it coming, and he stepped in front of Manning's pass. Seventy-four yards later, Porter was in the endzone, and the Saints had control of the game.
"When I saw (Colts WR) Austin Collie go in motion," Porter explained, "I said, 'Oh, that's the route they've been running all year,' and I had it in my mind I was going to jump the route."
If he didn't, he might have had to answer to his defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, who doesn't want players to be afraid to play fast and take calculated risks on the field. In the biggest game of his life, Porter trusted his instincts and went for broke.
Sometimes, such gambles fail, like when the Saints were stonewalled on 4th-and-1 from the Indianapolis 1-yard line late in the second quarter. But even then, the Saints were able to gather themselves and regain the momentum, forcing a Colts punt and driving into position for a Garrett Hartley 44-yard field goal as the first half ended.
By then, it was clear the Colts, who dominated matters in the first quarter, were in for a fight. The Saints held the ball for all but 2:34 of the second quarter and limited Indianapolis to just six plays. Brees, who would outplay Manning, was hitting his stride.
Then, New Orleans began the second half by taking back the ball once again and taking the lead. And thereafter, the Colts, even as they strung together drives of 10, 12, seven and nine plays in the final 30 minutes, looked just a little off-kilter at some key points.
"We probably never got into a great rhythm," Manning said.
After that wretched first quarter, when Indianapolis seemed poised to sprint to its second Super Bowl win in three seasons, the Saints time and again found ways to impede the Colts' progress.
The Saints' special teams will forever be a part of Super Bowl lore for Morstead's onside kick, but they were stellar in other areas, too. Hartley made all three of his field-goal tries, and none were gimmes. One other special-teams play stands out: late in the third quarter, Morstead crushed a kickoff four yards deep into the Colts' endzone, and the Saints limited KR Chad Simpson to just 15 yards on the return. That may sound insignificant, but that Indianapolis drive ended with PK Matt Stover missing a 51-yard field goal with 10:44 left in the game.
Stover's miss followed one of four third-down stops by the Saints' defense in the second half. While the Saints surrendered 432 yards, they got just enough pressure on Manning and played just well enough in the secondary to keep their team in the game.
Everywhere the Colts turned, in all facets, there were the Saints, standing in the way. Sometimes the Colts could brush them aside, but never did the Saints retreat. That resistence, coupled with Brees' accurate throws to open receiver upon open receiver, took its toll on Indianapolis. By game's end, the Saints held the Colts at arm's length.
And in the end, the Saints' bold moves were the difference, for the meek are hopeless against Peyton Manning.