SUPER BOWL XLIV: New Orleans vs. Indianapolis, 6:25 ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: These were the two best throwing teams in the NFL this season, and this championship game has the makings of a high-scoring affair, especially if the Colts can't generate any pass rush and if the Saints are unable to create their typical turnovers.
OK, defensive end Dwight Freeney will attempt to play on that right ankle with ligament tears. Only Freeney knows how long he will last or if he will be effective with his patented spin move. Of course, Raheem Brock and Robert Mathis are capable of generating pressure, something Saints QB Drew Brees ducked against the Vikings in the NFC title game by quickly dumping off the football. Brees is smart enough to avoid the turnover, and if the Saints can run Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush effectively, the Saints will have a chance to control the clock and keep the ball away from Peyton Manning.
The Colts averaged a league-worst 81 yards on the ground this season, and the Saints are expecting Manning to come out throwing while hoping he doesn't get into a quick rhythm.
When Manning won his only Super Bowl here in Miami, it rained from start to finish. The skies are expected to be clear and in the mid-60s at kickoff, or ideal for throwing and throwing often.
New Orleans figures to play a two-deep safety look with man coverage at the line of scrimmage. The Saints need to be physical with the Colts receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Now, Manning does excel against man coverage, but the key will be whether Saints safety Darren Sharper can properly disguise his intentions, especially when he lines up in the box and attempts to run back to the deep middle.
The Saints are here because they forced five turnovers against the Vikings, and they are capable of doing that again because they all attack the football, trying to strip the ball first rather than going for the tackle.
Should the Saints open with a nickel defense, don't forget key nickel CB Randall Gay missed practice the past two days because of a stomach illness. Otherwise, the Saints secondary is finally healthy and CBs Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer are capable of sticking with Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon, but it's unlikely any New Orleans linebacker can stick with TE Dallas Clark.
Manning did throw 16 interceptions, five more than Brees did during the regular season, but it would be surprising if he forced the ball in this game. By spreading the Saints on defense, the Colts would have the option of running the ball, but they would probably only do that when trying to ice a 10-point lead.
On the flip side, the Colts are very quick on defense, and the chance of rookie CB Jerraud Powers being able to play will only help against the varied cast of receivers employed by the Saints. The Saints have two excellent deep threats in Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem, but also quality slant receivers like physical Marques Colston and healthy Lance Moore. In the red zone, Brees can also find TE Jeremy Shockey, who looked great in practice all week, and Bush, who is very good on quick, underneath routes and quick swing passes.
The Colts have plenty of speed in the secondary with CB Kelvin Hayden, who will match up on Colston, and safeties Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt. Unlike Tony Dungy's teams, these Colts don't play a bland cover two defense. New defensive coordinator Larry Coyer will blitz and alter his looks in order to confuse Brees and bring extra pressure.
The Colts carried 10 defensive backs this season, so there are plenty of guys to rotate into the action if this game does turn into a shootout. Believe me, the key to this game could come down to which quarterback makes the best hot-read completions against the blitz.
CZAR'S SCOOP: One of the best lines of the week came from Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd when asked about Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams talking so much about knocking Peyton Manning around. "Well, as far as I know, he isn't wearing pads and playing in this game," Mudd said. "We're not talking in our meetings about what he's saying. All we're talking about are their defensive players."
Williams has been outspoken in the playoffs about putting some knockout hits on the opposing quarterbacks, and in the NFC playoffs, his unit did exactly that, knocking both Kurt Warner and Brett Favre around.
There have been many mixed signals on what Bush's future with the Saints actually is. Yes, he earns $8 million next season. There have been reports he won't take a pay cut, believing maybe his old college coach, Pete Carroll, would make an offer to bring him to Seattle. But the inside word is Bush will reduce his pay to remain in New Orleans, knowing he's in the best offense right now for him and Brees is his ticket to another Super Bowl.
How meaningful is this game? Well, during one practice lull at the U. of Miami, Saints S Darren Sharper went to one end of the field to work alone on a tackling sled, making sure to wrap up on his tackles. The Colts switched hotels Saturday night while the Saints opted to stay put, believing a one-day move would be more distracting.
One of the most noticeable characters around the Saints is marketing guru Mike Ornstein, who initially handled Bush's affairs but now seems to advise the Saints and Coach Payton. Orny took care of arranging functions for the Saints and also taking care of the many team employees who are enjoying their first ever Super Bowl. Every day, they found goody bags in their hotel rooms, compliments of Orny's many leaguewide connections.
Think about it. Jon Gruden won with Tony Dungy's Tampa Bay team. Can Jim Caldwell accomplish the same thing with Dungy's Colts? Dungy has been outspoken all week about the Colts dominating this game.
It was Saints DT Remi Ayodele who noticed Minnesota had 12 men in the huddle in the championship game, which led to a critical 5-yard penalty, forcing Brett Favre to take a chance on the next play. The word is many of the Vikings blame coach Brad Childress for that penalty and that loss and not Favre for the costly interception that lost the game.
Payton has great confidence in young PK Garrett Hartley, who has been known to shank some kicks, especially hooking them from the left hashmarks.
Several NFL types were surprised by the selection of referee Scott Green for this game, considering some believe he lost control of the Arizona-Green Bay wild-card game.