FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – By now, you've become acquainted with the key variables (Dwight Freeney's ankle), the ancillary issues (Kim Kardashian and her sidekick, Reggie Bush) and the thematic embellishments of purportedly geopolitical significance (Haiti, Katrina).
But now comes the main event, the central spectacle in American sports.
And the truth is, it comes down one guy, one central protagonist.
No real mystery here. Never has been. It's been his team. It's been his season. There's no good reason Super Bowl XLIV won't be remembered as his game, to win or lose. Of course, I'm not exactly going out on a limb in predicting a victory for Peyton Manning and his Indianapolis Colts.
The Saints' virtues are many, beginning with their status as sentimental favorites. Drew Brees is a humanitarian and the second-best quarterback in football. Coach Sean Payton has designed an offense that takes full advantage of his startling, if unappreciated athleticism. Brees completed more than 70 percent of his passes in the regular season, and through two playoff games has thrown six touchdowns without an interception. New Orleans has excellent receivers in Marques Colston and Devery Henderson, a deep threat, also a very effective ensemble backfield featuring the unheralded likes of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and a scheme that seeks to put Mr. Kardashian in what coaches like to call "space."
On defense, the Saints have been energized by an aggressive and opportunistic coordinator in Gregg Williams. At the core of his scheme is a series of blitzes to inflict punishment on the quarterback. He wants "remember me" hits, but in fact, the real goal is for the quarterback to remember nothing at all.
Perhaps more significant, though, are the takeaway numbers: 39 total for the regular season (second in the league), 26 interceptions (third). They scored 141 points off turnovers (tied for first) and eight defensive touchdowns (first). "We've turned a defensive mindset into an offensive mindset," he said the other day. "I don't ever want our guys to be afraid of taking risks."
But therein lies a risk for the Saints. Manning adapts better than any other quarterback in football. Any gameplan is subject to modification, if not outright change, at the line of scrimmage. He sees blitzes and fearsome defenses as targets of opportunity. Ask the Jets, who entered their playoff contest against the Colts with the best defense in the league. Manning beat them for 377 yards and three touchdowns.
The Jets, like the Saints, employed a "kill the quarterback" scheme, too. And how'd that work out? How exactly is New Orleans to succeed where everyone else has failed, not just this year, but also going back a long, long while. In Manning's recollection, the last time he was knocked out of a game was once upon a time against the Dolphins, who broke his jaw.
"Dude," Adam Meadows, his right tackle, said as he came to his feet. "You just don't look right. Your mouth doesn't look right."
"What do you mean?" Manning asked.
"You better come out."
In retrospect, Manning said the other day, "I'm kind of mad that I even listened to him. But I went out of the game for one play and the backup quarterback came in and we bumbled the handoff and the Dolphins got it and we went on to lose the game. So I have kind of held it against myself since then for coming out for that one play."
That was 2001. In the years since, Manning has gone on to produce an unparalleled body of work. In 12 seasons, he has thrown for just 1,300 fewer yards than John Elway had in 16. Already, he has 93 more touchdown passes than Joe Montana, who played 15 years. As for active quarterbacks, consider that Manning, just a year older than Tom Brady, has thrown for almost 20,000 more yards.
Yes, Brady has three Super Bowl rings. But the argument here is that a second for Manning makes him a clear front-runner for the best ever to play the position.
In years past, the Colts' identity was equal parts Manning and their famously even-tempered coach, Tony Dungy. But in the wake of Dungy's departure, they are more than Peyton's team. I'm hard-pressed to think of another current team in any sport -- excepting, perhaps, the Cleveland Cavaliers -- that depends on one guy the way the Colts depend on Manning.
He's the offense, the player-coach, the ever-changing gameplan. This season, he managed to integrate a rookie head coach and a couple of receivers who were, basically, rookies (Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon, who arrived at training camp with all of four catches). The result was his fourth MVP award and, with the possible exception of 2004, his best year ever. There were seven wins in which Indianapolis came from behind in the fourth quarter. The Colts are undefeated when Peyton Manning is allowed to compete at full tilt. No reason that should stop now.