Super Bowl could turn on Freeney's ankle

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

Faced with the prospect of having to manufacture a conflict of interest for Archie Manning or dredge up the horrors of Katrina yet again, the media were saved by the unthinkable Monday in not-so-sunny Florida.

Actual news.

In addition to becoming the most-discussed Super Bowl-related body part since Janet's nipple, Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney's ankle constitutes that most rare of Super Bowl sightings -- a significant pregame development.

Don't believe me? Look no further than Colts coach Jim Caldwell's news conference for proof. The first five questions Caldwell faced upon his arrival in Fort Lauderdale revolved around his injured defensive star.

And while Caldwell wasn't particularly forthcoming with his answers (he professed not to know the details surrounding his best defensive player's medical treatment), what little he did reveal hammered home the newsworthiness of the situation.

For starters, he confirmed the much-debated diagnosis of a third-degree sprain -- an only nominally less scary way of saying Freeney has torn ligaments in his right ankle, an injury that could require six to eight weeks to completely heal. Then he acknowledged the Colts are going about their business this week as if Freeney weren't going to be available when Super Bowl XLIV kicks off Sunday.

"He hasn't been practicing. If he's not practicing, obviously we're preparing as if he's not going to play," Caldwell said. "If we have an opportunity to get him in there, we'll do so."

Preparing as if he's not going to play.

With those eight words, the conventional wisdom surrounding this game -- that a more talented and more experienced Colts team was the undisputed favorite -- was turned on its head.

Normally, you need to be a starting quarterback for your absence to have that sort of impact on the game's outcome. But -- after pausing for a moment to let the horror of a potential Curtis Painter-Mark Brunell showdown pass -- let me suggest it's not that much of a reach to suggest a sidelined Freeney could have a comparable effect.

In a game in which every forced punt is going to be both hard-earned and potentially game-changing, you don't just replace one of the NFL's leading sack men. And you definitely don't do it on a defense long on heart, but short on superstars.

Indy was already down one elite defensive player; safety Bob Sanders was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list back in November. Should Freeney (and his league-leading 92 sacks since 2002) join Sanders on the sideline, the ramifications will be felt on both sides of the ball.

• If Freeney is unable to go (or is a shadow of his former self), life suddenly gets lots easier for Jermon Bushrod. The Saints' tackle struggled during New Orleans' loss to Dallas in Week 15, allowing Cowboys pass-rush specialist DeMarcus Ware to get two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles.

Bushrod fared much better against Minnesota, holding Jared Allen to just two tackles and no sacks, but he needed a little help from his friends. Against probable Freeney replacement Raheem Brock, he might not need any assistance.

• While Bushrod's Sunday would be considerably easier sans Freeney, it'd be much rougher on Robert Mathis. With Freeney occupying attention on the opposite side of the line, Mathis developed into a Pro Bowler. With Freeney sitting on the bench, he'll see many (if not all) of the double teams that his talented teammate normally demanded.

• And if the Saints can get away without double-teaming Mathis? Well, that's one less running back who needs to stay in the backfield to chip away at the pass rush ... and one more target for quarterback Drew Brees to try to locate downfield.

When you consider the Saints had seven receivers with at least 35 catches this season, the last thing this offense needs (at least from Indy's perspective) is another option.

Not that the Saints were gloating about this latest development Monday. Because while Indy is preparing for life without Freeney, New Orleans is going forward under the assumption he's going to be in the lineup.

"The fact is it's the Super Bowl," Brees said when asked about the possibility he might not need to elude one of the game's best pass rushers come Sunday. "I know any player would do as much as they could to get on that field. Obviously, he's a competitor. ... We're expecting him to play. If he doesn't, he doesn't. Certainly, I feel like they're coming into this game with all of their ammo."

But even if they're not, even if the hyperbaric chamber and the electronic stimulation and the power of positive thinking prove to be for naught, the Colts insist they'll fill Freeney's very large shoes and move forward.

"If Dwight is not able to play ... you know, of course, you want to look to your right and see Dwight Freeney out there," Colts defensive tackle Dan Muir said. "All-Pro, Pro Bowl defensive end. But if he's not able to go, we have other guys who can play and play well."

"It would be tough," Indianapolis linebacker Gary Brackett said. "Obviously, other guys would have to step up, but I don't think it's any different than how it's been all year. Coach Caldwell has a saying, 'Pick up the bayonet,' and I think across the board, that's what we've been doing the entire year and I think it will continue on Sunday."

Now that would be big news.