Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Super Bowl XLIV Preview

By Brad Oremland

Five Quick Hits

* Former Cowboy HC Chan Gailey is the new coach of the Bills. Dallas was 9-7 in both of Gailey's seasons as head coach, but this is a little out of left field.

* Is it too much to ask that the singers who perform the national anthem are people who don't hate the song? Jordin Sparks pulled a Kat DeLuna on the poor thing, and Kris Allen could only hit about half the notes.

* With this year's Pro Bowl a week before the Super Bowl, no Colts or Saints will take place in the game. That opens the door for, among others, London Fletcher, who will play in the game for the first time in his fine career.

* The downside is that none of the AFC quarterbacks voted to the Pro Bowl will actually play. The AFC will instead feature Matt Schaub, Vince Young, and David Garrard. This is an all-star team?

* The Saints won on the first possession of overtime, so I'm sure some outraged blowhards will call once again for a radical revamp of the NFL overtime system. Who wins more often, the team that gets the ball first in the NFL or goes on defense first in college? The Vikings have no one to blame but themselves.

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Championship Game Roundups

Jets @ Colts

The Colts started slow, but they never panicked. Frankly, this team seems incapable of panic. It won half its games on fourth-quarter comebacks. I normally resist this sort of thing, but it's all about Peyton Manning. It is. I know he has a great offensive line, and he couldn't do it without them. I know he has Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark and a couple of young guys who have really stepped up and made some plays. I know he has a fine defense, has Tom Moore and Howard Mudd and everyone else. They're all essential pieces of the puzzle. It's about Peyton Manning. He's the one who puts the puzzle together.

Does that mean every great quarterback deserves credit for his team's accomplishments? Of course not. The 2000 Ravens were not built around Trent Dilfer. The '02 Bucs did not revolve around Brad Johnson. Ben Roethlisberger was not the central piece of last year's Steelers. And of course, Peyton doesn't deserve all of the credit for this team. There's plenty to go around.

But Peyton is the foundation. He's the best QB in the game, or at least tied for best, with Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. A couple things separate Peyton. For all the criticisms at Tennessee and early in his pro career, he has become the greatest clutch quarterback in the game. You're down with 2:00 to play, this is the guy you want with the ball in his hands, and it's not even close. No player in history has led as many great comebacks as Peyton. The Jets were up 17-6 at one point this weekend, and the Colts' 11-point comeback is the third-largest in Championship Game history. It's old hat for a team that already holds the record, an 18-point comeback against the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game.

Early in his career, point deficits panicked Manning. He would try too hard and often made critical mistakes. Now, he has total confidence in his team and himself. He knows he just has to play, and the better team will come out on top. He's calm and in control, and that filters to the rest of the team as well. There's never a need to panic, because you'll get 'em next time.

That's what the Jets found out on Sunday. The game started almost as well as possible for New York. The Colts were settling for field goals, and the Jets were making big plays on offense, with Mark Sanchez having the game of his life. A great running team, with the league's best defense and a quarterback utterly in the zone, can't give up an 11-point lead, can it? Manning and Austin Collie turned the game just before halftime, with a 46-yard rainbow that set up a score to make it a 4-point game at the half. New York didn't score again, and the Colts won by two touchdowns.

Manning was the only player all season — 19 games altogether — to throw 3 TD passes against the Jets. Indy's 461 yards were the most the Jets allowed all season. Pierre Garçon set an AFC Championship Game record with 11 receptions. Manning finds weaknesses. No QB in history is so adept at finding a secondary's weak point, or as ruthless about exploiting it. Cornerback Donald Strickland left the game with an injury, and the Colts used their three-wide receiver formations to pick apart the vulnerability, with Dwight Lowery a particularly frequent target.

The Indianapolis defense, and first-year coordinator Larry Coyer in particular, deserve a lot of credit for getting the Jets out of their comfort zone. It looked like lunacy early in the game, when Sanchez was doing his Joe Namath impersonation and hitting big plays. But the Colts took away the running game, holding New York to 86 yards and under 3 yards per carry. The price was those big pass plays, but the Colts never panicked, stuck to their strategy, and were ultimately vindicated. I don't understand why the Jets didn't do more with Brad Smith and the Wildcat formation, which yielded a first-half touchdown and then pretty much fell by the wayside.

Finally, though, a little praise for the defeated Jets. They came into the playoffs as monumental underdogs, charity cases who lucked out that neither of their last two opponents played to win. Then they dominated the Bengals, upset the Chargers, and gave Indianapolis a real game. Sanchez played well all postseason, and his play-action fake on the bomb to Braylon Edwards this weekend was a thing of beauty. If the Jets can stay healthy next year — and that's a big if after 19 bruising games — they'll be a threat to anyone in the AFC. They have nothing to be ashamed of.

Vikings @ Saints

This was a strange game, exciting but occasionally sloppy. Pretty clearly, the Vikings outplayed New Orleans, but you can't commit 5 turnovers and expect to win. This game was defined by Minnesota's preventable mistakes: 2 interceptions and 6 fumbles. The Vikings outgained the Saints by over 200 yards, made more than twice as many first downs, and won time of possession by nearly 10 minutes. What they didn't do was hold on to the ball.

We have clearly reached the point at which Adrian Peterson's fumbling habit has progressed from "concern" to "serious problem." He has 23 fumbles in his 49-game career. Over the same period, Frank Gore has 14 fumbles. Maurice Jones-Drew has 10. LaDainian Tomlinson has 3. Peterson is a phenomenal talent. He's a fast, powerful runner, fun to watch. Can you trust him in a big game? With the game on the line, would you want the ball in his hands? Right now, I don't think you would.

Of course, that means trusting your postseason to Brett Favre, and that's not a good idea, either. Over the past decade, Favre has played in 10 postseason games. His teams are 4-6 over that stretch, including just 4-3 at home. From 1957 to 2001, the Packers never lost a playoff game at Lambeau Field. Under Favre, they dropped three in six years. Besides desecrating the Lambeau mystique, over those 10 playoff games, Favre tossed 19 TDs and 18 INTs. That is an awful lot of interceptions, projecting to 29 in a 16-game schedule. The last player to throw 29 interceptions in a season was ... well, it was Favre, in 2005. Before that, it was Vinny Testaverde in 1988. You have to go back more than 20 years to find anyone who throws interceptions like this guy.

Barring the turnovers, this game would have been a story of Minnesota's good defense and New Orleans' poor defense. The Saints had the best offense in the NFL this offseason, but it didn't look like anything special on Sunday. What the Saints did do was avoid mistakes, with their only turnover coming on special teams. What they didn't do was pick up first downs or put together drives. It was a little hard to believe this was the same team that had those statement games against the Giants and Patriots earlier in the season. It didn't seem like New Orleans really had a gameplan for the Viking defense.

Minnesota, in contrast, converted a stunning 58% of its third-down conversions and basically had its way with the Saints' defense all game. Give New Orleans credit for forcing turnovers, but that was as much about mistakes by the Vikings as good plays by the Saints. In the end, New Orleans came through, with a game-winning 40-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley. There's someone it's hard not to be happy for, mobbed by his teammates after the kick and carried on their shoulders. Now the Saints are going to their first Super Bowl in franchise history.

The Crystal Ball

Super Bowl XLIV: Colts vs. Saints
Miami, Florida

It's been a long time since we got to see the two best teams of the regular season meet in the Super Bowl. The last time we had two top seeds was 1993, but the AFC Champion Bills weren't really the second-best team that year. The 49ers were. The AFC was the weaker conference through most of the '80s and '90s, and by my reckoning, the last time we actually saw the two best teams meet in the Super Bowl was 25 years ago, when Joe Montana's 15-1 Niners met Dan Marino's 14-2 Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.

This is an exciting matchup for multiple reasons. Matching up two teams of this caliber is part of the reason, of course. With apologies to Chargers partisans and deluded Vikings fans, it's been clear for most of the season who the two best teams were. I was dreaming of this matchup as early as Week 6. The game will feature the two best QBs in the game, for the first time since ... 1997 (Favre and John Elway)? The last time a Super Bowl featured both the first- and second-team all-pro QBs was 1991, but if you're suspicious of Mark Rypien, you have to go back to that Dan Marino/Joe Montana matchup from the '84 season. I'd listen to arguments for 1988 (Boomer Esiason and Montana), too. Anyway, it's been a long time.

This is an unusual game in that it doesn't feature a dominant defense. It features two very good defenses, but nothing like last year's Steelers. The storylines that interest me revolve around the offenses, and the quarterbacks in particular. The Peyton-Manning-grew-up-in-New-Orleans story, however, bores me to death, and if I see Archie Manning on ESPN more than once this week, I may have to buy a gun just so I can shoot my television. Maybe it would be cheaper to just smash it with rocks.

COLTS ON OFFENSE

As they proved this weekend, the Colts will let you pick your poison. They can beat you deep, they can beat you short. They can overcome pressure, they can find holes in coverage. They can win with the stars, they can win with the other guys. They don't run very well, but it's not apparent that they need to. The Colts don't need to do anything out of the ordinary. They have to stay calm and stick with their gameplan. They'll run just enough to keep the defense honest and let Manning do the rest.

The Saints need turnovers. That's where their defense has made its money all season, and it's been more crucial than ever this postseason. Their best move is to slow down the game: don't give up the big play. Indianapolis is more than capable of marching down the field with a bunch of short plays, but I think that gives the Saints' their best chance to win. I don't think they can win a track meet against the Colts, but if they cover everything deep and limit Indianapolis to runs and short passes, they could score enough to pull this thing out and maybe force a couple of turnovers eventually.

New Orleans also may be able to take advantage of Jim Caldwell's extremely conservative philosophy. Last weekend, the Colts twice passed up fourth-and-goal to kick field goals, netting a total of six points. If they had gone for it both times, and made it even once, they would have scored seven points and left the Jets pinned inside the 10 the other time. Instead, they scored only six points and had to kick off twice, giving New York the ball at or beyond the 20 both times. Keep everything in front of you, and Caldwell will settle for field goals.

SAINTS ON OFFENSE

The Saints look best when their offense is balanced. Pierre Thomas should probably get 20 carries in this game. Reggie Bush is best as a receiver and returner; Thomas should be the primary ball-carrier. Balance is especially important against the Colts, because you need to slow down their pass-rushers. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, when they know a pass is coming, are a quarterback's nightmare. The Saints should run when they can and pass mostly when they have to. I'd also incorporate repeated screens to Bush, which could be a huge weapon against this defense.

The Colts would do well to keep New Orleans a one-dimensional passing offense. This is a good matchup for them. They, like the Vikings, can get pressure on Brees without blitzing. The Saints have a fantastic offensive line, but it's weakest where the Colts are strong, on the edge. The Saints never really adjusted against Minnesota by keeping extra blockers in and giving Brees time to attack the vulnerable Minnesota secondary. If Indianapolis can force the Saints into passing situations and let Freeney and Mathis tee off, they should be able to duplicate the Vikings' results in the NFC Championship Game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

I don't know that either side has a definitive advantage on special teams. I suppose I might lean towards the Saints, because they have more dynamic returners, but I don't see this being a clear edge for either side. There's a huge experience gap between the kickers, with Indy's Matt Stover set to become the oldest player in Super Bowl history, and the Saints' Hartley nearly 20 years his junior. Stover gets the edge in reliability, but Hartley has a stronger leg.

THE FORECAST

Oddsmakers have installed Indianapolis as the early favorite, and it's hard to argue with that. It's easy, though, to overreact to last week's games, when the Colts looked unstoppable and the Saints looked shaky, lucky to advance. In their most important games this season, the Saints have always risen to the challenge, decisively stomping the Giants, Pats, and Cardinals. With two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl, there's every reason to think they can turn in one more flawless performance.

Unfortunately for the Saints, that's what they need: a flawless performance. If they commit turnovers or can't make first downs or give up early TDs, they'll lose. The Colts have a better defense than the Saints do, and their offense won't give a game away like Minnesota's did. If the Saints win this game, it will be with turnovers and a big play on special teams, probably a return touchdown. Realistically, the Colts are going to score. You can't shut down that offense. The Saints need to make the most of their offensive opportunities. Third down success, a liability against Minnesota, will be crucial. The Saints need to be effective with their mid-range passing game, and they need to put together drives that keep Manning off the field.

The Colts probably need to fall behind early, so Manning can lead yet another (yawn) comeback. Actually, the Colts are fully capable of playing with an early lead, and turning it into a massacre. The offense, I'm convinced, will be fine. Ball control is paramount. The larger task falls to the Indianapolis defense. New Orleans is capable of putting a lot of points on the scoreboard, and the Colts have to contain that. Taking away the big play is great, but the Colts have shown that they can give up a couple of cheap scores and come back from them. What they can't do is allow the Saints to develop a rhythm on offense, marching down the field. There needs to be pressure on Brees and tight coverage on the receivers. Don't worry too much about getting burned: you've got Peyton Manning, and if you give up a quick six, he'll get it back.

I have all the respect in the world for the Saints, but I just don't see the Colts losing. They've been in this situation before, with a Super Bowl victory just three years ago and a ton more postseason experience than the Saints. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that I can't see the Saints stopping Manning. The Colts win Super Bowl XLIV, 31-24.

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