It Comes to Pass: Saints vs. Colts
How you start is a footnote. How you finish is history.
The best start in the NFL this season belonged to the Indianapolis Colts at 14-0. Now, Peyton Manning and the AFC champion Colts (16-2) will meet an NFC champion team with a top-tier quarterback - Drew Brees and the NFC champion New Orleans Saints - in Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7 in Miami.
The quarterbacks come first in any discussion of these teams. What they get from their supporting casts might well dictate Super Sunday's outcome.
Manning, in typical form in Sunday's AFC championship victory vs. a New York Jets team that snuffed the Colts' perfect 14-0 start on Dec. 27, completed 26 of 39 pass attempts for 377 yards and three touchdowns.
Manning led the Colts back from an 11-point first-half deficit to defeat the Jets 30-17. He became the first player in league history with seven 300-yard postseason games, breaking a tie with Kurt Warner and Joe Montana.
Manning will face Brees and the Saints, who defeated the Minnesota Vikings in overtime in the NFC title game 31-28.
"We've got a good bunch of guys. We've got guys that worked hard all season," said Manning, 33. "They're very humble. We were very humble this week. We just kept our mouths shut and went to work."
Now, Manning, a 12-year veteran who just earned his league-best fourth MVP award and made his 10th Pro Bowl after throwing for 4,500 yards and 33 touchdowns in the regular season, has a chance for a second Super Bowl title. He already has a Super Bowl title and Super Bowl MVP award on his resume, from the Colts' 29-17 defeat of the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
Brees, 31, led the NFL during the regular season with 34 touchdown throws. In his ninth season, he passed for nearly 4,400 yards and made his fourth Pro Bowl. He's the only Saints quarterback other than Archie Manning, Peyton's father, to make the Pro Bowl. If the Saints advance, the franchise and Brees would be in their first Super Bowl. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Saints didn't play a regular season game at home and went 3-13. But led by the newly signed Brees, they made it to the NFC title game the following year.
Manning's 33 touchdown passes tied Favre for second most in the NFL.
This will be the fourth Super Bowl appearance overall for the Colts franchise, including two Super Bowl trips and one title in the era of the Baltimore Colts.
But in the here and now of this game, fast regular-season starts and history won't count.
Unsung Colts defense
For the Colts, the offense gets the headlines.
Their defense, ranked 18th, is smallish by NFL standards, but very fast in the front seven.
The Colts defensive tackles are Dan Muir (6-2, 312) and Antonio Johnson (6-3, 310).
Pro Bowl defensive ends Robert Mathis (6-2, 245) and Dwight Freeney (6-1, 268) are linebacker-sized but rank among the league's top pass rushers.
When the Colts face the Saints, they'll be up against Brees, who at 6-0, 209 is smallish for an NFL quarterback. He's also very mobile in the pocket with the ability to step up in the face of the rush, keep his eyes downfield and make pinpoint throws to the likes of wide receivers Marques Colston and Devery Henderson.
But as Jets coach Rex Ryan pointed out after Sunday's loss the Colts "don't have to be great on defense when you've got that guy (Manning)."
The Colts and Manning are looking forward to an extra week to prepare.
"We are glad to have an opportunity to be going back," Manning said. "It is a tremendous opportunity. We know we are going to be playing a great team. I am mentally tired because of what we went through preparation-wise for these guys (Jets). Need some time tonight to get over this one and get ready to prepare for who we are going to play."
Manning makes it work
The Colts running game made contributions in Sunday's AFC title game victory against the Jets. But the Colts started 14-0 without a running game, and Manning has a way of making things go without one.
His arm flapping and hand-waving as he changes players at the line of scrimmage sometimes looks comical. But he is a master at finding just the right mismatch, like a linebacker who can't keep up with Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark.
He can be content to pick away with short tosses. If he is faced with a blitz, Manning won't hesitate to go long to the likes of veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne and youngsters Austin Collie (rookie) and Pierre Garcon (second year).
"It's a tough team," Ryan said. "There are a lot of match-up issues that any team is going to have against them. . . . It kind of reminds me of the old Cowboys. The offense carried that team for years and the defense was decent."
Manning made a smooth transition this year to first-year Colts coach Jim Caldwell, who took over following the retirement of Tony Dungy. Caldwell had been a Colts assistant since 2002 and head coach in waiting since 2008.
The Colts didn't lose until they put Manning on the sideline in the third quarter of a Game 15 loss to the Jets. In that game, Caldwell sat several of his starters, a controversial move to help prevent injuries and rest players heading into the home stretch.
Caldwell took the heat when the Jets that ended the Colts' run at a perfect season. Fans booed loudly during the game, but Caldwell said his goal was to have his team rested and ready for the playoffs.
There was speculation the Colts might be rusty going into the postseason. In the Manning era, they had been 0-3 following playoff byes. But they eliminated the Baltimore Ravens in their opener, and followed that up with a playing-for-keeps win against the Jets.
Caldwell became only the fifth rookie coach to reach the Super Bowl. Only two others - San Francisco's George Seifert and Don McCafferty, of the Baltimore Colts - have won it.
Caldwell knows his chances are improved with Manning leading the team.
"Probably the biggest thing is when he goes up against the best, he takes his game to another level. I think that's something we've kind of grown accustomed to around here," Caldwell said.