Manning holds all the aces
Quarterback Peyton Manning and his Indianapolis Colts are favourites to spoil the ending of New Orleans' NFL renaissance when they take on the Saints in today's Super Bowl.
The odd twist to this story is that Manning, who grew up in the Big Easy supporting his dad as quarterback for the then awful Saints, may end up breaking New Orleans' heart as the team contests its first Super Bowl.
New Orleans have always been a football town, even when the Saints were the Aints - back in the days Archie Manning led the team and fans wore paper bags on their heads to prevent being identified as supporters. But that four-decade love affair morphed into something more meaningful in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"It's important for not only the people in New Orleans, but the people around the country because you do understand how much it means to that community and what they've been through," Saints quarterback Drew Brees says. "Our success as a team over the last four years, but especially this year, has been tremendous just in regard to giving so many of the members of that community hope and lifting their spirits."
The Saints (15-3) led the league in scoring with 510 points. If Colts All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney and his 13-1/2 season sacks aren't available due to an ankle injury, then Brees, along with Reggie Bush, Marques Colston and company might light up the Miami night with touchdowns.
So could the Colts (16-2) with their deep receiving corps and the incomparable Manning. Surpassing the 75 points in the 1995 Super Bowl (San Francisco 49, San Diego 26) is not out of the question. Doing it by half-time isn't totally absurd.
When the Colts won their only championship representing In-dinanapolis, Tony Dungy was the coach. Now it's his hand-chosen successor, Jim Caldwell, and only two rookie coaches have ever won the Super Bowl. One of them, Don McCafferty, did it for the Baltimore Colts in 1971, the first title game after the AFL-NFL merger.
The Saints and Colts approached the unbeaten threshold in December. New Orleans were 13-0 before losing at home to Dallas, then rested many regulars in dropping the last two regular-season games. Indianapolis were 14-0 and perhaps headed for a 15th victory when Manning and other starters were removed in the third quarter against the Jets. New York rallied to win, and the backups lost at Buffalo in the season finale.
In the play-offs, the Colts handled the Baltimore Ravens and Jets pretty easily. The Saints, following a romp past Arizona, needed several mistakes by Minnesota - including Brett Favre throwing an interception in the final seconds - before beating the Vikings in overtime and finally erasing that Super Bowl void.
"I feel like both teams have got to this point because of the success of the teams," Manning says. "Certainly, if you look at our regular season and play-off schedule it has been a team season. Different guys have stepped up along the way, making critical plays at critical times."