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Super Bowl XLIV Preview - New Orleans (15-3) vs. Indianapolis (16-2)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A place in history will be the prize awaiting either the Indianapolis Colts or New Orleans Saints on Sunday, as the two No. 1 seeds face off in Super Bowl XLIV from Sun Life Stadium in South Florida.
For the Colts, who have already recorded their most single-season wins in franchise history with 16, the quest will be a second Super Bowl title in a four-year span. Indianapolis descended on the Miami area the last time the game was played in that locale, defeating the Bears, 29-17, following the 2006 season to hand quarterback Peyton Manning the first title of his esteemed career.
Much has changed about the makeup of the Indianapolis roster since that time, with former staples like wide receiver Marvin Harrison (out of football), safety Bob Sanders (injured), and left tackle Tarik Glenn (retired) not a part of this run toward a title.
Also different is the team's sideline leader. Former assistant head coach Jim Caldwell took over the top reins after Tony Dungy stepped down following last season, and became the first rookie head coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl stage since the Raiders' Bill Callahan in 2002. No rookie head man has won a Super Bowl since George Seifert guided the 1989 San Francisco 49ers to the crown. With a win, Caldwell would become the second Colts rookie head coach to win a title, joining Don McCafferty, who led the then-Baltimore-based organization to a win over the Cowboys, also in Miami, in Super Bowl V.
The Colts have reached this stage after handling the Ravens (20-3) and Jets (30-17) in their first two postseason contests.
The Saints, meanwhile, know all about firsts. This is the franchise's first Super Bowl in a mostly star-crossed 43-year history, one that was attained following an all-time-best 13-3 regular season, followed by postseason victories over the Cardinals (45-14) and Vikings (31-28 in overtime). This also marks the first time New Orleans has won multiple playoff games in a campaign.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees are among those who will be making their initial Super Bowl forays, though Payton did serve as offensive coordinator on the 2000 New York Giants team that was a 34-7 loser to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV.
Saints cornerback Randall Gay (Patriots, 2004, 2007) and safety Darren Sharper (Packers, 1997) are the only New Orleans players with relevant Super Bowl experience.
Also, though the city has hosted many championship events including Super Bowls and Final Fours, New Orleans has never won a major professional sports championship.
The Saints and Colts are the first No. 1 seeds to meet in a Super Bowl since the Cowboys defeated the Bills, 30-13, in Super Bowl XXVIII following the 1993 season.
Sunday will mark the 10th time the Super Bowl will be played in South Florida, an NFL record.
The all-time series between the Saints and Colts is knotted, 5-5, with Indianapolis evening the series by virtue of a 41-10 home victory in the 2007 regular opener. Indy has won its last two games against New Orleans by a composite score of 96-31, and Manning is 38-of-55 for 602 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions in those contests.
The Saints' most recent win over the Colts was a 34-20 affair at the Superdome in 2001, and their only other matchup against Manning was a 19-13 victory in 1998, in what was the quarterback's fourth career NFL start.
Brees is 1-2 head-to-head against Manning, including 1-1 while with the Chargers (loss in 2004, win in 2005) in addition to the 2007 defeat while with New Orleans.
Payton is 0-1 against the Colts, while Indianapolis' Caldwell will be meeting both Payton and the Colts for the first time as a head man.
The Colts are 9-10 at Sun Life Stadium all-time, including a 27-23 win over the Dolphins there in Week 2 of this season, and their 29-17 triumph over the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. The Saints are 1-1 in meaningful games played at the facility, scoring their first win ever in South Florida with a 46-34 win over Miami there in Week 7 of this season.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Saints Quarterback: Brees (4388 passing yards, 34 TD, 11 INT) is already revered by fantasy football enthusiasts from coast to coast, and his four Pro Bowl citations over the past six years and 2008 NFL Offensive Player of the Year honor are proof positive that he is an elite-level quarterback. But the 31-year-old Purdue product is just 3-2 in career playoff games, and it will take a win in Super Bowl XLIV to put him in the Manning-Brady-Favre tier of passers, or at least in the discussion. Brees' 70.6 completion percentage, 109.6 passer rating, and 34 touchdown tosses all led the league in 2009. Backup Mark Brunell, whose 31,928 career yards surpass even Brees' total, will suit up for his first Super Bowl at the age of 39.
Saints Running Backs: Pierre Thomas (793 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 8 TD), Mike Bell (654 rushing yards, 5 TD) and Reggie Bush (390 rushing yards, 47 receptions, 8 TD) all figure to get their touches against the Colts, with Thomas serving in the primary role and Bell and Bush being used in their customary supporting roles. Bell has been battling a knee problem and did not have a touch in the NFC Championship against the Vikings, but head coach Sean Payton implied that he would see more action in the Super Bowl. Thomas has 27 carries for 113 yards and two touchdowns in these playoffs, while Bush has 149 yards and three touchdowns on 18 offensive touches.
Saints Wide Receivers: The Saints have three outside threats that can burn you, with Marques Colston (70 receptions, 9 TD), Devery Henderson (51 receptions, 2 TD) and Robert Meachem (45 receptions, 9 TD) all serving as frequent targets in an offense that stresses spreading the ball around liberally. Even Lance Moore (14 receptions, 2 TD), a former starting receiver who has battled ankle and hamstring problems all year, had a catch against the Vikings in the NFC Championship and should be as healthy for this game as he has been in some time. Henderson has scored touchdowns in both New Orleans playoff games this season, the only Saints wideout to achieve that feat. The former first-round pick Meachem has only two receptions for 19 yards in the 2009 playoffs.
Saints Tight Ends: One of the things that makes the Saints so difficult to defend is that, in addition to possessing quality receivers, they have two capable tight ends in David Thomas (35 receptions, 1 TD) and Jeremy Shockey (48 receptions, 3 TD). Thomas, the former Patriot, had 30 catches over his final seven appearances of the regular season. Shockey, who had a touchdown in the Divisional Round win over the Cardinals, has been bothered by a knee problem and reportedly saw specialist Dr. James Andrews last week. Shockey, who missed the Giants' Super Bowl run in 2007 due to injury, seems likely to suit up this time, however.
Saints Offensive Line: The Saints don't have any major names up front, but right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, right guard Jahri Evans and center Jonathan Goodwin were all Pro Bowl honorees this season for a team that both passed and ran the ball with tremendous efficiency. The left-side tandem of tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Carl Nicks is well-respected also, and was part of a group that allowed Brees to be sacked just 20 times in more than 500 drop-back attempts during the regular season. The unit has allowed just one sack during the postseason, that going to the Vikings' Ray Edwards in the NFC Championship.
Colts Defensive Ends: The Colts' entire defensive strategy begins with the effort of Pro Bowl ends Dwight Freeney (24 tackles, 13.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (37 tackles, 9 sacks) to apply pressure on the passer, though against quick-firing Saints quarterback Drew Brees, that will be a difficult hurdle to clear. If Freeney is out due to a much-publicized ankle sprain, the job will get even tougher, though veteran Raheem Brock (32 tackles, 3.5 sacks) - who had a fumble recovery in Super Bowl XLI against the Bears - has plenty of experience and can cause problems of his own. Third-year-pro and ex-starter Keyunta Dawson (17 tackles) will play a lot if Freeney doesn't.
Colts Defensive Tackles: In addition to underrated starters Daniel Muir (52 tackles) and Antonio Johnson (34 tackles, 1 sack), the Colts have received a fine effort on the interior from the lighter Eric Foster (38 tackles, 2.5 sacks), who can also play end and should see a lot of action on passing downs against Brees and the Saints. Muir had five tackles in the AFC Championship win over the Jets, while Foster had three stops. It will be the first Super Bowl for all three players.
Colts Linebackers: A Colts player who figures to have his name called frequently is middle linebacker Gary Brackett (99 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), whose playmaking and tackling ability at the heart of Indy's undersized front seven give Indianapolis an edge. Brackett had a team-best eight tackles against the Jets in the AFC Championship, and paced the club with the same number of stops versus the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Outside starters Clint Session (103 tackles, 2 INT) and Phillip Wheeler (61 tackles, 1 sack) are a little less heralded, and were pushed around a bit this season as the Colts ranked 24th in NFL rushing defense (126.5 yards per game). Freddy Keiaho (38 tackles, 1 sack) and Ramon Humber (32 tackles) are the team's top reserves at linebacker.
Colts Cornerbacks: A group of corners led by Kelvin Hayden (50 tackles, 1 INT) and rookie Jacob Lacey (85 tackles, 3 INT) was not always perfect this season, but gave up very few big plays for a team that was 14th in the league against the pass (212.7 yards per game) and in the Top 10 in TD passes allowed (19). Hayden had six tackles and a late interception against the Jets in the AFC Championship, and memorably capped off Super Bowl XLI with a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown. Rookie Jerraud Powers (66 tackles, 1 INT) missed the Jets win with a foot problem, and is considered questionable for the Super Bowl. If he can't go, Tim Jennings (57 tackles, 2 INT) will likely serve as the team's third corner.
Colts Safeties: The Colts' secondary was supposed to struggle when strong safety Bob Sanders was lost for the season in November, but the truth is that the unit had come together long before Sanders was put on the shelf. Melvin Bullitt (77 tackles) has been a more than capable fill-in at Sanders' spot, and free safety Antoine Bethea (95 tackles, 4 INT) is among the best in the league at his position as well. Bethea participated in Super Bowl XLI, finishing with four tackles while working alongside Sanders. Jamie Silva (30 tackles) and Aaron Francisco (16 tackles) are the backup safeties, and see most of their work on special teams.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Colts Quarterback: The cameras will follow Manning's every move in the run-up to Super Bowl XLIV, which is no different than the way the Saints will treat him when the game kicks off. The league's first four-time MVP has been outstanding throughout the playoffs, completing 56-of-83 passes for 623 yards, five touchdowns, and one inconsequential interception against the Ravens. Manning (4500 passing yards, 33 TD, 16 INT during the regular season) was 25- of-38 for 247 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in Super Bowl XLI against the Bears. Rookie Curtis Painter is the backup, and if he has to play, the Colts are in major trouble.
Colts Running Backs: The Colts were last in the NFL in rushing during the regular season (80.9 yards per game), 30th in yards per carry (3.5), and never showed much commitment to the running game. Joseph Addai (828 rushing yards, 51 receptions, 13 TD) is a good pass-catcher and red zone threat, but Indianapolis' offensive philosophy basically consigns him to role player status. Addai (103 yards in the '09 playoffs) rushed for 77 yards on 19 carries and had a team-high 10 catches for 66 yards against the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, but it would be a surprise if he got that many touches here. Backups Donald Brown (281 yards, 3 TD during the regular season) and Mike Hart (70 rushing yards, 1 TD) have both had limited opportunities during these playoffs.
Colts Wide Receivers: Manning prefers to throw to perennial Pro Bowler Reggie Wayne (100 receptions, 10 TD) on the outside, but as he showed in the win over the Jets, will move the chains with the capable Pierre Garcon (47 receptions, 4 TD) and rookie Austin Collie (60 receptions, 7 TD) as well. Garcon and Collie combined for 18 catches, 274 yards, and two touchdowns in the AFC Championship. Wayne, who logged one of the major highlights of Super Bowl XLI with his 53- yard touchdown grab, has 11 catches for 118 yards in these playoffs.
Colts Tight Ends: Dallas Clark (100 receptions, 10 TD) was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career this season, with Tony Gonzalez's defection to the NFC having something to do with that, though Clark undoubtedly had his best season. Manning's favorite safety valve, who had four receptions for 36 yards against the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, has 11 receptions for 94 yards and a touchdown in these playoffs. Gijon Robinson (9 receptions) serves in the h-back and No. 2 tight end role, while third tight end Jacob Tamme (3 receptions) rarely troubles the stat sheet.
Colts Offensive Line: The Indy front line is led by veteran center Jeff Saturday, a perennial Pro Bowl honoree who sets the tone up front for a group that allowed an NFL-low 13 sacks during the regular season. Manning was dumped twice by the Jets early-on, but Gang Green did not get near him often over the final 50 minutes of the AFC Championship. Tackles Charlie Johnson (left side) and Ryan Diem (right side) have been solid all year, though guards Ryan Lilja (left side) and Kyle DeVan (right) were part of a group that didn't have a terrific year from an inside-running standpoint. Saturday, Diem, and Lilja all started Super Bowl XLI against the Bears, while Johnson appeared as a reserve.
Saints Defensive Ends: The Saints' d-line was a strength this season as well, but the season-ending triceps injury suffered by end Charles Grant on the eve of the playoffs weakened the unit. Still, the Colts will have to account for Will Smith (49 tackles, 13 sacks) coming off the edge, and fill-in Bobby McCray (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks) has plenty of experience against Manning from his tenure with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Smith, who is expected to play despite a lingering groin injury, has an interception and a forced fumble in these playoffs.
Saints Defensive Tackles: Anthony Hargrove (42 tackles, 5 sacks) and Sedrick Ellis (34 tackles, 2 sacks) were at the heart of a Saints unit that ranked 21st in NFL rushing defense (122.2 yards per game), and also near the bottom of the league in yards allowed per carry (4.5 yards per rush). Ellis had six tackles in the NFC Championship win over the Vikings. Another active member of the DT rotation is Remi Ayodele (30 tackles, 1.5 sacks) who had five tackles and a fumble recovery versus Minnesota.
Saints Linebackers: Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' best work this season may have been done with a linebacking corps that was not viewed as a team strength coming out of training camp. Still, the defense thrived despite the presence of average journeymen Scott Fujita (58 tackles, 1 sack) and Scott Shanle (69 tackles, 1 INT) on the outside, and Jets castoff Jonathan Vilma (110 tackles, 3 INT, 2 sacks) in the middle. All three players made an impression in the NFC Championship - Shanle posted 10 tackles in the win, Fujita added value with a fumble recovery, and Vilma had one of his best games of the year with five tackles, and interception, a fumble recovery and forced fumble.
Saints Cornerbacks: Cornerbacks Jabari Greer (44 tackles, 2 INT) and Tracy Porter (57 tackles, 4 INT) have been among the top playmakers for a secondary adept at coming up with turnovers. The second-year-pro Porter had one of the enduring moments in Saints history when he intercepted Favre late in the NFC Championship to negate a potential game-winning field goal attempt. Randall Gay (37 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) will probably serve as the New Orleans nickel back, and against the Colts' many targets, the team would love to have rookie first- rounder Malcolm Jenkins (55 tackles, 1 INT), who missed the NFC Championship with a hamstring problem, available as well. Gay, who as mentioned played in two Super Bowls as a Patriot, is expected to play through a foot problem.
Saints Safeties: If there was one new defensive face who made a world of difference for the Saints in 2009, it was Pro Bowl free safety Darren Sharper (71 tackles, 9 INT). The 34-year-old Sharper - who was tied for the NFL lead in interceptions during the regular season - will play in a Super Bowl for the first time since his rookie season of 1997, when he advanced to the game as a member of the Packers. The other safety is Roman Harper (102 tackles, 1.5 sacks), who was second on the Saints in tackles and has functioned well as almost a fourth linebacker. Pierson Prioleau (29 tackles) is the next available safety.
Saints Placekicker: New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley (9-11 FG) certainly doesn't have the pedigree of his predecessor John Carney or his counterpart Matt Stover, but has an accurate leg and should have plenty of confidence coming off his game-winning field goal against the Vikings in the NFC Championship. Punter Thomas Morstead handles the team's kickoffs, and has done a nice job during the postseason with six touchbacks in 13 attempts.
Saints Punter: The rookie Morstead (43.6 avg.) has not quite lived up to his fifth-round billing during the regular season, with only 18 of his 58 punts landing inside the 20-yard line, though the SMU product has been better in the postseason. Morstead has averaged 48.2 yards on 11 boots in the Saints' two playoff games, with only 15 return yards against his group.
Saints Long-snapper: Among the Saints' most grizzled veterans is 37-year-old long-snapper Jason Kyle, who was signed by New Orleans in June after previously playing for the Seahawks (1995-96, 98), 49ers (2000), and Panthers (2001-08). Kyle, a fourth-round pick by Seattle as a linebacker out of Arizona State in the 1995 Draft, played with Carolina in its Super Bowl XXXVIII loss to New England.
Saints Punt Returners: Reggie Bush's 83-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Cardinals in the Divisional Round is one of the indelible images of these playoffs, though Bush averaged just 4.8 yards per return during the regular season and lost a potentially costly fumble against the Vikings in the NFC Championship. There has not been a punt return for a touchdown in Super Bowl history.
Saints Kickoff Returners: Courtney Roby may be just as dangerous as Bush, as he ranked near the top of the league in kickoff return avg (27.5, 1 TD) during the regular season and has a 61-yard return to his credit in these playoffs. Roby was briefly a member of the Colts, appearing in the 2008 opener against the Bears as a kickoff returner.
Saints Special Teams Defense: The Saints were the worst punt-covering team in the NFL during the regular season, allowing 14.3 yards per punt return including a 77-yard touchdown return for Micheal Spurlock that helped sink them against the Buccaneers late in the season. As mentioned, they've had no problems in that area during the 2009 postseason. New Orleans wasn't much better against kickoffs, ranking 29th in the league with 24.5 yards allowed per return, though the Saints did not allow a TD in that realm. In the postseason, New Orleans has not allowed a kickoff return of longer than 32 yards and held the Vikings' Percy Harvin (2 returns, 33 yards) in check during the NFC Championship.
Colts Placekicker: The 42-year-old Stover (9-11 FG) doesn't have a great leg beyond 45 yards at this stage of his career, but is borderline automatic from 40 and in, where he was 11-of-12 (regular season and playoffs) this season. Stover is 5-of-5 on trifectas in the playoffs, including his season-long of 44 against the Ravens in the divisional round. The club uses punter Pat McAfee on kickoffs, where he had 21 touchbacks on 80 kickoff attempts during the regular season.
Colts Punter: McAfee (44.3 avg.) has made most Colts fans forget about reliable ex-punter Hunter Smith, though it's always a bit nerve-wracking to rely on a rookie in a key role on Super Bowl Sunday. The West Virginia product has improved his numbers in the postseason, averaging 46 yards per boot and having six of his 10 punt attempts go for fair catches.
Colts Long-snapper: Just as he did during the Colts' Super Bowl run in 2006, Justin Snow serves as the team's ultra-reliable long snapper. The 33-year-old Snow has served in that capacity since the 2000 season without missing a game.
Colts Punt Returners: The Colts are not looking for reserve cornerback/punt returner T.J. Rushing to do much more than field the ball cleanly, which is a good thing, because he averaged just 5.7 yards per return during the regular season and has been only slightly better at 6.6 during the playoffs. Rushing, whose only career punt return for a TD came against the Raiders on Dec. 16, 2007, was an inactive rookie in Super Bowl XLI.
Colts Kickoff Returners: Chad Simpson (23.6 avg.) has proven capable of breaking off a big special teams play, as his 93-yard kickoff return for a TD against the Jaguars in Week 14 helped Indianapolis win that contest. Simpson has averaged 24.3 yards per kick return in these playoffs, with a long of 33 against the Jets in the AFC Championship.
Colts Special Teams Defense: Indianapolis fans certainly remember the specter of the Bears' Devin Hester running back the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI for a touchdown, so this will be a particular area of interest for the team. The Colts kickoff coverage unit has also been susceptible to the big return this season, allowing a disappointing 25.3 yards on kickoffs, including a 106- yard TD return to the Jets' Brad Smith in a Week 16 loss. The Colts have not allowed a big return via either punt or kickoff during these playoffs.
Apart from the two quarterbacks, much of what the Colts and Saints are about defies a simple evaluation of personnel. Are these the two most talented teams in the league? Probably not. But strong systems, good coaching, and a winning culture have equaled a combined record of 31-5 this season - these teams know how to win. But knowing that, this game will be won based on the subtlety of a few matchup advantages. The New Orleans defense has had success this season by forcing turnovers, and Manning is as careful a quarterback as you'll find in the NFL. The Colts are going to score some points here, and will show an ability to keep the ball out of Brees' hands, thus reducing his margin for error dramatically. When the Saints do control it, don't count on them matching the Colts score-for-score, or from staying mistake-free when it matters.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Colts 31, Saints 17
02/07 04:15:20 ET