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SUPERBOWL XLIV - FEBRUARY 7TH
Over 100 million viewers worldwide, advertisers paying the trade price of $3.1 Million for a 30-second commercial, The Who rolling out for the half-time entertainment and that is before the opening kick-off. Superbowl Sunday is a big deal the world over and number 44 looks to be no different. In the first of this new decade, the Indianapolis Colts will come up against the New Orleans Saints, hosted in the mild winter climbs of Miami, Florida. To put the mind-boggling facts aside, the game itself is one full of firsts, preceded by a back story that is truly remarkable at almost every level.
For the first time in history the number one and two seeds, (the two teams with the best records in their respective division), will be facing off in the Superbowl (Colts 14-2, Saints 13-3). New Orleans is competing in its first ever Superbowl, a remarkable feat for a franchise that has been joked about and maligned for so many years, like that of the underdog Arizona Cardinals of Superbowl 43 and a team that took over twenty years to have a winning season after its foundation in 1967. Recent history inevitably changed not just the Saints, but the city of New Orleans itself. The devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina turned the Saints home, the Louisiana Superdome, into a refuge for the city - people took shelter on the pitch of the dome, despite the roof caving in and water leaking in from everywhere. The stadium and the team became a symbol of hope for the people of the devastated City, with its residents holding their team closer to their hearts than perhaps any other in the National Football League. The Saints have become 'America's Team' through the attention of Katrina and will have overwhelming neutral support of those in Sunday.
In contrast, the Colts are all too familiar with the biggest stage of them all. Not even their first-time head coach, Jim Caldwell, can say this is a new experience, having been an assistant on the Superbowl winning team in 2007. The Colts have won two Superbowls (1971 & 2007) finished as runner up in 1969, along with winning three NFL Championships (the forerunner to the Superbowl - 1958, 1959, 1968). In a strange twist of fate, the Colts will compete against the Saints in the very stadium where they won their last Superbowl, defeating the Chicago bears 29-17. The Colts will stay in the same hotels, use the same practice fields and arrive at the same time for the game. To say that they will be comfortable with the pressure is a laughable understatement, with many of the team still in place from that Championship winning season.
In helping to decipher who holds any real edge over on another, we'll try and break down the two teams to pick a favourite. As mentioned before, both are the top seeds from their divisions, but both teams have had to cope with at least one big scare on the way to the Superbowl. We'll also look at the players who will be the ones to watch come game time, and the weaknesses that could ruin any dreams they had.
HOW THEY GOT THERE...
The Colts faced a strong Baltimore Ravens team, flying after crushing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots 33-14 in the Wildcards. Despite not being a vintage performance form the Colts, resolute defence and clock management limited the Ravens to just three points, the Colts running out easy victors, 20-3, over their old city rivals.
The AFC Championship game presented a surprise opponent. The shock team of the playoffs, the New York Jets, had stunned the much fancied San Diego Chargers in the divisionals, a team which critics had down as favourites for the Superbowl despite finishing with a worse record than the Colts in the regular season. The remarkable Jets run was set to continue, leading the Colts 17-13 at half-time after some stunning offence - Braylon Edwards' 80 yards Touchdown undoubtedly the score of the game. The magic being weaved by the Jets could not be sustained and that was to be it for plucky New York, the Colts defence shutting them out in the second-half, closing out the game 30-17 and sealing the AFC Championship.
For New Orleans, it was to be a similarly rocky path to Miami. The Arizona Cardinals were overrun 45-15 in a totally one-sided affair in the divisionals, but the Saints knew that their biggest test was yet to come. The Minnesota Vikings were the opponents in the NFC Championship, in a game that will go down as one of the greatest on record, but also one where the Saints can count themselves fortunate to come out of as winners. With 40 year-old Brett Favre aiming for one last shot at glory with Minnesota, after so many years playing for the Vikings' bitter rivals Green Bay and Favre being a Mississippi native, the game carried sub-plots aplenty.
Despite like-for-like scoring on both teams' behalf, it was Minnesota who dominated the offense statistically, holding a near two- to-one advantage on yards gained over the space of the game, (475-257) it was the multiple turnovers and twelve penalties conceded that ultimately killed Minnesota. The Vikes had a chance to get into field-goal range and have a shot at winning it with seconds to go; Favre taking one final risk too many and throwing back across his body to see his pass intercepted and deny his own team one last shot. From there, New Orleans won the coin-toss for overtime, proceeded to drive downfield and set up Kicker Garrett Hartley to strike the 40-yard field goal to make it 31-28. New Orleans was off to the big dance for the first time in 43 years.
THE KEY FIGURES - INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Peyton Manning (2009 Stats - 4,500 Passing Yards 33TDs/16INTs)
Four Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, one Superbowl ring and a nine-time selection to the Pro Bowl, plus countless NFL passing Records, Peyton Manning is simply one the greatest Quarterbacks ever to play the game. Markedly cool under pressure, laser-precision accuracy and touch on every pass, he is the life-force behind Indianapolis. Manning has an array of offensive weapons to pick from in standout receiver Reggie Wayne, deep threat Pierre Garcon, as well as tight end Dallas Clark in what will be a pass first, run later offence. The Saints will look to double cover the likes of Wayne and Clark, but even with the added pressure, Manning is the master of changing plays at the line of scrimmage, so the Saints will hope to get a large slice of luck somehow to stop him in Miami.
Dallas Clark (2009 Stats - 100 Receptions, 1,106 Receiving Yards, 10TDs)
While Garcon and Wayne in particular are often on the end of some spectacular big plays, Clark has emerged as Manning's favourite target. A hybrid tight end that has caught as many touchdown passes as Reggie Wayne this year, he often finds himself playing as a fourth or third wide receiver. Off the line off scrimmage he is an extremely difficult player to cover, with exceptional pace and hands for a tight end. The Saints will look to add an extra defensive back to the mix just to keep up with him. What makes Clark such a dangerous player too is that his all round game is consistent - he is as comfortable throwing in a big run block or catching a ball coming out of the backfield , so look for Manning to line him up everywhere and use him to expose any Saints mismatches, facing up against linebackers in particular, and find this guy wide open.
Antoine Bethea (2009 Stats - 95 Tackles, 2 Forced Fumbles, 4INTs)
With Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney looking like he won't recover in time, the focus will turn to Bethea to lead a defence that will seek to stop the explosive New Orleans spread offence. Bethea is hard hitting safety who will often be found stuffing the run as he would be breaking up plays downfield. Will most likely find himself giving help to his Cornerbacks in trying to cover Marques Colston and limit the Saints to small gains underneath. The Saints will do well to avoid him for the duration of the game.
Matt Stover (2009 Stats - 9 of 11 Field Goals, Longest Kick 43 Yards)
At 42 years old, Stover becomes the oldest player to compete in the Superbowl. Don't let the statistics fool you though. The man has made over 80% of the field goals in his career (471 of 563), won a Superbowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens and it could come to this man's left boot to decide it Sunday. Compare that to his counterpart for the Saints, Garrett Hartley, who has only kicked 24 field goals in his career and the Colts can count themselves lucky to have such an experienced player on their team.
Weakness - Running Game
Despite the Colts reaching the Superbowl, they have done so with the worst ranked rushing attack in the league. If Indianapolis cannot establish some sort of running game in the first quarter, while the Saints attempt to rattle the almost unflappable Peyton Manning, they might well have a shot at toppling the Colts.
THE KEY FIGURES - NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Drew Brees (2009 Stats - 4,388 Passing Yards 34TDs/11INTs)
Drew Brees has played a large role large part in the spectacular re-birth of the Saints. Signed from San Diego back in 2006, the Saints are very much his team and he is their unquestioned leader. Runner-up to Peyton Manning in this years MVP vote, Brees is almost every bit the Quarterback that Manning is in terms of physical attributes. Although not as inclined to reel off a spectacular play, compared to Manning's ability to summon them up at ease, Brees manages the game brilliantly, rarely makes mistakes and rarely turns the ball over. Brees also has the outlet of strong running game behind him to take the pressure off if he needs it. If he gets comfortable the Colts backfield is in for a long day.
Marques Colston (2009 Stats - 70 Receptions, 1,074 yards Receiving Yards, 9TDS)
The fact that 4th year pro Colston is with the Saints is a remarkable story within itself. Selected 220th out of 224 players overall in the 2006 NFL Draft, after playing his College Football at lowly Hofstra University, Colston came out of nowhere to establish himself as one of the premier receivers the NFL. A tall receiver (6ft 4), who possess lighting speed, he is just as much a threat pacing downfield as he is collecting catches on short routes. Expect Brees to look to put it in the hands of Colston a lot, while also see the Colts try to double cover him at almost every opportunity. If the Saints can establish the running game early, this could take attention away from him and give him ample opportunity to ruin the Colts day.
Pierre Thomas & Reggie Bush (Running Backs)
If the Saints have a distinct advantage over the Colts, it is unquestionably here. The Saints will likely rotate the running duties between the two, while also looking to get both on the field at the same time to create a dual threat. Pierre Thomas is versatile runner who can wear down defensive lines and take the heat of his partner, while Bush is a speedster with the capability of pulling off the big play. Bush was one the most exciting NFL prospects coming out of college at USC - a triple threat player capable of carrying the load at running back, dangerous lining up as a receiver as a player with exceptional hands, he is also an explosive kick returner. While he won't be in on every play, expect Reggie Bush play a lead role in where the Vince Lombardi Trophy ends up.
Darren Sharper (2009 Stats - 71 Tackles, 9 Interceptions)
A 13-year veteran Safety enjoying a renaissance in his career, Sharper has been a key figure in the Saints run to the Superbowl. He will look to put pressure on Pierre Garcon especially when he is lined up against him, while also helping out in the coverage of Dallas Clark when he can. Sharper will be leading the Saints charge from everywhere on the field and New Orleans need him at the top of his form if they are to stop Manning and Co.
Weakness - Expectation/Experience
If the Saints can handle the immense pressure upon them, then they have every chance of lifting the Lombardi Trophy. To listen to Saints' fans however, and they'll obviously say that they are destined for this trophy. New Orleans are a team that has over achieved this year and now Americas team are in new territory - Coach Sean Payton has a mammoth task in keeping his players focussed in what will be a totally new experience for his squad, from the bustle of media day to the big day itself. As a team, New Orleans are testing the boundaries of how far they really can go, their fans will hope this isn't the end of the road.
Indianapolis to win by 17 points or more
I'm going to stick my neck out and say that the Saints buckle under the pressure and the draining mental experience of beating the Vikings. Despite the Colts possessing a woeful running game, I do not see the Saints being able to slow down Peyton Manning enough to get into the game. If the Saints can't break his rhythm early on, they could find the game running away from them as early as the second quarter. Manning's and his team-mates experience will undoubtedly tell as the game goes on, along the Colts have more weapons to turn to and spread the New Orleans D think, should they begin to falter. For the Saints to have any chance they need to dominate the running game in order to free up Drew Brees and let him take a few more risks. Regardless of whether the run is established, Brees will expertly manage his game yet again but he will need more than that to win the game. The Colts should over-run the Saints Defence as time elapses and, being a betting man, will take a punt on Dallas Clark getting into the End zone twice and the Colts to win 38-17.