Five to Watch: Super Bowl XLIV

QB Peyton Manning (Donald Miralle/Getty)

For the first time since 1993, two who were the favorites in the regular season will match up in the Super Bowl. The stories behind the game are compelling; the Manning family is from New Orleans, Peyton's father Archie quarterbacked the Saints, and the city that has suffered through a long rebuilding process since Hurricane Katrina makes the Saints a feel good favorite for much of the country.

On the other side, at the beginning of the year many analysts argued that the Colts window for championships had closed, that Manning would never win another ring, and that the Colts would struggle to continue a six-year run of 12 or more regular season wins because Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison both departed at season's end last year.

That the Colts were able to win 14 games, had a legitimate opportunity to go undefeated, succeeded in installing a new defensive philosophy, lost key starters to injury early and for a great deal of the season, and depended on rookies or first year starters (led by a rookie head coach) is nothing short of astounding.

Now these teams will go head-to-head for the first time since week one of the regular season in 2007, a lopsided 41-10 Colts victory which is not likely to repeat itself on Sunday.

Much noise has been made concerning the injury to Dwight Freeney. A lot has been said regarding bulletin board material for each team, such as Tony Dungy saying the game will not be close while others call the Colts defense average or claim the Colts will lose because it lacks a running game.

These stories are exciting for fans but are unlikely to turn the tide for either team in this game. The following five aspects are far more likely to determine its outcome.

1. Opportunity-Cost:

Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, has made it clear that his defense will aggressively pursue Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. While it is a no-brainer that allowing Manning to sit in the backfield for long periods of time analyzing defensive weaknesses and picking out mismatches will result in a long defensive day, it should also be clear to any defensive coordinator at this point in Peyton's career that he will absolutely destroy your team's chances to win the football game and put up astronomical numbers if you fail in your quest.

The end result of these competing realities is that teams who blitz Manning and fail lose the football game an astounding majority of the time. Teams that succeed may rattle Manning and disrupt his concentration, potentially reducing the damage he will do. The other approach is to sit back defensively and attempt to limit Manning's ability to create big plays and force him to take a conservative offensive approach for much of the game.

The problem for Williams is that not only has his team made a name for itself as a blitzing team, and not only has he openly threatened Manning with pressure and potentially hard hits after he lets go of the ball, but he is playing a team which has dealt with precisely that game plan for two playoff games in a row, against two of the best defenses in the NFL at creating this kind of pressure.

As a result, Williams and the Saints defense will be taking a rather large and potentially devastating gamble if they attempt to treat the Colts, and the best pass protecting offensive line in the NFL, the same way they have the Minnesota Vikings and the Arizona Cardinals.

2. The Big Play:

One of the staples of the Saints offense throughout the year has been its propensity to create big plays. What makes their offense scary is that it has done so both on the ground and through the air. Such a highly powerful and balanced offensive attack is something the Colts defense has not faced yet this year.

On the other side, the Saints have not faced a defense that is nearly as fast as the Colts unit. Speed runners like Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas tend to struggle against the Colts defense. Just ask Chris Johnson and Ray Rice. What makes the Colts defense difficult is that it is able to use seven or eight defenders in the box to punish ball carriers against the run, forcing most runs outside, but it is also able to sit the secondary back to limit big plays through the air.

If the Saints are forced to play a grind it out offensive game throughout, and if the Colts succeed in limiting or denying big plays, it could really hurt the Saints chances in the game.

The Colts offense has been picked on by analysts for much of the second half of the season for not having a host of big plays from its receivers or running backs, which limit its ability to put up a lot of points in a big hurry. However, this fact means that the Colts offense has been able to put up a great deal of points, and win a lot of football games, relying on offensive efficiency, converting on third downs, and steadily putting together multiple play drives.

The absence of the big play in the Super Bowl would heavily favor the Colts. If big plays do happen, the pace of the game will favor the Saints and it will likely come down to which team has the ball last.

3. Contain Brees:

While the Saints defensive focus is to get to Manning, hit Manning, and keep him off balance in the pocket, the Colts defensive focus should be slightly different.

Sure, it is great anytime you can get to your opponent's quarterback, hit him, get a sack, or create a turnover. For the Colts, though, what could be even more important is that they contain Brees to the pocket.

At only 6-foot tall, Brees likes to move to his left or right, out of the pocket, to get clear of the big bodies in front of him. He has been very successful despite his lack of size but there can be no denying that forcing him to look over players that are five and six inches taller than him will not only limit his vision, it will force him to pass the ball up in the air (allowing defenders to get underneath it) and will create opportunities for Colts defensive linemen to get their hands up and knock passes down.

Keeping Brees in the pocket, limiting his lateral motion, is far more important to the Colts than actually getting a sack or two in the game. It will also make it far more likely that the pass rushers will have an opportunity to knock the ball away and create turnovers.

If Brees is free to move to his left and right the entire game, the Saints offense will probably produce. If Brees is swarmed into the pocket and does not move, the propensity for turnovers and short drives increases exponentially.

4. Pick Your Poison:

The greatest advantage for the Colts offense is the matchup problems they create each and every Sunday. The Saints will have to choose who to match up over Clark, who to double-team, who they will try to cover man-to-man, and how many players they wish to dedicate to covering the Colts four biggest receiving threats.

If New Orleans is forced to sell out to stop the pass, assuming their blitz heavy scheme trails off a bit as the game plays out, they will force a much smaller number of defensive players to stop the Colts rushing attack. The last two games, against two of the best rushing defenses in the league (also two of the best rushing teams on offense), the Colts were able to outrush their opponents by choosing when to take advantage of defenses who paid their ground game no respect.

When the pace of the game is thrown into consideration, the worst thing that could happen for the Saints is to force long sustained drives which will tire out their defense, particularly when Manning is the master of keeping opponents from making defensive substitutions. One of the most dangerous aspects of the Colts offense is how quickly it wears down defenses that are not used to playing at the break-neck pace Manning demands.

The longer the Saints defense is out on the field dealing with a fast paced, hurry up, no huddle offense, the faster fatigue will set in. Allowing the Colts to score quickly is not an attractive option either, so the Saints will have to find a way to not fail in the way other defenses have in the playoffs; they cannot afford to openly expose their defensive weakness on any drive without paying the price.

5. Praying For a Turnover:

One of the biggest reasons for the Saints success this season has been the number of turnovers its defense has created. This attribute has had no greater importance to their team than it has in the playoffs.

Over their first two playoff games the Saints have managed to create seven turnovers, giving the ball back to their high-powered offense and keeping the opposition off of the field. Against opponents that have quarterbacks as good as Kurt Warner and Brett Favre, this was critically important to keeping them in the game.

Absent the turnovers against the Vikings, there is a very good chance that the Saints would not have made it to the Super Bowl in the first place. Still, their effort to get to the ball, separate ball carriers from it, or stay disciplined in passing lanes to create takeaways makes them a resilient team against the most formidable opponents.

Accordingly, the Colts must take care of the ball, as they traditionally do, and not give New Orleans extra opportunities to control the ball, and the tempo of the game. If the Colts play disciplined football and do not turn the ball over, the likelihood for victory will swing heavily in their favor.


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