Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Few Thoughts Before the Game

In a couple of hours, Super Bowl XLIV will kick off.

I've been picking the NFL games — did pretty well, too, in the regular season but just broke even, so far, in the playoffs — since the first kickoff in September so I guess it is only fitting that I should make a prediction today.

Both teams have outstanding quarterbacks. Indianapolis' Peyton Manning is probably the marquee name of the two and deservedly so. He was second in the NFL this year (behind Houston's Matt Schaub) in passing, although New Orleans' Drew Brees wasn't exactly chopped liver. He was sixth in the NFL — and actually averaged 10 yards more per game than Manning did (he also had more TD passes and fewer interceptions, but he was sacked twice as many times).

With all that talent at the quarterback position, one would expect to find more Colts and Saints among the NFL's top receivers. And the Colts do have Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark in the league's Top 20 (the Saints have one receiver in the Top 20, Marques Colston), but it's kind of a sharp dropoff for both teams after that. New Orleans' Devery Henderson is 38th in the NFL, Indianapolis' Pierre Garcon is 44th and New Orleans' Robert Meachem is tied for 49th with Jacksonville's Torry Holt.

That seems to reflect the somewhat freewheeling nature of both quarterbacks, really — especially Brees, who seems to like having many targets from which to choose.

Wayne, however, has been having problems recently with a knee injury that has been nagging him all year and has put his status in doubt. That might affect Manning since Wayne was tied with Randy Moss for fifth–best receiver in the NFL this season. However, Manning is versatile enough that he should be able to overcome Wayne's absence if necessary.

The running game does not play a major role in either offense. Statistically, the best runner on the field is Indianapolis' Joseph Addai, who was 22nd in the NFL this season. New Orleans' Pierre Thomas was tied for 24th. The Saints' Mike Bell was 32nd. Reggie Bush, who won the Heisman Trophy when he was at Southern Cal, is probably the best known of the running backs in this year's Super Bowl, but he only carried the ball an average of five times per game during the season and finished tied for 48th in the NFL.

Consequently, it seems that sacks and interceptions may be the best way to judge each team's defensive potential. The Colts' defensive ends, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, were in the NFL's Top 20; Freeney, in fact, was third in the NFL with 13½ sacks. But his status, too, is in doubt. He suffered an ankle injury late in the AFC title game, and it is unknown whether it will limit him or even prevent him from playing.

Meanwhile, the Saints' Will Smith was fifth in the NFL in sacks. The Colts will need to make keeping him away from Manning a priority for the offensive line.

If Manning and Brees can avoid being sacked, there is no guarantee they can avoid interceptions, but the Saints seem to have an edge in that regard. New Orleans' Darren Sharper, who was tied with three other players for the NFL lead, picked off nine passes this season. Free safety Antoine Bethea was the Colts' leader with four — which is the same number that the Saints' Tracy Porter had.

The game matches two potent offenses so the key to victory depends on which team keeps the other team's defensive strength in check. And both defenses have strengths that seem tailor–made to exploit the other team's quarterback's weakness.

Manning is more prone to being intercepted than Brees; unfortunately for him, the Saints' secondary had a lot of success doing that (admittedly, against lesser quarterbacks, for the most part).

Brees, on the other hand, is more prone to being sacked, which means that, if Freeney is able to play, the Colts may be able to put a lot of pressure on him. He may not necessarily throw interceptions, but he might be rushed into throwing the ball away or having to take a sack. To avoid that, New Orleans might have to keep someone in the backfield to block, reducing the number of targets for Brees.

But if Freeney is slowed by his injury or prevented from playing at all, the Saints can play their normal game.

I'm not a medical expert, but I have heard it said that the injury Freeney has is the kind that can require up to two months to heal. If that is so, then two weeks is rushing it considerably.

Because of that, I'm going to predict that, if Freeney does start the game, he won't be able to finish it.

But I wonder if that will be the decisive factor. So often, it seems to me, a Super Bowl is decided on intangibles, and statistics don't tell the whole story.

Gene Wojciechowski of summarizes my feelings better than I could have done myself.

"My heart says to pick the New Orleans Saints," he writes. "For the city. For those fans. For guys like Drew Brees and Deuce McAllister.

"But every other body part says to go with the Indianapolis Colts.

"Sorry, heart."

If the game turns into the kind of shootout that some folks have been suggesting, Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star says the Colts will win.

Sure, I know it's homerism. But I agree with his logic. And, like Kravitz, I believe Manning will win his second Super Bowl, possibly with a Joe Montana–like fourth quarter drive.

But I know it is also possible that, as former Colts coach Tony Dungy said this week, Indianapolis could win by a couple of scores or more. Kravitz found that "shocking," but I didn't. The Saints are in the Super Bowl for the first time. First–timers often lose, and sometimes they lose by huge margins.

However, I'm more inclined to anticipate a close one. That's been the eventual outcome most of the time in recent years. So I'm hoping for a close one, preferably with a dramatic finish. Something both teams can be proud of.

I don't usually predict scores, but I'm going to predict Colts 28, Saints 24.

But, if it's a blowout, at least you've got The Who at halftime to look forward to.

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