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Matchup nightmares: Pivotal Super Bowl matchups
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Face it, every contending team and its players start believing down the stretch in December and into January's playoffs that fate is shining on them this time around. So now that we're down to two teams, the Who Dat? Saints and the shoulda-been-perfect Colts with "coach" Peyton Manning and a bunch of no-names.
So which team is the (as Tenacious D so eloquently put it) Pick of Destiny?
Let's chew on some of the meaty angles you’re going to be fed and beat over the head with for the next 14 days.
1. Peyton Manning vs. Saints defense
If you’re not prepared for an onslaught of old photographs and grainy videos of 10-year-old Peyton Manning dressed in Saints colors strolling around the Superdome before one of father Archie’s games, then brace yourself.
But there’s more to this theme than just son vs. father’s old squad. There’s New Orleans, the city where Peyton, Eli, and Cooper were raised, too. Call me a sucker for a good video montage, but I’m already getting goose bumps and welled up eyes over the thought of a Jim Nantz voiceover set to Archie’s Saints and Peyton’s Isidore Newman School high school highlights with Michael Buble’s “Home” gently playing in the background.
(Wiping eyes.) Moving right along ...
As for the Saints-Colts matchup itself, it’s one of the NFL’s most successful franchises vs. a team without a winning season in its first 21 years in the league, had never won two playoff games in a postseason or been to a Super Bowl in its first 43 years of existence. This is Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry and John Mackey’s Colts versus the fumbling, bumbling paper-bag-on-head 'Aints. From an NFL history lens, it’s truly the big guys vs. the little guys.
On the field, how the heck is the Saints defense going to be able to rewrite the storybook season of Peyton Manning? He's seen a million defenses, and he's rocked them all. Give Manning two weeks to study and prepare for any opposing 11, and he’s going to dissect it like a master scientist. The adjustments Manning made to the Jets defensive gameplan of Sunday’s AFC Championship? He did that on the fly. Two weeks to prep for the Saints? This could get ugly.
As for Dat Saints defense, they can be movable objects, but as the Vikings learned they might be the best ballhawking defense in the league. They swipe at the ball on just about every tackle, are made of a team of centerfielders in pass coverage and aren’t scared to sacrifice a few first downs for a shot at the big play. For them, it's not about yardage, but turnovers. Period.
X’s and O’s Difference Maker: Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams. Devising defensive game plans for 31 of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks is one thing; trying to prepare and figure out Peyton Manning is another. Just ask Rex Ryan.
2. Drew Brees vs. Colts defense
Manning or Brady? Brady or Manning? That’s been the sports bar debate for the greater part of the past decade. In recent years, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer and old men Favre and Warner have ducked in and out of the conversation, but it’s always been Manning and Brady at the end of the day.
Drew Brees is on the cusp of becoming a fixture in the discussion. Stat-wise, he’s had as good if not a better ’09 campaign than MVP Manning this season. His team had just as dominant a year. Still on the outside looking in when it comes to the “best QB” debate, Drew Brees can stick his foot in the door and his arm in the conversation with a Super Bowl win on February 7.
If Brees has his eyes on earning the fans’ respect, the Colts defense is looking for something very similar. When pressed to name the league’s most dominant defenses, media pundits and fans alike tend to list Dick Lebeau’s in Pittsburgh, Rex Ryan’s in New York and Leslie Frazier’s in Minnesota. Very rarely do you hear Larry Coyer’s boys in Indy mentioned in the conversation. Through two playoff games, though, the Indy defense has surrendered just 20 points, 2 touchdowns, and less than 150 rushing yards. Shut down this dynamo Saints offense, and it will be hard not to include the Colts defense in any future “best D” conversations.
X’s and O’s Difference Maker: Colts LB Gary Brackett. The longtime leader of the Colts defense, Brackett’s perhaps the most unheralded defensive star in the league. An undrafted rookie in 2003, he's started 73 regular season games as a Colt and personifies the unit as a whole: undersized, unheralded, and downright nasty. If there's a game-changing play to be made, it will probably be made by Brackett.
A lot has happened since 1997, the last time Saints safety Darren Sharper played in the Super Bowl. His QB from that ’97 Packers team has retired twice, thrown two costly NFC Championship picks and done a bunch of a Wrangler jeans ads along the way; James Cameron’s released another movie to rival that year’s mega-box office hit Titanic; and well, there was the “Pants on the Ground” guy. How long ago was 1997? Peyton Manning was a senior at Tennessee, leading the Volunteers’ marching band to “Rocky Top” that year.
But after 12 seasons, six Pro Bowls and what’s evolved into a potential Hall of Fame career, Darren Sharper’s going back to the Super Bowl to get the ring that eluded him during his rookie season. Ranking sixth on the all-time NFL interceptions list, Sharper’s defied the test of time and is having perhaps his most complete season of his storied career at the ripe old age of 34. His older brother Jamie got a Super Bowl ring with the 2000 Ravens. Now, younger brother Darren wants his.
Yet, two bright -eyed youngsters in the Colts receiving corps may be what stands between Sharper and that dream becoming a reality. In second-year man Pierre Garcon and rookie Austin Collie, Indianapolis has two of the league’s brightest young receiving targets, each capable of burning the Saints secondary over the top or underneath. Collie and Garcon combined for 18 catches, 274 yards, and 2 touchdowns against the Jets’ no.1 rated defense in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. That kind of performance in the Super Bowl would most likely be enough to make Darren Sharper a bridesmaid once again.
Alas, he doesn’t have another 12 years to wait for a third chance at that elusive Super Bowl ring.
X’s and O’s Difference Maker: Saints SS Roman Harper. Like Starsky and Hutch or Tango and Cash, Sharper and Harper (it rhymes!) are one of the great crime-fighting duos of American history. They punish receivers for coming across the middle and make QBs pay for living loosely with errant throws. Though Sharper gets the bulk of the headlines, Harper may end up being the reason his battering mate gets his long-sought Super Bowl ring. Both will need to be at their very best to contain the Colts' many receiving weapons.
4. Antoine Bethea vs. Robert Meachem
The Colts' defense was once all about 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders. With Sanders out for much of the ’09 season, former 2006 sixth-round draft pick Antoine Beathea has emerged as one of the league's biggest and brightest defensive stars. Bethea’s been everywhere for the Colts in ’09 and saved his best for the postseason. In on just about every play against Baltimore in the divisional round and a menace against the Jets on Sunday, the former Howard star’s stepped his already elite game up even higher when the stakes matter most.
For the Saints, meanwhile, wide receiver Robert Meachem -- written off by many as a colossal "bust" after a forgettable zero-catch rookie season -- has emerged as a budding talent. Talk about an ugly duckling. Meachem, a first-round pick in ’07, had 33 more catches in 2009 than he did in his first two years in the league combined. He’s given opposing defensive backfields headaches all season. There's going to be a point in the Super Bowl where it's him versus Bethea. One of the two young stars will come out on top.
X’s and O’s Difference Maker: Saints Head Coach Sean Payton. On roughly 2-3 Saints offensive plays per game, Sean Payton draws something up specifically for Meachem. They usually result in game-breakers. When and how Meachem gets utilized in the Saints passing game will be an intriguing subplot to Super Bowl XLIV. When and how Antoine Bethea tries to blow those plans up will be even more intriguing.
5. Dwight Freeney vs. Jermon Bushrod
After playing in just two games in ’08, Jermon Bushrod has emerged as the Saints' starting left tackle in his third year in the league. In the playoffs thus far, he’s helped keep Drew Brees upright vs. premier pass rushers Jared Allen and Darnell Dockett. The former Towson star’s going to have his hands full against Dwight Freeney. For as fast and physical as Allen and Dockett are, they’re snails compared to No. 93.
Though he’s yet to record a sack in the ’09 playoffs, Freeney’s pressured Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez into awkward throws and fleeting tosses out of bounds. Fellow linebacker-sized defensive end Robert Mathis has been flying in from the left side. Together, they should be breathing on Drew Brees from the very get go.
X’s and O’s Difference Maker: Saints TE Jeremy Shockey. If Freeney gets going early, don’t be shocked to see Jeremy Shockey -- one of the league’s more underrated blocking tight ends -- brought over to give a little pass rush assistance on the line’s left side.
6. The Ol’ Gunslinger vs. Retirement
Okay ... Maybe this one can wait until February 8.