Super Bowl XLIV Forecast
6:00 ET • CBS
The NFL has been transitioning to feature offenses since the success of the 1999 Rams and New Orleans will now be rewarded for it. The old phrase of “defense wins championships” isn’t as iron clad as it used to be despite the success of the Jets in 2009. There were an NFL record nine QB’s with 4,000+ yds passing this year with Manning being #2 and Brees #6. This is the biggest QB matchup since Elway faced Favre in Super Bowl 32. Manning’s Colts are led by Jim Caldwell who is the 6th rookie HC to reach the Super Bowl and the 1st since 2002. This is also the 1st time since 1993 that the #1 seeds in both conferences have reached the Super Bowl. Indianapolis won the Lombardi Trophy just 3 years ago in Miami vs Chicago who had beaten Drew Brees’ Saints in the NFC Championship. The Saints are enjoying their 1st Super Bowl in franchise history. They have become the embodiment of the city of New Orleans and the local areas that are still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina. The story of Archie Manning who was THE star player as a QB for a string of bad Saints teams will also be put in the spotlight as well the impact of his 2 sons. This could be the final game for vaunted Colts coaches Tom Moore (OC) and Howard Mudd (OL coach) who almost retired before the draft but Peyton personally lobbied for their return. Bolstered by a slew of passing records and statistics, a Super Bowl win here would move Manning from the “best QB in the NFL right now” discussion to the “best QB ever.” Drew Brees deserves a huge amount of credit for being the cornerstone of turning around the Saints’ franchise. The impact of DC Gregg Williams on a Saints defense which plays better than its #25 ranking, due to 39 takeaways, should also be front and center. Indianapolis is viewed as the favorite due to their playoff experience and the fact they beat the #3 and #1 defenses back-to-back. New Orleans throttled an undermanned Arizona team and despite being outgained 475-257 advanced due to Minnesota turning the ball over 5 times on 13 drives.
The Colts are strong believers in continuity and character which has enabled them to reach the playoffs every year since 2002. Indy is 9-8 with Manning at the helm in the playoffs. The Colts have 25 players who played in Super Bowl 41 and are even staying in the same hotel so they will be very well prepared to deal with the media onslaught. With this Super Bowl being in Miami the Colts will be very familiar with the hotels, practice arrangements and media areas. Both teams have 7 Pro Bowlers and while none of the 14 players will play they all had to make the trip to Miami the week prior for the actual game and stayed in Miami. Indy has 7 offensive and 5 defensive starters who played in Super Bowl 41 with LT Charlie Johnson being the #3 OT in the game. Brees has played in 5 playoff games but has no SB experience. New Orleans has 6 offensive and 3 defensive starters who played vs the Bears in the 2006 NFC Championship. The Saints have 3 players with SB experience with FS Sharper (‘97 Green Bay), CB Gay (‘04 and ‘07 New England), FB Eckel (‘07 New England) and while Shockey was on the ‘07 New York Giant team he was hurt and didn’t play. This is one of the largest edges in playoff/SB experience in recent memory.
LARGE EDGE: COLTS
This is an NFL record 10th Super Bowl being hosted in South Florida and the 5th in this building (KR for TD in all 4). Sun Life Stadium is a 76,500 seat venue with a natural grass surface. Both teams are speed oriented and the defenses will be slowed down some the grass which will benefit the QB’s. The Saints played here Oct 25th and will be used to the sight lines but many of the Colts’ players were involved in the rainy night game of Super Bowl 41. The NFL spares no expense to ensure a quality playing surface however they could be hard pressed to provide one with the Pro Bowl being played 7 days prior. Normally the NFL imports a grass field called Princess 77 for the game costing over $500,000 to install and it gets a month to grow in before its played on. Unlike last year where a large amount of Pittsburgh fans made the trip neither franchise is known for its fans travelling. Both teams will be allotted 17.5% of the tickets. One third goes to season ticket holders in a lottery system, one third to suite owners and the rest to the players, coaches and staff. The team hosting the event gets 5% of the tickets, 30% is shared by the other 30 NFL teams with the league retaining 30% for sponsors and promotions. The avg ticket price for SB XLIV on the resale market was $2,799 prior to the Championship games.
SAINTS #1 OFFENSE VS COLTS #18 DEFENSE
The Saints offense starts with Drew Brees who is a perfect match for Sean Payton’s offensive system. Brees is a rhythm QB who gets better with momentum making those first 15 scripted plays crucial. Minus the QB rush attempts New Orleans was a 55/45 pass vs run team in 2009. Payton is a very innovative play caller and the New Orleans system spreads the ball around to various players diffusing opposing defenses. The Saints have 7 players with 35 or more rec’s and 10 players with 1 TD catch. Brees favorite target is Colston and he has logged 1,000 yds receiving in 3 of the last 4 years. Henderson is the possession WR and 33 of his 54 rec’s have gone for first down. Despite Brees coming so close to Marino’s single season passing record in 2008 the offense didn’t really click until this year with a healthy Shockey to exploit the seams in the middle of defenses. Meachem finally came into his own this year as a big play WR (1 TD every 5 rec’s) who is able to stretch the field (16.0 ypc is 9th). The 2nd biggest improvement for the Saints this year was their run game which avg’d 100 ypg (4.0) last year improving to 132 ypg (4.5) this year (6th). All 3 RB’s were hit with injuries this year with Thomas missing 2.5 games due to bruised ribs. However the Saints emphasize a different RB week to week depending on the foe they are facing. Thomas is the all purpose RB, Bell the power back and Bush is a multi-role speed/agility back that can motion out of the backfield and play slot. Bush’s versatility is another key component to the offense but he is starting to slow down due to a chronic knee injury. The Saints returned 4 of 5 starters that developed together when the OL was rebuilt back in 2006. Brees has only been sacked more than twice in a game 2 times this year (Miami and Dallas) and including the 2 playoff games he’s averaged 1 sack every 27 attempts. RG Jahri Evans has evolved into arguably the best OG in the NFL despite coming from a Division II school. The Saints will have to contend with a very fast Colt defense that matches up fairly well in the passing game. The Colts #18 defense isn’t that bad considering that Antonio Johnson is a 5th round draft choice that was signed off Tennessee’s practice squad last year and Daniel Muir is 3rd year unrestricted free agent that was claimed last year off waivers. GM Pioli likes to state the Colts play the run (25th, 127 ypg, 4.3) on the way to the QB (15th, 34 sacks). Indy’s offensive success also helps dictate opposing teams tendencies as they play the pass more. This is the 1st playoff run since the Super Bowl win in 2006 that Indianapolis had Freeney and Mathis healthy together (22.5 sacks, 66% sacks). Indy’s LB’s don’t get a lot of credit as they are system LB’s that are very fast and are sure tacklers. Indianapolis is one of the NFL’s best at not giving up big plays in 2009 and while they give up yardage in a grinding style they also force teams into mistakes. Brackett is a solid if undersized MLB and Session is an underrated WLB is a poor man’s Derrick Brooks. While Indy is a better team when Bob Sanders plays, the Colts don’t miss him as Antoine Bethea had an All-Pro level season and Melvin Bullitt is solid run stuffer. Indianapolis is very specific in how it drafts CB’s requiring them to be solid tacklers who are very fast and they tend to get beaten up. Indianapolis has given up four 300 yard passing games this year vs Warner, Schaub and Brady with the 4th coming vs Sanchez in the playoffs when they were in a prevent defense. They’ve allowed 229 ypg passing (63%) with a 21-19 ratio with 3 TD’s coming vs Buffalo. They have only allowed 3 games of 3 passing TD’s but will be hard pressed to match that here. New Orleans’s balanced offense has the edge here despite Indy’s speed.
COLTS #9 OFFENSE VS SAINTS #25 DEFENSE
Indianapolis is the only team since the 2002 realignment to with double digit wins and playoff appearances. Continuity is the core of the Colts offense as Manning has had the same OC and OL coach the entire time he’s been in the NFL. HC Jim Caldwell was his QB coach from 2002 until he took over as HC with Frank Reich replacing him. Manning has become the best statistical QB in the NFL and is keenly aware of his place in the NFL history books. He won his 4th MVP in 2009 with no less than 5 come-from-behind 4Q wins en route to a 14-0 start. What makes 2009 stand out is the fact that he no longer had Marvin Harrison and his replacement Anthony Gonzalez (knee) was lost after the season opener. Manning was able to force feed Pierre Garçon and Austin Collie into the Colts system and develop them. He was still able to get Reggie Wayne, who is arguably the 3rd best WR (behind Arizona’s Fitzgerald and Houston’s Johnson) and Dallas Clark, who is one of the top 5 receiving TE’s in the NFL, 100 rec’s each. Manning’s attention to detail in the passing game over the season helped push Garçon and Collie to a combined 18 rec’s (15.2) vs the Jets #1 D. Indianapolis has only averaged 80 yards per game (3.5) rushing the last 2 years despite adding Donald Brown in this year’s draft. While Indianapolis does struggle in short yardage situations the truth is they view RB’s as extra pass blockers and Addai is a good receiving RB (51 receptions, 6.6). Indianapolis does an excellent job of developing OL and getting them to overachieve. They are dedicated pass blockers who provide little push at the point of attack and while a lot of credit goes to Manning they have only given up 1 sack every 40 pass attempts this year. The Colts can be slowed down by bigger and physical defenses like Tennessee’s last year, Jacksonville in Week 1 or Baltimore in the Nov game. Aside from the NFC Championship game where they unloaded on Favre, New Orleans isn’t known for that. Gregg Williams runs an aggressive blitzing scheme that isn’t afraid to come from any angle. Will Smith is the top pass rusher on the team (13 sacks) but he’s not known for his run stopping ability like Charles Grant (torn triceps) was before landing on IR after the season finale. DT Ellis took a huge step in development and with him in the lineup the Saints only allowed 103 yards per game (4.2) vs 151 yards per game without him. One of the glaring weaknesses for New Orleans defense had been the lack of an impact MLB but Vilma has locked the spot down and is the one player that Williams trusts with changing defensive playcalls on the field. Prior to 2009 the Saints gave up a whopping 79-39 ratio over 3 years. While DC Williams rightfully gets most of the credit the truth is New Orleans revamped the secondary signing Sharper (9 int), Greer, getting Tracy Porter back from a broken wrist and drafting Jenkins, who would be the nickel CB. The Saints’ secondary was very beat up this year and at one point was without 4 of its top 6 CB’s but still finished 3rd with 26 regular season int (Green Bay 30, Buffalo 28). New Orleans allowed five 300 yard passing games this year but only 1 game with 3 TD passes (Washington). New Orleans does have a very dangerous secondary but they don’t have the physicality overall to slow down Manning who will have extra time to break down the defense.
It’s not much of a surprise that both teams are at the bottom of my special teams rankings as the Colts (#31) simply don’t spend money in this area. They replaced their special teams coach and punter in the offseason but recorded a 37.8 net average (20th). The Saints’ (#30) P Morstead tied for 32nd in net average (36.0) but part of the problem for both punters is that their offenses stall in favorable field position and they aren’t allowed to unload like Lechler does with Oakland. Both teams have poor PR numbers with Indianapolis averaging 5.2 (28th) and New Orleans averaging 4.6 (31st). Bush, however, remains a weapon and had an 83 yd PR TD vs Arizona. Kickers have struggled with FG’s in the 2009 playoffs (20 of 33) and Indy has a huge edge with Stover (569 attempts) over Hartley (26 attempts) despite his game winning 40 yard FG vs Minnesota. New Orleans has the edge on KR’s (4th) thanks to Courtney Roby whose 27.5 average tied for 11th. Both teams have poor KR defenses with New Orleans being 29th (24.5) and the Colts finishing 31st (25.3). Struggling teams generally place more emphasis on their special teams while good teams have cap issues that prevent their starters from playing there. Neither team qualifies for an edge here based on their body of work.
For the third time in four years a member of the Tony Dungy coaching tree will appear in the Super Bowl. Jim Caldwell was an assistant coach with Indianapolis in Super Bowl 41 which made the transition from Dungy’s retirement very smooth. Thanks to Manning, he was able to bring back OC Tom Moore and OL coach Howard Mudd for another year keeping that side of the ball together. He did bring in a new DC in Larry Coyer who set up a system for bigger DT’s but kept the overall team speed intact. He also hired a new special teams coach in Ray Rychleski and while those results haven’t moved Indy up in the rankings, they didn’t cost them any games like last year’s Wildcard loss to San Diego. Sean Payton is a former AFL QB who came into the league as a QB coach for Jim Fassel and Ray Rhodes. His career blossomed under Bill Parcells as he helped developed Romo into a starting QB. Payton is widely regarded as the best offensive oriented HC currently in the NFL. Payton made the highly publicized and successful move (chipping in $250K of his own salary) to hire Gregg Williams as his DC. New Orleans’ defense was 11th after the first 7 games but injuries and their offensive play style saw them decline as the season went along. Both teams have solid offensive coaches and really the defenses are in the first year of new DC so there are no edges.
PAST HISTORY MATCHUP & INTANGIBLES
The last meeting between these teams was the 2007 NFL season opener where Indianapolis shredded New Orleans 41-10 at home. Indianapolis had a massive emotional edge in their first game since their Super Bowl win and New Orleans was pressing too hard to be perfect after the NFC Championship loss. New Orleans DC Williams is very familiar with Manning having been the Tennessee DC from ‘97-’00, Buffalo’s HC from ‘01-’03, the Washington DC in ‘07 and the Jacksonville DC in ‘08. He is 2-5 vs Manning with his defenses allowing 285 yards per game (65%) with a 13-4 ratio with 7 sacks. Both teams carry themselves very well in the media and the “bulletin board” material has been entertaining but not game changing. New Orleans does have the emotional boost of their first SB in franchise history and will be playing for themselves and the city. While the media will try to play up Archie Manning’s involvement with both franchises here it won’t carry weight on the field.