This year's Super Bowl features an incredible mix of feel-good, triumph over tragedy side stories and a battle of the league's offensive titans, two deep and complex storylines that that make it hard to know where to start.
Peyton Manning, the best quarterback of the decade, versus Drew Brees, a quarterback who is carrying the city of New Orleans on his back. Darren Sharper, the wily veteran safety who has tortured quarterbacks across the league this season, versus the young Indianapolis receivers: Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie are Colts indeed; they're young and full of energy and raw talent that both have slowly harnessed under Manning's tutelage. If you're the betting type, this is probably the toughest Super Bowl pick in recent memory.
Here's a word of advice. Ignore the sentimental current that tugs at your heartstrings telling you to pick the Saints because it's their destiny to win this game and fulfill their mission of pulling New Orleans out of the last of the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina. As heartwarming as that is and as great of a Sandra Bullock movie it would make, it's not going to happen.
The biggest problem for the Saints is going to be defense, defense and defense. New Orleans has only held opponents to 10 points or less twice this season. The Colts average 26 points per game, which isn't an astronomical number, but if Sean Payton and Brees decide to get into a shootout with Manning, they will lose. He's just too good for that.
To beat Manning you have to disrupt his rhythm, and make him uncomfortable. If you look closely, when Peyton gets upset and out of his zone he looks astonishingly like his younger brother when Eli is out of sync. That lowered head, raising of the hands and look of, "Oh come on, I should've had that," that's a billboard to defensive coordinators saying, "Blitz me please, because my head is just not in the game anymore."
As many Giants fans will tell you, once Eli gets jolted, it's hard to put him on track. While Peyton has a lot more focus, if Sharper and company can get that look of frustration and self-disgust in his eyes, they'll have a shot. The New York Jets managed to do it for the first half in the AFC Championship and then were promptly torn to pieces in the second half.
Another key is that the Colts have allowed only 13 sacks in 18 games this season. Four of those have come in the past two games against two very strong defensive squads. This means not only does Manning have a lot of time to pick apart the opponents' secondary, he's much healthier than most quarterbacks in the league are at this point. Gregg Williams' defense is going to have to back up his remarks about delivering a few "remember me" hits on Manning.
For the Colts, they just need to do what they've done all year. Play smart, don't create turnovers and find a way to win. Find a way to win. That has been their style all year and while it's far from the best strategy, it has carried them this far.
Resting their starters and giving up the opportunity for a perfect season was the smartest move Jim Caldwell ever made, no matter what the pundits have said. Of course the big question of the week has been how effective will Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney be. Freeney, who pulled up lame during the Colts' win over the Jets two weeks ago, tore a ligament in his right ankle.
This creates a huge problem for the Colts defensively. With the second-highest sack total of his career, this has been a monster season for Freeney and you have to expect him to play no matter how much that ankle hurts. One possibility for the Colts would be to put him at left defensive end, allowing him to put more weight on his healthy ankle and increase his effectiveness.
There's no way this isn't going to be a good game. There's no way it'll go to overtime either. The football gods couldn't possibly be so cruel to allow this game to be decided by the NFL's inane rules of overtime. No, this one will be one for the ages, a back and forth of two masters of the gridiron.
Either Manning will cement his legacy as one of the best, if not the best quarterback of all time or Brees will ascend to true superstar status.
Prediction with a caveat: Indianapolis (with Freeney playing at approximately 75 percent health) 38-35. Without Freeney or with an ineffective Freeney, Saints 35-Colts 28.