Colts vs. Saints: the key matchups
The Saints' chore on defense is obvious yet very complicated - stop Peyton Manning (18).
Manning has been marvelous again this season, winning an unprecedented fourth MVP award, then making the key completions in playoff victories over the Ravens and Jets. Indeed, he found weaknesses in two of the league's stingiest defenses, completing 67.5 percent of his throws for 623 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. His 104.6 rating is far higher than he managed in leading the Colts to the 2007 Super Bowl, where they beat the Chicago Bears.
New Orleans must find a pass rush, and DE Will Smith was second in the NFC with 13 sacks. But the Saints have only one in the playoffs, even though they regularly hit Brett Favre last week. DT Sedrick Ellis (98), DE Bobby McCray (93) and linebackers Jon Vilma (51), Scott Fujita (55) and Scott Shanle (58) need to pressure Manning, or he will use a deep collection of receivers to pick apart the Saints.
Reggie Wayne (87) wasn't much of a factor in the AFC title game matched up with Darrelle Revis, but the Saints have nobody in Revis' class. CBs Jabari Greer (32) and Tracy Porter (22) struggled against the Vikings, and against the Cardinals the previous week. If New Orleans native Manning is salivating, it isn't over Cajun cuisine, but because of the opportunities he envisions for Wayne, his fellow WRs Pierre Garcon (85) and Austin Collie (17), and All-Pro tight end Dallas Clark (44).
Clark versus another All-Pro, safety Darren Sharper (42), will be a juicy matchup. Clark had 100 receptions this season, and Sharper tied for the league lead with nine interceptions, running back three for scores. The ball-hawking Saints forced 39 turnovers.
The Colts will try to run with Joseph Addai (29) and Donald Brown (31) behind a line that was built to protect Manning but is effective enough in the ground game. Center Jeff Saturday (63) and RT Ryan Diem (71) are their premier blockers, but Indy has to win through the air.
New Orleans scored 510 points to lead the league and has 76 in two playoff games. The Saints have gotten everyone involved, with Drew Brees (9), the NFL's most accurate passer, throwing for six TDs while not being intercepted. Brees has more mobility than Manning and is effective, even brilliant at times, throwing on the run. Brees can be unstoppable when he uses short drops for quick-hitting plays over the middle.
So DEs Robert Mathis (98) and All-Pro Dwight Freeney (93) need to get in his face rapidly, but Freeney is plagued by ligament damage in his right ankle and his availability will be a game-time decision. If the Colts can't get a decent pass rush, Brees will find WRs Marques Colston (12), Devery Henderson (19), Robert Meachem (17), and Lance Moore (16), and TEs Jeremy Shockey (88) and David Thomas (85). Shockey has been plagued by right knee problems and Thomas has capably filled in.
Indy will deploy lots of cornerbacks to handle the wideouts, including Kelvin Hayden (26), a hero of the Super Bowl win over the Bears; rookies Jacob Lacey (27) and Jerraud Powers (25), who missed the AFC title game with a left foot problem; and Tim Jennings. What the Colts must avoid is winding up with standout safeties Antoine Bethea (41) or Melvin Bullitt (33) in single coverage on RB Reggie Bush (25).
The dynamic Bush often is a make-or-break proposition for New Orleans, and he's most dangerous in the passing game. Nose tackle Dan Muir (90), coming off two strong efforts, and active LBs Gary Brackett (58) and Clint Session (55) are the keys to slowing the running attack led by Pierre Thomas (23), Bush and Mike Bell (21).
Saints PK Garrett Hartley (5) isn't likely to face a more stressful kick than the 40-yard field goal he made to lift his team into the Super Bowl. Unless, of course, he's asked to replicate that feat next Sunday.
Hartley missed the first four games of the season for using a banned stimulant and has benefited from the guidance of veteran John Carney, who stepped aside and became a kicking consultant when Hartley returned.
Indy has the opposite situation in veteran Matt Stover (3), who has replaced the injured Adam Vinatieri (4), the most successful Super Bowl kicker ever.
Stover doesn't have long range, but is plenty accurate. Tight situations rarely have bothered the 20-year veteran.
Rookie punter Thomas Morstead (6) has been steady for New Orleans and comes off a strong game. Indy rookie Pat McAfee (1) also has performed well. Both can boom deep kickoffs, too.
Bush is the most dangerous returner. He broke free to score on an 83-yard punt runback against Arizona, but his muff against Minnesota nearly cost the Saints the game. Chad Simpson (35) had a 93-yard kickoff return TD during the season.
Indy's kick coverage teams are superior to New Orleans'.
For anyone who argues that Jim Caldwell inherited a championship-caliber team when he replaced Tony Dungy, remember that it took Dungy five seasons in Indy to reach a Super Bowl. Caldwell is the fifth rookie coach to take his team to the title game.
Caldwell learned well from his mentor, and being the hand-chosen successor to Dungy made the transition easier. That doesn't mean Caldwell didn't have significant issues to deal with, beginning with the offseason retirements of key assistants Tom Moore, the only offensive coordinator Manning has worked with, and line coach Howard Mudd. Getting them back on staff as ``consultants'' settled Manning's mind, and the introduction of newcomers Collie and Brown, plus the development of Garcon, went smoothly thanks to their presence.
Perhaps most important, Caldwell's approach and demeanor are similar to Dungy's, meaning the adjustment wasn't overwhelming.
Sean Payton is the architect of the Saints' on-field turnaround from stumbling nomads to offensive powerhouse and NFC champions. Brees was his hand-picked quarterback, and together they've gotten the Saints to their first two conference title games and, now, the Super Bowl.
Payton's brilliance at offensive strategies and ability to recognize talent have been critical in New Orleans' rise. Yes, he got lucky with Colston, a seventh-round draft pick, and undrafted free agents Pierre Thomas and Lance Moore. But he and general manager Mickey Loomis used trades and Free Agency to bring in such key contributors as Shockey, Vilma, Fujita and Shanle.
Oh yeah, and Brees.
This season, Payton diverted some of his salary to hire defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. While the Saints aren't exactly staunch without the ball, they are improved, and they have a knack for takeaways.