That’s what I was saying last Monday when I predicted a New Orleans victory, and it was incredibly satisfying as a football fan to see what transpired last night. The game itself was an incredible one, continuing the streak of thrilling, close-played games that we’ve seen more often than not for a while now. Lead changes, momentum shifts, trick plays, gutsy play-calling, clutch performances – we saw all of it and more in Super Bowl XLIV. As today dawns with the reality that the New Orleans Saints are actually the champions of the football world (and the kings of a week-long carnival celebration in the Big Easy that will culminate in Fat Tuesday a week from now), some thoughts from last night’s contest:
— I talked last week about the different organizational mindsets between the two teams: the conservative, “afraid to fail” approach by the Colts that was no better exemplified than by their willing decline of the challenge of football immortality if they’d gone unbeaten (which was there for their taking), and the fearless, inspirational approach by the Saints, who embraced and welcomed the enormous weight of carrying an entire region of desperate fans onto their shoulders.
We saw those approaches again last night in some of the biggest moments of the game. First was the decision by Saints coach Sean Payton to go for the TD down by the goal line and trailing by 7 late in the 1st half. I heard a number of people calling the decision the wrong one — taking the points would have been the safe, cautious decision (and the one the Colts would have certainly made in the same situation — look back to their similar scenario against the Jets two weeks ago). But Payton’s call was undoubtedly the right one. To beat Indy, the Saints needed to punch the ball in the end zone, and the drive represented the best chance of doing so they’d had all night. Settling for 3 would have given the Colts the ball back in normal field position and would have likely ended up with Indy driving for their own field goal, nullifying any momentum the Saints might have gained by going for the field goal then.
By going for it, Payton was displaying the ultimate confidence, not only in his offense, but in his defense as well. Even though they didn’t score, Indy was left pinned deep in their own territory, giving New Orleans an opportunity to make a stop defensively and still have enough time left on the clock to try a field goal.
Helping them was the decision by Colts coach Jim Caldwell and the Indy coaching staff to go ultra-conservative at that point — afraid-to-fail, indeed. Instead of trying to move the ball through the air to get a first down and possibly add some points of their own, the Colts ran the ball up the middle three straight times, giving the Saints the ball right back and with enough time for kicker Garrett Hartley to boot the field goal at the end of the half.
It was a decision that was a classic example of the Colts’ managerial mentality, but why should they have been worried about opening up the playbook, even deep in their own territory? You have tremendous receivers, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, and you’ve moved the ball relatively effectively against the New Orleans defense when you’ve had the ball — why not do so now?
— Speaking of the second quarter, the Saints offense finally started getting untracked then after two tough opening drives where they went three-and-out, and it was in time of possession that quarter that New Orleans made their first steps to winning the game. Even though they had to settle for a single field goal in their first two drives of the quarter, they chewed up an incredible 12:27 off of the clock. Indy’s only drive before the run-the-clock-out one at the half’s conclusion was a three-and-out series that took up barely over a minute.
Beating the Colts requires ball control, no mistakes (the Saints never turned the ball over and committed only 3 penalties for 19 yards the entire game), and keeping your offense on the field while limiting the time Manning has to beat you. New Orleans started doing just that after the first quarter was over, and despite being outgained, they won the time of possession battle. The Colts would have only 8 drives in the game, far below their average on the season.
— The onside kick call at the start of the second half wasn’t just the game-changer and momentum-shifter, it goes down as the gutsiest call ever by a coach in the Super Bowl. Again, like his call to go for it on 4th and 1, Payton was challenging his team to come up big, part of that fearless approach of the Saints I’ve talked at length about. It was a crucial call, as a Colts recovery and a short field might have easily led to an Indy TD and the beginning of the end for the Saints’ chances. But unlike the onside kick at the end of the game that’s a sign of desperation, an onside kick earlier in the game often catches the other team napping and unprepared for it, dramatically increasing its chances of success. The Saints’ recovery of the onside gave life to the team and certainly demoralized the struggling Colts even further — and New Orleans’ subsequent drive to capitalize with the go-ahead TD was even more key — at that point, New Orleans knew the game was theirs for the taking, and it was likely the first moment all night that the Colts had to begin questioning if they were going to lose.
— Going into the game, there was a lot of talk from the experts (about 80% of so who picked Indy to win) about why the Colts were going to end up as champions — one of those reasons was the supposed status of the AFC as the “superior” conference.
That turned out to be an overstated opinion, and it’s one that the regular season itself didn’t back up. The NFC’s overall record against the AFC was drug down by some truly inept teams (Tampa, Detroit, and St. Louis, who went 1-11 vs. the AFC in 2009), but the top teams in the NFC fared relatively well in the regular season against the opposing conference: New Orleans, Minnesota, Dallas, Green Bay, and Arizona went 13-7 combined against the AFC (the Saints finishing 4-0) Meanwhile, the AFC was populated by some pretty mediocre squads who still made the playoffs: the Pats who couldn’t win on the road, the Jets and Bengals with terrible passing attacks, a 9-7 Ravens team, and a perpetually underachieving Chargers squad represented the best-of-the-best of the conference to challenge Indy — not an overly impressive bunch. The AFC advantage talked about leading up to the Super Bowl was largely an illusion.
— I’m a firm believer that karma and the football gods got their way in Indy going down to defeat Sunday night. If you’re been reading here, you should remember my scathing indictment of what I thought Indy’s decision to spit in the face of football immortality (by willingly surrendering a 16-0 season that was theirs for the taking) meant, and what I thought it amounted to in the larger scheme of things. I find it incredibly ironic that, despite their attempts to keep everyone healthy, Indy still ended up with two of their key players in Dwight Freeney and Reggie Wayne at less-than-100% last night (Freeney was injured at the end of the win against the Jets, while Wayne was hurt in a normal practice). Both looked like different players last night than what we saw in the regular season — Wayne never showed his usual explosiveness, while Freeney was a shell of himself in the 2nd half.
What’s sad to me about the Colts is that the approach of President Bill Polian and Coach Caldwell — which was implemented, in theory, to keep the team healthy for the Super Bowl — not only didn’t work anyway, but their stated opinion that the regular season meant “nothing” and that winning the Super Bowl was the “only” goal of the franchise has essentially rendered the entire Indy campaign as a failure, by their own standards and admissions. The Colts players and fans deserved better than that — Indy had a tremendous season in which they won a league-high seven games when trailing in the 4th quarter, and despite rookie receivers and a shaky running game, they had a chance to channel the spirit of those unbeaten Dolphins — a team themselves that was solid and consistent, if not spectacular. Instead, they threw away their shot at history — and now, they don’t even have the Super Bowl win they needed to validate the decision.
— Finally, a Le Boo Coaching Award to give out this week and it goes to a Colts coach — sort of. Not Jim Caldwell, but the ex-coach of Indianapolis, Tony Dungy.
All season long while working for NBC, when the subject of the Colts has come up, Dungy has been more shill than analyst, relentlessly complimenting Indianapolis at every turn and seemingly incapable of turning a critical eye to any of their decisions. That’s understandable, I guess — after all, Caldwell is a disciple of Dungy’s approach to running the team, so it makes perfect sense that everything the rookie coach did would meet with Dungy’s approval — and I certainly understand the former coach’s loyalty to the organziation and its players.
But that didn’t explain Dungy’s assertion this week that, not only would the Colts win on Sunday, but that the game “wouldn’t even be close”. Throughout his coaching career, Dungy has always been a classy, soft-spoken guy — the type who’d let the other side do the talking. This week, however, he seemed emboldened in not only anointing Indy as the champs, but cementing Manning’s status alongside Super Bowl immortals like Montana and Bradshaw.
Not only was the proclamation premature, but it was ill-advised. There’s nothing wrong with Dungy believing that, and there would have been nothing wrong with picking the Colts to win if asked by other media — what else would he say? But in his dismissive statements about the level of opposition that New Orleans would put up, Dungy not only acted uncharacteristically — but he gave New Orleans some added bulletin-board material. It may not have amounted to a whole lot, but it certainly didn’t do the Colts any favors. Maybe the next time Indy makes to the Super Bowl, Dungy will remember that nothing good comes from giving the other team even more reason to beat you than they already have.
— With that, we’ve wrapped up another tremendous NFL season. Baseball is right around the corner, so that’s what I’m gearing up for next. Hopefully we’ll see as great a campaign there as we just finished with.