It was a brilliant stand-off. A duel, if you will. Two gun-slinging cowboys who had all of the stakes on the line. All the chips were in the middle of the table. So, who would blink first?
And, at the moment of truth, the one who doesn't blink did. Peyton Manning, who might have been one throw from the top of the pyramid of QB immortality, tumbled as Tracy Porter sat on the slant to Reggie Wayne, jumped the route, and raced 74 yards to seal the unlikely win for a franchise that had never won a thing.
The New Orleans Saints are Super Bowl Champions. It seems odd to say, but the fairy tale that was 5 years in the making has been completed. And Drew Brees, the co-main character in the movie, played an almost perfect game to take down the Goliath across the field in the film's climax. It would come down to who would make the first mistake - the only mistake. Who would not match the other; Peyton or Brees? A great match given that neither make many mistakes. But Brees survived, and Peyton took the walk of shame back to his sideline.
Meanwhile, the other co-main, Sean Payton, deserves plenty of mention himself. Hard to recall any coach roll the dice as often as Payton did in the biggest game of his career. Go for it on 4th Down? Onside kick to start the 2nd half? And blitz Manning on the 3rd and 5 that will go down as the play that Tracy Porter decided the game? Yes, Yes, and Yes. Payton did not want to wake up and have any regrets about moves he could have made. He wanted to leave it all out on the table. I think that some of his moves perhaps told us that he knew he was going to have to roll the bones to have a chance against the Colts. He knew that a straight-up match might not be a fair fight. He was going to have to get creative. And, despite the 4th down not working out, the tone had been set that he was going for it.
And yes, Dallas fans, I have received your emails. I just don't know if anyone would have fired Bill Parcells to keep Sean Payton at the time. You could make the case that Jerry Jones could/should have signed Payton to a deal similar to Jason Garrett's deal that says he will take over when Parcells left, but perhaps the only reason Garrett has that deal is because of Payton. Further, if your ambition is to be a head coach, 90% of guys take the bird in the hand over the two in the bush, which means Payton would have left anyway when the Saints made their offer. The other 10% include Garrett who has turned down at least 2 head coaching jobs since he signed that deal with Jerry.
Anyway, in the biggest game, it came down to Brees and Payton leading the way for their Saints. And now they are Super Bowl Champions. A very entertaining and enjoyable night of NFL football on the grand stage.
Let's do some scatter-shooting:
* Turnovers. The stat that determines the outcome of a game more than any other stat once again helped determine the winner of Super Bowl 44. Simply put, the team that stays out of trouble almost always wins. In the 2009 NFL Playoffs, there were 11 games played. And the winners of the turnover battle? 10-0-1. Only the Colts-Jets AFC Title game was even to keep it going a perfect 11-0. But, as you can see, not one team won in the playoffs when having a negative turnover margin. A perfect post-season for one of the oldest NFL truism. No matter how much football evolves, it cannot get away from that. There was only 1 mis-handle of the ball that ended up falling into enemy hands - and it was the ultimate kill shot.
* In an era where it seems blitzing is the only way to slow down QBs, I found it particularly interesting last night that both teams largely conceded that it is too dangerous to blitz the other's QB. Brees and Manning have actually scared many of their opponents into not pressuring at all (not including Rex Ryan). But, really, both QBs had all day. Whereas, the game before, Greg Williams blitz Brett Favre plenty and beat him physically. With Manning, he hardly blitzed at all, but saved for a few key moments in the game, including the 3rd and 5 I have now referenced again. It is the ultimate pick-your-poison scenario, and most of us will always prefer the blitz from our defense - but it should be noted that most of the damage that both QBs did last night was on passes of less than 10 yards and a series of dump offs and quick WR routes. It makes it more difficult to get guys open down field if you drop 7 into coverage, and both QBs get rid of the ball very quickly in normal Down-and-Distance situations so that they almost never get touched.
* Pierre Thomas is a punishing RB who seems like a load to bring down. Really, quite a playoff for guys named "Pierre" as he was joined in the endzone by Pierre Garcon again. Surely the biggest such season ever.
* Speaking of RBs, was everyone else aware that the 26-yard carry for Joseph Addai was his longest since Christmas Eve, 2006? That seems shockingly pedestrian.
* As I wrote about last week , an entire career can turn on one play. In South Florida, Peyton Manning was being crowned as one of the very best QBs of all time pending his assumed victory in his 2nd Super Bowl. Was he as good as Joe Montana? Was he better than Aikman? But, 1 crazy 2-point conversion followed a few minutes later with a jumped route, and now we are all looking at Peyton's all time playoff record of 9-9 and wondering what is so impressive about that. 1 play. From penthouse to being questioned again. There is only 1 way to survive the insanity of the greatness argument - retire 2 days after you win your Super Bowl. If Drew Brees was worried about an unqualified legacy, he should retire right now. Hopefully, none of these guys play football to satisfy message boards and talk shows, because there are very few who ever can do that.
* Thank goodness for instant replay. Although I cannot swear they totally interpreted the rule properly, how big was that 2-point conversion? In real time, it looked proper to say Lance Moore never controlled the ball. But in slow motion, it seemed clear that he did. Does everything happen the same after the fact if it is just 22-17? Maybe. But, it is a major difference in thinking that the Colts are driving to send this game into overtime rather than driving to win the game out-right at 24-22. Anyway, that is a long way of saying that I appreciate the technological advances in trying to get calls right.
* You will remember the name Garrett Hartley after this last month, right? 4 weeks ago, I am not sure I could name the Saints kicker, but after putting one of the most "money" performances for a kicker in the 2 biggest games of the season, he has cemented a chance at a nice long career in the NFL. Southlake is proud, I am sure. What a job.
* Don't we all expect a little better from Reggie Wayne? He is generally unquestioned in his performances, but two pretty key moments happened that can be linked to #87; Porter beating him to the spot on the slant (which absolutely cannot happen), and then the TD that went through his hands on the Colts final drive that might have at least made an onside kick attempt. It has been pretty clear that the gameplan has been to make Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie beat you, and I wonder how Reggie Wayne has been able to stay in the game and to continue to be ready for his moment. He did have 11 targets in the game, but only generated 46 yards from that total - 5th most on the Colts. Not a great performance at all.
* Having studied the Cowboys game plan all season, I was interested in charting personnel groups for both teams last night. There were two discoveries worthy of mention. First, for the Colts, it is clear that they have one primary personnel group that is 1RB-1TE-3WR or as we call "11". They do not rotate in new groups like Garrett does every snap, but rather play almost the entirety of the game with either "11" or "S11" with Manning in Shotgun. Otherwise, the only personnel change would be Joseph Addai to Donald Brown. Almost no 2 TE, 2 WR, or FB in the entire offense. Interesting. Then for the Saints, they wanted to have all 3 WR to one side of the field with Reggie Bush and Jeremy Shockey on the weak side running their games against safeties or Line Backers. They did this quite a bit, including the long pass play to Bush and the TD to Shockey. It is really just about finding match-ups, and if you put all of your speed WRs on one side of the field, you force the defense to match it, and thus, expose themselves on the weak side. I enjoy football.
* Because this is interesting to me, I always try to update the record books with help from Elias Sports Bureau :
Super Bowl records set in Super Bowl XLIV
-Highest completion percentage, career (minimum: 30 completions): 82.1, Drew Brees, New Orleans
-Most completions, game, both teams: 63, New Orleans (32) vs. Indianapolis (31)
-Highest completion percentage, game, both teams: 75.0, New Orleans (82.1) vs. Indianapolis (68.9)
-Most field goals, 40-or-more yards, game: 3, Garrett Hartley, N.O.
-Oldest player: 42, Matt Stover, Indianapolis
Super Bowl records tied in Super Bowl XLIV
Largest deficit overcome, winning team: 10 points, New Orleans
Most completions, game: 32, Drew Brees, N.O.
Most two-point conversions, game: 1, Lance Moore, N.O.
Most yards, touchdown drive: 96, Indianapolis
Most first downs passing, game, both teams: 32, Indianapolis (16) vs. New Orleans (16)
Fewest rushing attempts, game, both teams: 37, New Orleans (18) vs. Indianapolis (19)
Most completions, game, team: 32, New Orleans
Fewest times sacked, game, team: 0, Indianapolis
Fewest times sacked, game, both teams: 1, Indianapolis (0) vs. New Orleans (1)
Fewest fumbles, game, both teams: 0, Indianapolis vs. New Orleans
Fewest turnovers, game, team: 0, New Orleans
* Finally, just a simple note about the Saints fans. I think in this cynical society, we want to laugh at someone who can lose their minds over something as trivial as a sporting event, but I want to avoid that here. I think it is awesome when we can find a truly long-suffering fan base that has not been ruined by success and greed and entitlement. You see, Saints fans at this moment in time are experiencing victory for the very 1st time. Like a kiss, there is never a 2nd time that holds up. The truth is, in 3 or 4 years, Saints fans may grow into the same fans that annoy us from those who win regularly and demand excellence or else. There is something refreshing about a team that has never won. There is crying and joy and amazing elation that can never be matched again. So, as the scene in New Orleans is going on, with even the extra baggage of a natural disaster still being felt, this is a moment where I think most people, regardless of who they root for, can feel great for that city and organization. They are one of the last fan bases who "deserve" this. Long-suffering, die-hard fans are hard to find anymore. Good for them.
I love my sports, there is no doubt about it. But, I love my NFL more. You can tell me that pitchers and catchers are about to report or that the Daytona 500 is next week or that March Madness is right around the corner, but it just isn't the same. With the end of last night's game, it dawned on me, yet again, that the greatest league in the world is going competitively dark for the next 7 months. And that makes me miss it already.
Hurry back, NFL.