For the first time in 16 years, the top two seeds in the NFL playoffs meet in the Super Bowl. Naturally, the assumption is that we're in for one of the most competitive and memorable contests in the game's history.
I don't think so.
I say the Colts win and win big, and here's why: They're the best team in football and have the best quarterback in football. The only games they lost this year were ones they threw back. They've been to a Super Bowl before, winning it three years ago. And they can do what the Saints can't.
|The Saints need Jonathan Vilma and his fellow linebackers to shed blocks and make plays. (Getty Images)|
It's that last item that seals it for me, and I can already hear the groans on Poydras Street. The Colts ranked 18th in overall defense and struggled against the best quarterback they faced, New England's Tom Brady. I also know that the Saints' Drew Brees had more touchdown passes than Brady, a better passer rating than anyone out there and hasn't made a big mistake in two playoff victories.
But he won't do to Indianapolis what Peyton Manning will to the Saints, and that's shock and awe their pass defense.
Forget the numbers and rankings and Q quotients. This is all you need to know about these two opponents: Manning just threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns against the league's No. 1-ranked pass defense, and the Colts just put up 30 points on the league's No. 1-ranked scoring defense.
New Orleans, meanwhile, didn't beat Minnesota as much as it survived the Vikings. The Vikings fumbled six times and committed five turnovers, yet still managed to put up 28 points and take New Orleans to overtime -- and that makes me nervous about the Saints' ability to withstand Air Peyton.
Basically, I don't see how New Orleans rattles Manning and covers his targets. The Jets have the best cornerback in football and the best pass defense in the game, and they couldn't get a handle on Manning. So how does New Orleans?
The Saints' secondary is ordinary, and their pass rush won't squeeze Manning into mistakes as it did Brett Favre a week ago because Manning doesn't take sacks. So Favre didn't take any last week, either. The poor guy was hammered again and again, and the pressure forced two interceptions.
But Manning won't see that pressure. A week ago, he atypically took two sacks on his first two series, with the Jets confident they had unlocked the secret to attacking the Colts' most valuable asset. Only they hadn't. Manning took none the rest of the way and sliced, diced and spliced his opponents in the process -- scoring 24 straight points to produce a comfortable victory.
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I can't see that happening again. But I can see Manning shredding the New Orleans secondary.
"Do you want a slow death or a sudden death?" said one scout I trust. "The key is going to be what happens up front. Can New Orleans put heat on Manning? And I don't think they can."
I don't either. But maybe the Saints concede and do what they did against Brady earlier this season -- rush three and drop eight into coverage. Brady was forced to throw underneath the coverage, often short of first downs, and the Saints won easily. They might try that again.
Only the Colts can make up chunks with their running backs.
They ranked last in rushing, but that's not because they can't run -- it's because they choose not to run. Yes, there is a difference. In last week's come-from-behind defeat of the Jets, Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore called for more second-half rushes, but Manning changed the plays because he felt confident with his passing -- and you can see why.
But when the Colts did run Sunday, they averaged 4.2 yards -- more than a yard better than they gave up to the league's No. 1-ranked rushing offense.
Which brings me to my second point: People say opponents can run all over the Colts without Bob Sanders and they're not all that solid in the middle. That's not exactly true. Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene are proof. The Ravens and the Jets combined for 173 yards rushing against Indianapolis, an average of 86.5 yards a game and 3.6 per attempt.
Here's the kicker: In two playoff games, the Colts have surrendered 20 points, or 10 per contest. I don't care if you have Peyton or Eli Manning, you will win with a defense like that. I don't care if you rank 18th overall or 24th against the run, either. What matters is how many points they surrender, and they're not giving up many.
In fact, they ranked eighth in points allowed this season, and that includes the final two regular-season games, when they surrendered 59 while starters rested. New Orleans, meanwhile, ranked 20th. Worse, the Saints surrendered 30 points and 367 yards passing to Washington's Jason Campbell.
So tell me again how they stop Peyton Manning. Answer: They don't.
"It's going to come down to pressuring the quarterback," said our scout, "and if you ask me, the Colts can do a better job of that. I just think they'll be able to get more and consistent pressure from [Dwight] Freeney and [Robert] Mathis than anything that New Orleans can do.
"If there's an X-factor for me with the Saints, it's how many plays Jonathan Vilma can make at middle linebacker. He and the other linebackers are going to have to get off of blocks, and that's not easy against the Colts."
Nothing is easy against the Colts. That's why they didn't lose a game that Manning finished. And that's why they won't lose this one, either. The Colts give up yards, but they don't give up a lot of points. And, unlike Arizona, their defense is quick to the ball and knows how to tackle. That will be a problem for New Orleans, and, in the end, it will finish the Saints.
Bottom line: I trust Indianapolis to stop Brees more than I trust New Orleans to stop Manning. Some people tell me that's wrong, and maybe it will be. But from where I sit, I like the Colts by 10 to 14 points. It's partly Manning, it's partly their defense and it's partly history.
The last time the top two seeds met was Super Bowl XXVIII, and the expectation then was similar to the expectation now -- a close and memorable event. Then Dallas beat the Buffalo Bills by 17.
I feel an encore waiting to happen.