Super Bowl XLIV — before it happened

Maybe not the difference on Sunday.

Editor’s Note: This is my preview of Super Bowl XLIV. And by preview, I wanted to try to give an actual, you know, preview of what I think might happen. Here is one man’s vision of how the Colts and Saints will play out. It ends like any game does — with a winner.

For the first 20 minutes or so, it wasn’t much of a game.

Not a blowout. Not saying that. Just two teams overwhelmingly prepared — maybe too prepared. Nothing broke loose, and the two big-play offenses seemed a little stagnant. A first down here and there, but more punts than fans would have liked.

One touchdown, scored by the New Orleans Saints on their first drive, the opening series of the game. But you can never take too much from the first drive — those first 15 plays are always scripted. And besides, Peyton Manning nearly answered, and would have had Pierre Garcon held on for the touchdown. Instead, the ensuing drive resulted in a Matt Stover 31-yard field goal.

Not much after that, though. A turnover by each team, but the defenses held. Drew Brees ran a nice 2-minute offense down the field at the end of the half, which netted a field goal, and a 10-3 Saints lead at the break.

Kind of surprising really. Just about everybody figured this would be a shootout.

Then came the second half.

As if he’d gone over game film while The Who was blasting through “Won’t Get Fooled Again” — and look, he’s Peyton Manning, so maybe he did — the Colts looked sharp on the first series of the second half. They found the end zone, on a 1-yard plunge by Joseph Addai, and knotted it up at 10.

Looking back, that may have broken the seal. Even though the Saints didn’t answer right off the bat, neither did the Colts after forcing the three-and-out. But New Orleans got the ball back, and with Dwight Freeney stuck on the sideline after a nondescript and limp-filled first half, Brees found Reggie Bush over the middle on a slant, which went from a nice little 8-yard gain to a 67-yard touchdown.

Manning didn’t let that slide, though. Indy marched 74 yards on five plays, and there was no stopping Garcon on his 5-yard slant. Tied at 17, 4 minutes left in the third quarter.

And now, we’ve got a heavyweight fight. The league’s two best teams throwing haymakers.

With little-to-no pass rush, Brees is picking apart an Indy secondary that features a rookie who was once third on the depth chart.

Manning, though, after shaking off a couple of close-but-not-quite-dirty hits in the first half, is gesturing at the line like he always does — and now is killing the blitz. Reggie Wayne might be a little gimpy with his sore knee, but Garcon and Austin Collie look like Pro Bowlers. They seem so wide open.

Brees and Marques Colston. Manning and Dallas Clark. It’s 24-all heading into the last half of the fourth quarter.

Saints with the ball. They pound it a couple of times with Pierre Thomas. Third-and-five, Brees finds Lance Moore over the middle for the first down. Move the chains.

Pound it again. Mike Bell gets the call. They don’t want to leave too much time for Manning. But it’s third-and-7 now, at midfield, and time to go to the air.

Here come the Colts, rushing off the edges. Brees escapes Robert Mathis’ grasp and keeps rolling to his right.

Then he sees him. Colston streaks across the field, coming from the left and down to the right corner near the end zone. He’s behind safety Antoine Bethea. Brees heaves, and Colston hauls it in for the touchdown. 31-24, Saints.

2:31 to go, though.

Manning’s in the shotgun. He’s hollering what may or may not be instructions. Who really knows?  Maybe they are audibles, maybe they are dekes. Maybe a little of both.

Whatever they are, he’s working his magic again, magic that wasn’t there four years ago. This looks like the second half against the Jets in the AFC Championship — or the second half of that AFC title game against Brady and Patriots.

Colts are marching. A chunk here. Another chunk there. Piece by piece. Moving chains. Down to the red zone.

Of course.

This is it, here, 43 seconds left. Manning drops back, looks left, pumps, goes back to his right.

Wayne, in the right corner, closely defended.

Doesn’t matter. Wayne leaps. The ball is there, just over the outstretched right hand of Tracy Porter.

Tied again. 31-31. Incredible throw.

Saints try a couple of desperation heaves in the middle of the field. Too many yards, too little time. Brees takes a knee and regulation runs out.

Overtime.

Saints win the toss. Hope rises again now. We’ve marveled at Manning, can say for sure that he’s one of the greatest, that nothing he did on this night cost the Colts anything. Maybe it’s just karma for Katrina. All they need is a field goal.

Brees takes the snap, turns and hands off to Thomas. Careful and precise, the Saints pick up a first down on two plays. Bubble screen to Bush nets another five yards. Handoff to Thomas, and it’s third-and-two. Slant to Colston. First down.

They move past midfield. Just 20 more yards and they have a chance. Two first downs, and the Super Bowl could be theirs.

They get there — and stall.

Fourth-and-4 from the 30. It’s a 47-yard attempt. Garrett Hartly trots out. He hit a 40-yarder in OT  to send the Saints to Miami.

But he’s kicked just 14 field goals all year.

Move over Scott Norwood. This one just went wide right.

He didn’t miss by much, but Manning doesn’t miss at all. Taking over on their own 37, the Colts move methodically. A 6-yard pass play to Clark. Seven to Collie. Over the middle to Garcon. He’s spreading it around.

The Colts drive to the 31. Then the 20. Two rushing plays up the middle puts them at the 18. Manning trots off and hands it over to the 20-year veteran Stover on third down, just in case something goes wrong with the snap.

It doesn’t. Snap. Spot. Kick.

Good.

Colts win, 34-31.

Alex Podlogar is The Herald’s sports editor. Reach him at alexp@sanfordherald.com and at (919) 718-1222. Read his blog at http://www.designatedhitter.wordpress.com

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Filed under Alex Podlogar, Designated Hitter, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, NFL, NFL playoffs, Sports, Sports columns, Super Bowl, The Sanford Herald

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