Time to play: Who Dats, Hoosiers in big one
MIAMI — Hoosiers and Who Dats.
And, oh yes, the two best teams in the NFL also happen to be on hand for Sunday's Super Bowl.
Peyton Manning and his AFC champion Indianapolis Colts are 5-point favorites to spoil the ending of the New Orleans football renaissance for Drew Brees and the Saints. The odd twist to this story is that the boy who grew up in the Big Easy rooting for his dad as he quarterbacked the awful Saints may end up breaking its heart.
"You hear the term Hoosier Hospitality, and I really didn't know what that meant, coming from New Orleans, where you hear Southern Hospitality," says Manning, the league's only four-time MVP who guided the Colts to the NFL title three years ago, in the same stadium. "I really feel it is kind of the same thing. It is good people.
"What has been exciting for me since I have lived there, it's always been a sports town, but it's really turned into a football town. That is the kind of place you want to play football."
New Orleans always has been a football town, even when the Saints were the Aints — back in the days Archie Manning led the team and fans wore paper bags on their heads. But that four-decade love affair morphed into something soulful when the Saints inspired a city in ruin in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"It's important for not only the people in New Orleans, but I think the people around the country because you do understand how much it means to that community and what they've been through," Brees says. "Our success as a team over the last four years, but especially this year, has been tremendous just in regards to giving so many of the members of that community hope and lifting their spirits.
"There is still a lot of work to be done there in regards to the rebuilding and the recovery post-Katrina. There are still a lot of people in some pretty dire straits. For us to be able to have the success we're having, it just does so much for that community as far as bringing everyone together. There's a bond that we have with our fans — between our organization and our fans — that's truly special."
The Saints (15-3) led the league in scoring with 510 points. If Colts All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney and his 13.5 sacks can't go on his damaged right ankle, Brees, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston and company might light up the Miami night with touchdowns.
So could the Colts (16-2) with their deep receiving corps and the incomparable Manning. Surpassing the 75 points in the 1995 Super Bowl (San Francisco 49, San Diego 26) is not out of the question. Doing it by halftime isn't totally absurd.
When the Colts won their only championship representing Indy, Tony Dungy was the coach. Now it's his hand-chosen successor, Jim Caldwell, and only two rookie coaches have ever won the Super Bowl. One of them, Don McCafferty, did it for the Baltimore Colts in 1971, the first title game after the AFL-NFL merger.
Dungy's championship came in a historic matchup with Lovie Smith, the first two black head coaches in a Super Bowl. Caldwell's presence as the fourth black man to guide his team to the big game has been a virtual non-issue.
"I think because of the fact that it's becoming less of a story shows you that obviously there is some progress being made," Caldwell says. "But I really do believe there are still a lot of things I think in terms of different thresholds and milestones to be crossed in that particular area."
The Saints and Colts approached the unbeaten threshold in December. New Orleans was 13-0, fell at home to Dallas, then rested many regulars in losing the last two games. Indianapolis was 14-0 and perhaps headed for a 15th victory when Manning and other starters were removed in the third quarter against the Jets. New York rallied to win, and the backups lost at Buffalo in the season finale.
Didn't matter much, did it• They both got here, albeit in different manners. The Colts handled the Ravens and Jets pretty easily. The Saints, following a romp past Arizona, needed several mistakes by Minnesota — including Brett Favre throwing an interception in the final seconds — before finally erasing that Super Bowl void in an overtime victory.
So will it be Mardi Gras in Miami or Peyton's place?
"I feel like both teams have gotten to this point because of the success of the teams," Manning says. "Certainly if you look at our regular season and playoff schedule it has been a team season. Different guys have stepped up along the way, making critical plays at critical times.
"That is how I feel this game is going to turn out. It will be somebody stepping up along the way, in a critical situation, making a play and you never know just who it might be."
Could be a Who Dat. Or a Hoosier.
Players to watch in the Super Bowl
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Pierre Thomas, RB (23), 5-11, 215, 3rd season, Illinois
Undrafted out of college, has gone from special teams ace to starting running back ... Led Saints with 793 yards rushing and six TDs. Also had 39 receptions and two more TDs ... Overtime leap on fourth-and-1 for first down was key in NFC championship victory ... Has recovered from late-season rib injury that sidelined him for finale.
Reggie Bush, RB (25), 6-0, 203, 4th season, Southern California
Dynamic receiver, runner and punt returner, but also mistake-prone ... Recovery from knee surgery slowed him for much of schedule, but has rediscovered his burst since getting healthy ... Broke 83-yard punt return and 46-yard run for scores vs. Arizona in divisional round ... Muffed punt in championship game, but also scored touchdown on reception.
Marques Colston, WR (12), 6-4, 225, 4th season, Hofstra
Hofstra might have dropped football, but Colston remains a force ... Versatile wideout can get deep, make catches over the middle and on sidelines ... Led Saints with 70 catches for 1,074 yards and scored nine times ... Has eight catches in postseason, one score.
Sedrick Ellis, DT (98), 6-1, 307, 2nd season, Southern California
First-round selection in 2008, has Saints' only sack of playoffs ... Has started every game in which he's played for New Orleans, but missed six contests this season with knee problem ... Had 45 tackles, two sacks.
Jonathan Vilma, MLB (51), 6-1, 230, 6th season, Miami
Was 2004 Defensive Rookie of Year with Jets, where he was dominant in 4-3 defense. Jets switched to 3-4 when Eric Mangini became coach, wasting Vilma's pursuit skills. Was traded to Saints in 2008 and became centerpiece of New Orleans defense ... Made 130 tackles this season, had three INTs and two sacks. Also had interception in NFC title game.
Darren Sharper, FS (42), 6-2, 210, 13th season, William and Mary
All-Pro ballhawk who tied for league lead with nine INTs, returning three for scores ... Set NFL record with 376 yards on his interception runbacks, one for 99 yards ... Also solid in run support and will match up with another All-Pro in Dallas Clark ... Had 93 tackles this season ... One guy Peyton Manning must watch out for.
Garrett Hartley, PK (5), 5-8, 196, 2nd season, Oklahoma
Made 40-yard field goal in OT to win NFC title ... Cut by Denver, was signed by Saints in October 2008 and made all 13 field goals. But opened this season suspended for use of banned stimulant ... Was inactive another seven weeks as veteran John Carney kicked, then returned on Dec. 6 to make 9 of 11 FGs.
Joseph Addai, RB (29), 5-11, 214, 4th season, LSU
Leading rusher for Colts with 828 yards, scored 10 TDs. Also caught 51 passes and scored three times ... Averaging only 3.8 yards per rush in postseason, but against top defenses of Baltimore and New York ... Set Super Bowl reception mark for RB with 10 for 66 yards in 2007 ... First-round pick in 2006.
Dallas Clark, TE (44), 6-3, 252, 7th season, Iowa
Needs 74 yards receiving to pass Shannon Sharpe (814) and Keith Jackson (834) for most by tight end in postseason history ... First-round pick in 2003 who made first All-Pro team this season with 100 catches for 1,106 yards and 10 TDs ... Joined Tony Gonzalez as only TEs with 100 receptions in a season ... A favorite target on third down.
Reggie Wayne, WR (87), 6-0, 198, 9th season, Miami
Consistent threat who had sixth straight 1,000-yard season, making 100 catches for 1,264 yards and 10 scores ... Can run every pattern and will beat you deep ... Didn't do much in AFC title game against Darrelle Revis, but Saints have no cover guys like Revis ... In 2007 Super Bowl, had 53-yard TD against Bears ... Born in New Orleans.
Robert Mathis, LE (98), 6-2, 245, 7th season, Alabama A&M
So quick that his lack of size doesn't hamper him, even against 320-pound tackles ... Had 9.5 sacks, giving him 63 for career ... Is not a liability against run, but makes presence felt mostly on passing downs ... Missed seven games this season with quad and neck problems ... Excellent complement for Dwight Freeney.
Dwight Freeney, DE (93), 6-1, 268, 8th season, Syracuse
All-Pro DE who plays hurt, with a motor that never stops. But ligament damage in his right ankle could sideline him, a big blow for the defense ... Also considered undersized, but never has inhibited him ... Led team with 13.5 sacks in 14 sacks, has team record of 84 sacks in career ... First-round pick in 2002 has started all 14 postseason games in career ... Has made five Pro Bowls.
Antoine Bethea, FS (41), 5-11, 203, 4th season, Howard
Somehow, he was not voted to Pro Bowl ... A playmaker and leader on defense ... Started every game and had to hold secondary together in face of injuries ... Had 95 tackles, forced two fumbles and recovered one ... Will make his presence felt early.
Matt Stover, PK (3), 5-11, 178, 20th season, Louisiana Tech
One of NFL's all-time kicking leaders, was original Baltimore Raven ... Joined Colts this season when Adam Vinatieri (right hip) got hurt in sixth game ... Won Super Bowl with Ravens in January 2001 ... Made 9 of 11 FGs, all 33 PATS ... Very accurate from 40 yards in, does not have long range ... A clutch kicker.Additional Information:
Super Bowl info
New Orleans (15-3) vs. Indianapolis (16-2)
When/Where: 6:25 p.m. Sunday/Sun Life Stadium, Miami
Last meeting: Colts beat Saints, 41-10, on Sept. 6, 2007
Last week: Saints beat Vikings, 31-28, in OT for NFC title; Colts beat Jets, 30-17, for AFC title