Super Bowl XLIV Preview & Prediction

It's been awhile since we've watched a good old-fashioned Super Bowl shootout. Sunday's game looks to buck the trend, as gun-slinging QB's Peyton Manning and Drew Brees face off against eachother in what is setting up to be one of the most exciting SB matchups of this decade.

Analysts have been selling that these are the two best teams in football since October, and now this highly-touted matchup will finally come to fruition. The Saints field the #1 offense in both YPG (396.9) and PPG (32.6) and also are #1 in Touchdowns/game (4.1). And the Colts, well they've got that guy Peyton Manning under center, and he's pretty good. You know, this season's Most Valuable Player, and the best QB of this decade. Being the second best passing offense in the NFL (283.2 ypg) and averaging 25.9 ppg isn't bad either. That being said, let's remember that the Saints play in the track-meet-oriented NFC South (where defense is at a premium), while the Colts have faced much more stout defenses in AFC play.

The story-lines aren't too shabby either, as Peyton is pitted against the city where he grew up in --- a city and community that him and father Archie have given so much to. Saints fans love and respect him, but on Sunday, he will be the enemy, as they look to play in and win their first Super Bowl in franchise history. Also, Colts HC Jim Caldwell will be looking to become only the third rookie head coach in NFL history to win a ring.

This is a matchup of speed/athleticism vs speed/athleticism --- two dome teams that are now forced to play on grass for all the marbles. Both Championship Week matchups were speed vs power, but both power teams (Jets + Vikings) have been eliminated.   

Now that we've sneaked a peek into these prolific offenses, let's break down the game in its entirety and discuss some keys to victory for each side. Follow me after the jump...

KEY MATCHUP: #3-Ranked Colts Red Zone Offense vs # 3-Ranked Saints Red Zone Defense

Due to Peyton Manning and all of the weapons in his arsenal, the Colts were very productive in the Red Zone as they scored 64.9% of the time when they get down there. The Saints, due to their exotic blitz looks which confuse opposing QB's, were excellent clamping down in the red zone as opponents converted only 42.2% of the time. A big reason for this is their ability to create turnovers at will.

GAME CHANGER: RB PIERRE THOMAS - SAINTS

The Colts rank 21st against the run and have allowed a sub-par 122 ypg on the ground.

The Saints success on offense will be predicated on establishing their inside run-game against Indy. When the Saints are running inside successfully, they're easily the most balanced offense in the NFL and very hard for any opposing defensive coordinator to stop.

Establishing the run will not only keep the prolific Peyton Manning off the field but also set up the vertical play-action pass which Drew Brees loves to throw.

Saints RB Pierre Thomas is a stout 215 pounds and loves running in between the tackles, and he's done it to the tune of 5.4 ypc this season. He will be key in keeping the Colts defense off balance and opening it up for Drew Brees.

We know the Colts have an under-sized yet athletic defensive front, and the best way to pick up yards against them is to punch them in the mouth in the interior of their DL. Because of their lack of size they have struggled to wrap up power-RB's this year, and against Pierre Thomas that could hurt them...because he excels in breaking tackles.

GAME CHANGER: TE DALLAS CLARK - COLTS

Veteran Dallas Clark is Peyton Manning's favorite target. He lead receiving TE's this year w/ 100 catches for 1106 yards and 10 TD's in the regular season. When faced with a key 3rd down, or during a vital red zone trip, Clark is who Peyton looks to.  

In watching the NFC Championship game, I noticed Vikings TE Shiancoe was open near every play. Part of this was due to the continuous safety blitzing of FS Darren Sharper. Shiancoe ended up finishing with 4 catches for 83 yards.
 The Saints LB's are awful in pass coverage and neither safety is good enough in this regard to be able to stick on Clark consistently. Veteran FS Darren Sharper will likely be given the task to cover him, but the Saints also love to blitz Sharper up the A-Gap. So he will either have to stay at home and not blitz, or bring pressure which will result in Peyton finding Clark as his safety valve when under duress. Clark presents serious matchup issues.

Saints have been decimated by TE's all season, even mediocre ones. I look for Clark to have a huge day.

Keys To The Game:

You had better score early and often, Brees:

Not only is Peyton Manning arguably the best QB regarding making adjustments/reading defenses in history, but also the best two-minute drill QB. In the playoffs this season, during the last 32 minutes of each respective matchup, Peyton has outscored his opposition by a total of 41-0 (17-0 & 24-0).

The Saints had better be strong out of the gate and build an early lead. Because of Peyton's superior reading ability, he seems to drastically improve as games progress. If the game is close early, the Saints may find themselves in trouble in the second half.  

But the Colts were dead-last in rushing, how will they move the football??

The Colts were the worst rushing team in football during the regular season as they rushed for only 79.8 ypg. At the same time, it was by choice, as they were also second-to-last in rushing attempts/game @ 23.1, compared to passing which they did 38 times/game.  They are a pass-heavy team,  not a power-running team that can line up w/ a  two TE set and pound the rock in between the tackles --- and as a result are awful in short yardage downs.

What their RB's are good at, is pass-blocking. This is important because NO will look to blitz often from all different angles. The Colts RB's have not put up good numbers yardage-wise this year, but both Addai and Brown are excellent in pass-blocking and if they can pick up the blitz, Peyton will be able to exploit man-coverage down the field and hit the open target. Remember, he was sacked only 10 times in the regular season.

25/38 for 247 yards w/ 1 TD & 2 Turnovers:

Those are Peyton's numbers from his Super Bowl XLI performance against the Bears. By no means are those Peyton Manning-esque numbers, and you've got to think he's been licking his chops while studying film these last two weeks and gearing up to face the 26th-worst pass defense in the NFL. His humble nature will not allow him to say so, but you've got to think he's going to use Sunday's game as an opportunity to bolster his career playoff stats --via racking up bountiful passing yards and also improving upon his TD/INT ratio. Critics are saying Peyton isn't a big game QB ---- on Sunday, he will prove the doubters wrong.

Preview/Prediction:

On offense:

Both of these offenses are similar in that they use spread-based 3 and 4 WR Sets to spread the field, while allowing their vertical passing attacks to stretch opposing defenses. They then allow their prolific QB's to sit in the pocket, find the seam in the defense, and hit their receiver. Brees and Peyton are the two most accurate QB's in the game right now, and if there's a window to throw the ball through, these guys will get it there.

While both teams are loaded on offense, I give the WR-advantage as a slight edge to the Colts due to the exceptional playoff performances from rookie WR's Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon (both went over 100 yards in AFC Championship game). The Saints obviously have the advantage at RB, and the Colts at TE.

On Defense:

The media is of course harping on the offensive matchups, but this is the facet of the game that actually intrigues me the most as we have two defensive coordinators that employ schemes which are complete antitheses of eachother.

Colts DC Larry Coyer runs a "bend but don't break" Cover-2. Anyone that has read my previews this season knows I am not a big endorser of this formation, but I actually think this is the best way to defend against a vertical offense such as the Saints. At times, we have seen the Saints look one-dimensional via living/dying by the vertical pass play, and the Cover-2 is designed to defend against that as you have both safeties staying at home to help in coverage. The Colts have given up only 29 passing plays of 20+ yards or more all season, and this is the reason. The Colts rarely blitz out of their secondary, and will be looking to flush Brees out of the pocket by bringing pressure up the middle from their defensive front through the A/B gaps. They take a big hit here as DE Dwight Freeney will be limited in his mobility due to an ankle injury, which will result in him playing limited downs and possibly hinder his effectiveness. However, DE's Robert Mathis (9.5 sacks/yr) and Raheem Brock (3.5 sacks) will look to pick up the slack.

The Saints, on the other hand, lead by guru DC Gregg Williams, employ an aggressive, blitz-oriented 3-4 defense. This defense is similar in many ways to Jets DC Mike Pettine's as they blitz from everywhere. Although, they don't bring pressure to get sacks necessarily (they rank 18th in sacks), but to disrupt opposing QB's timing forcing them into making bad throws/turnovers. Something they've been excellent at, as they've forced 39 turnovers this season (#1-ranked in NFL) which has helped them to an exceptional +11 TO margin. The Saints exotic blitzes do an excellent job of taking opposing QB's out of a rhythm, and this will be paramount on Sunday as the Colts run a pass-heavy offense. Bringing pressure from the secondary via exotic blitzes has worked well for them this season, but you have to wonder how often they will be able to blitz safeties due to Dallas Clark and all of the Colts weapons on offense which will force them to play some nickel package also.  As we saw in the Jets game, the safety blitzes worked in the first quarter, but towards the end of the second half Peyton made the necessary adjustments and totally picked the Jets secondary apart. Remember, no one is better at pre-snap reads and sniffing out blitzes than him, and he's had two weeks to study film.

Prediction:

The Saints have become the "public dog" here, and I just can't drink the kool-aid.  I think the Saints vertical passing attack is very much dependent on their east-to-west running with Reggie Bush and Co., and the Colts have more speed off the edge than any team in the NFL and will be able to shut them down in this regard. If the Saints can't run inside, they won't be in this game.

New Orleans can blitz all they want, but Peyton will be well-prepared for it. This secondary has been sub-par in pass coverage this year, and if Peyton can sit in the pocket and throw he will pick them apart. I personally think the Saints defense has been a lot of smoke-and-mirrors, as they have benefited from the big play/turnover all season long.  

Indy has been here before, and they've won it. Experience plays such a big role in games of this magnitude, and many starters on both sides of the ball were on the 2006 championship team that beat the Bears. The Saints, on the other hand, have only three players that have played in a Super Bowl (CB Gay, FS Sharper, Long-Snapper Jason Kyle). Both Sean Payton and Gregg Williams coached in Super Bowls though as coordinators.

The Colts have the motivation to prove to the media and the world that rookie Head Coach Jim Caldwell and President Bill Polian were correct in relinquishing their undefeated season by resting their starters late in the year. The Saints, well they're just happy to be here, and will be consumed by the pressure.

Indy simply has too many weapons on offense and the Saints secondary is going to get torched. The best player on the planet will emerge victorious on Sunday, as he takes down the Super Bowl MVP trophy and proves to the doubters that he is a big-game QB. Colts 34, Saints 26.

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