By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010; D05
MIAMI Whenever the Indianapolis Colts have tried to win a football game this season, they did. Fourteen times in the regular season and twice in the playoffs, teams have tried their best to beat the Colts and couldn't.
That pattern is unlikely to change in Super Bowl XLIV. Don't get me wrong, if the New Orleans Saints win, it's no upset. It shouldn't come as a shock to anybody when a team with Drew Brees and a turnover-forcing defense wins a football game, no matter the opponent or the stage.
But the Colts are just a smidge better, especially in the close games.
They've got everything a championship team should have, except perhaps karma, which they forfeited when the club's heavies decided to thumb their noses at history. The feel-good story for most of the country would be the Saints winning and kicking off a two-week celebration in New Orleans, the likes of which has never been seen. I've rooted for everything New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, and you'll have to excuse me for saying up front I'd like to see the Saints win Sunday.
But if you're asking me to make the pick with my head and not my heart, it's Colts 34, Saints 28. Why? Peyton Manning. That's all. Peyton Manning. It's the time of his career to be the athletic superhero, to figure out exactly what it's going to take maybe midway through the fourth quarter to separate his team from the other guy.
Will the Colts be hurt by Dwight Freeney's absence or limited play? Maybe. For five or six games, the Colts would suffer more than they're going to Sunday. Indy has a plan and the defensive linemen seem more than comfortable with it. Asked this week by a reporter to take us through what will happen if Freeney can't play (the bet here is that he will at least try to play), defensive end Raheem Brock said: "I'll be on the left side, more than likely. Robert [Mathis] will be on the right. That's how we did it earlier in the year when Dwight couldn't play, and we just do what we usually do.
"The young guys are going to step up, and we have a nice rotation on the D-line. We're rotating guys like a hockey team, so everybody knows every position. Our defense, the way it is now, we're blitzing from every angle. I'm up at linebacker and things like that, so we've got a lot of things we want to attack with. We're not just going to sit there and play four downs."
Brock wasn't in denial. He talked about missing Freeney's playmaking ability, but added: "We can't replace Dwight, but we've still got a great defensive line. We play well together, and we want to try to go out there and make plays and get it done on Sunday if Dwight can't come in there and play. We've got Keyunta [Dawson], we've got Eric Foster and we've got young Ervin [Baldwin]. So we've still got a nice rotation, and guys know how to get to the quarterback. We know how to make plays, and the defense that we have now, we can do a lot of things with it."
In a strange way, defense is critical to Sunday's outcome. It's not that either side will blanket the other team's offense with any sustained sort of 1980s defensive lockdown. That almost certainly cannot happen. There won't be many stops or turnovers, but the ones these defenses do produce will probably win the game. The general belief for those of us picking the Colts is that Indy, as Brock explained, will find a way to pressure Drew Brees but the Saints, even with Gregg Williams's blitzes, won't really disrupt Manning.
Luckily for those of us also hoping to see a close, back-and-forth game, Saints cornerback Tracy Porter begs to differ. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy," he said. "As you can see, [the Colts] allowed 10 sacks all year. They're the best at protecting their quarterback. He's one of the best at blocking the blitz just with his arm because he has a quick release. It's going to be a matter of us on the back end having tight coverage on the receivers to make Peyton hold the ball. It's going to be on our front seven guys to put pressure on him and to get to him. It's going to work hand-in-hand. The pressure forces turnovers on our end and us making Peyton hold the ball by not having open receivers is going to allow guys to get there."
People who have followed Williams from his time with the Titans as an assistant to his head coaching stint at Buffalo and his time running the defense for the Redskins know he likes to throw more at the quarterback than he can process in a quick time. Nobody believes that's going to work with Manning, not even the Saints players.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma said of the mind game with Manning: "You can try to play that chess game and go back and forth with Peyton. I don't know how long you want to do that. If it's working, stay with it. If it's not working, get out of it. I don't think he gets confused. I know there may be times when he pats the ball, going through the second read and third read. If we can do that and give our defensive line a tenth of a second to get after him and maybe get a hit on him, then that will be good for us."