For one night at the Super Bowl, Brees, not Manning, is the best of his generation

By Mike Wise
Monday, February 8, 2010; D01

MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. Late Sunday night, and Drew Brees has just outgunned the greatest quarterback of his generation, if not all time. The game MVP kept the league MVP off the field. The image of Peyton Manning, picked off by Tracy Porter in the final minutes, his coronation hijacked by the New Orleans Saints' gumption and their hunger for history, sealed it.

The game. The season. The bond. Between city and team.

Who dat? The Super Bowl champions.

Backed by a transcendent civic pride, borne out of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, they outplayed the favored Colts and intercepted the most accomplished quarterback in the game in the final minutes to waltz home with the hardware, 31-17.

Who dat? The Super Bowl MVP, in black and gold, the second-most accurate passer in the big game's annals behind Phil Simms.

"Is it me?" Brees actually asked afterward, half-surprised anyone who threw for 288 yards, two second-half touchdowns and completed all but seven of his 39 attempts would earn the award. Afterward, amid sparkling red-and-white confetti, he spoke of his teammates and himself playing for more than an organization.

"Coming to New Orleans and having that opportunity there was definitely a calling, an opportunity that not many people in their entire life get to come to a city like that, that had just been devastated by a natural disaster," he said, adding, "Not only were we rebuilding an organization and a team, but also the city and the region and really a mentality.

"It's a mentality that, 'We've been through so much, but yet we're going to come back stronger.' It's unbelievable."

Super Bowl XLIV ceased being about Manning the moment Sean Payton pulled off one of the gutsiest coaching moves in postseason history.

That full-of-guile onside kick at the outset of the second half, recovered by the Saints after a never-ending pileup near midfield, was such an omen. Brees went right downfield, guiding New Orleans to their first lead of the game on a night he missed just three throws over the final three quarters.

Something was afoot the moment that gamble paid off with near perfection.

Coming back from 10 points down to beat the favored Colts, led by inarguably the best player in pro football, after that onside kick provided the game the beautiful bow the NFL and partisan-Bayou crowd wanted to wrap around the Saints the moment Porter picked off Brett Favre in the NFC title game and ended another iconic quarterback's season.

Brees predictably called the victory "destiny" after tying a Super Bowl record with 32 completions and commandeering a second-half comeback that took the Colts literally by surprise.

As the ragtime blared through the speakers late Sunday night, this stadium was no longer Peyton's place. The Lombardi Trophy belonged to the Saints and their legions of black-and-gold-clad fans, the people who never stopped hollering after Porter's interception and touchdown return.

Manning was good, but he wasn't Brees in the second half. He never blinked when Manning took the lead back, exploiting the Colts' cover-two defense with sharp spirals. Brees resembled the moxie New Orleans displayed all season, a go-for-broke personality that embodied the Saints on Sunday night. Whether it was that onside kick, an early failed fourth-down try near the goal line or a successful two-point conversion late, New Orleans never played to merely hold onto a lead or keep itself from being blown out.

Something about Brees and the Saints simply came across as more passionate and less mechanical in their play than Manning and the precision-guided Colts.

Brees outgunning Manning was essentially the man beating the machine.

Even though Manning joined Favre and Joe Montana as the only players to ever pass for more than 5,000 postseason yards Sunday night, the notion that an all-time great with a .500 playoff record (he's 9-9 after Super Bowl XLIV) should stand atop the Montana-Unitas-Marino heap is a bit of a reach at this juncture.

Maybe not in Indianapolis or Tennessee, but it's a reach here. He's not the best of all time. Yet. And unfortunately for Manning, that's probably Brees's fault more than his own. He was near flawless the final two quarters, finding his rhythm and his touch at just the right time, and gobbling up time.

The Saints contained Manning in the most effective way possible: by keeping him off the field. When Brees wasn't doing it by engineering his own time-consuming drives, Payton was with his gutsy calls.

Now all of them -- the MVP quarterback, the risk-taking coach, the opportunistic defensive back, the bead-donning fans -- march off together, trophy in tow, to ragtime music, to chants of "Who dat?! Who dat?!" toward a city awaiting perhaps its most gratifying and gaudy parade of all time.

Back to New Orleans, home of the Super Bowl champion Saints and, for Sunday night at least, the best quarterback in pro football.

"To be able to go forward and be able to accomplish what we've been able to accomplish, that's what molds you," Brees said. "That's what makes you the person you are and gives that mental toughness and that strength. Going through hard times is what gives you the opportunity to accomplish something special.

"So forever now, all of us, we will walk together as Super Bowl champions, world champions and bring home the trophy to the city of New Orleans."

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