Monday, February 08, 2010

Football gods get their revenge

By Bob Kravitz
Indianapolis Star
February 8, 2010

MIAMI -- They had hoped to trade in the perfect season for the perfect ending, but in the end, the Indianapolis Colts were left with nothing. Just a bitter, hollow feeling that will last well into the offseason as they try to figure out how another brilliant season could end so badly.

Maybe the football gods, angry as most mortals over the Dec. 27 debacle, got their ultimate revenge on this Super Bowl Sunday, sending the New Orleans Saints to a devastating 31-17 victory over the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

Or maybe it was just this:

The Saints were too good, too polished, too inspired . . . too intent on bringing their wounded city a much-needed boost. Think about this: In their championship run, the Saints beat Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning.


MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 07: Tracy Porter #22 of the New Orleans Saints intercepts a ball thrown by Peyton Manning and returns it for a touchdown in the fourth quarter during Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

"They played well in all phases,'' Manning said grimly. "They made critical plays in special teams. Their defense made stops when they had to and Drew (Brees) did a good job of getting them into the end zone. They deserved to win.''

And you know what? He's right.

Brees, as fine a man as he is a quarterback and a Hoosier (sort of) was too good -- record-breaking good and a deserving MVP winner.

The Saints' multitude of oversized wide receivers, picking on the Colts' depleted secondary, were too good.

The Saints, who were never afraid of chasing immortality when perfection was still within their grasp, showed the ultimate courage when Saints coach Sean Payton called for an onside kick to begin the second half.

Can you imagine? An onside kick to open the second half? In the Super Bowl? It had never happened on this stage, not outside of the fourth quarter. And yet Payton understood his team had taken momentum into halftime, dominating the second quarter, and were in danger of losing their mojo during the over-long halftime show.

"We knew we were going to call it at some point,'' Payton said "At halftime I just told them, 'Hey, we're going to open up the second half with this, so make me look right.' ''

There's a fine line between genius and lunacy. This gambit worked. Genius.

"The onside kick was huge,'' Melvin Bullitt said. "As a special teams captain, I feel like we didn't do what we were supposed to do. We always talk about the little things, and that was a little thing that was huge. If we would've gotten the ball right there, maybe on the 40-yard line going in, the game could have gone a totally different way. We would have been up by, what, 11 points, so that was a huge turning point in the game.''

The quote of the night, though, belonged to Saints kicker Thomas Morstead, who was asked how he felt when he learned Payton wanted to open the half with an onside kick.

"I wasn't nervous,'' he said. "I was terrified.''

Here's the deal: The Colts didn't give this Super Bowl away.

Were there mistakes? There are always mistakes, and the Colts made a couple they don't normally make. Pierre Garcon's first-half drop gave the Saints a chance to catch their breath after a slow start. Hank Baskett's bobble of the onside kick provided the turning point in a game that had the makings of an offensive shootout. Indy's defenders failed to tackle, and Dwight Freeney's and Jerraud Powers' injuries came back to haunt them in myriad ways.

But this game wasn't given away. It was taken by the Saints, who absolutely deserved this Lombardi Trophy and this party that will last well beyond Mardi Gras and maybe into next season.

Peyton Manning after Saints Tracy Porter's interception in the 4th quarter on February 7, 2010 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 during Super Bowl XLIV. AFP PHOTO TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

What's sad is, the Colts could have achieved so much this day. They could have fully validated a decade's worth of excellence with a second Super Bowl title in four seasons. And Manning could have become one of 11 quarterbacks to win multiple titles, and insinuated himself into the conversation about the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Immortality was within reach, for the franchise and for the quarterback.

There is still time to make more history, still time to win Super Bowls and exalt Manning to the pantheon next to Joe Montana, John Elway, Troy Aikman and the others, but this was an opportunity squandered. Or, better yet, taken away by a superior team.

When it was over and the New Orleans celebration had begun, Manning tight-roped the sideline without talking to anybody, his helmet low on his head, walking purposely toward the locker room. There was no midfield handshake with Brees or anybody.

It was a mistake.

"I'll certainly talk to Drew,'' he said. "I know how it was three years ago when we won, and there's not much consolation for the guys that didn't win. There's the stage being set up, and the celebration, and it's time for the Saints to celebrate. It's their field. They deserve the moment. But I certainly congratulate all their players and the Saints organization. I will speak to Drew, speak to Sean and they deserve all the credit.''

In the end, this one wasn't on Manning, even if the Tracy Porter's pick-six essentially put the game away. This one fell on the defense and the special teams, which had played so nobly all season. Once the Saints got their legs, they were a juggernaut, outscoring the Colts 31-7 from the second quarter on. That's not a fluke. That's not a result that leaves fans with a litany of what-ifs. The Saints were the better team. Period. End of story.

A disappointing season? Absolutely not. A disappointing finish? Without a doubt.

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