Kevin Van Valkenburg's post-game analysis of the Saints' 31-17 Super Bowl victory over the Colts.
1. The rush to anoint Peyton Manning as the "Greatest Quarterback Ever" -- especially by some of my brethren -- may have been a bit premature.
First off, Manning didn't lose this game on his own. Let's get that out of the way right up front. The Saints won it, and they did it with some incredibly gutsy calls and a perfect second-half game plan. I've always loved Drew Brees, always thought he got a raw deal in San Diego, so to see him get a Super Bowl trophy felt pretty good. He's proof that as long as you're accurate and you can read defenses, you don't have to be 6-foot-5 and have a Howitzer for an arm. (Although it sure would be nice to see what Joe Flacco could do with wide receivers that big and strong.)
But this Super Bowl will almost certainly be remembered as the one Manning didn't win. Manning was clearly the MVP of the NFL this season, and the Colts wouldn't have sniffed the playoffs without him, much less appeared in the Super Bowl. But the way people were talking about him the last two weeks was shocking, especially when you consider that his entire post-season reputation hinges on what happened in 2006, when he beat a Bears team led by Rex Grossman in a rain-soaked mess. (And he didn't even play that well, despite being named the game's MVP.) In fact, if Bill Belichick hadn't decided to force Tom Brady to play that season with junior varsity wide receivers, I'm convinced Manning wouldn't have even made it to that Super Bowl.
The facts don't lie. Manning's career playoff record is now 9-9. Now, maybe it's unfair to put all of that on him, but I'll go to my grave insisting that if you're going to go down as the best that's ever played the game, you can't throw a fourth-quarter interception in the Super Bowl when your team has a chance to tie the game. That's the kind of play that plagued Manning in every big game in college, and in playoff losses to the Steelers, Chargers and Patriots. In some ways, the Colts are turning into the Atlanta Braves of the NFL. They've accomplished so much during the past decade, but they have just one Super Bowl trophy to show for it.
In three of Tom Brady's Super Bowls, he drove the ball down the field late in the game and put his team in position to win. (Twice it did result in a win, against the Rams and Panthers. The third time, against the Giants, he left a little too much time on the clock, and David Tyree and Eli Manning pulled off a miracle.) Ben Roethlisberger drove his team for the winning touchdown in his second Super Bowl. These iconic moments matter in sports, no matter how many times number crunchers and stat heads tell you they don't. People are merciless on Brett Favre for his playoff shortcomings, and yet he and Manning have the exact same number of rings.
It's a tough subject to dance around because Manning is almost everything you'd want as an athlete. He's studious, humble, he doesn't take himself too seriously and he's never been in trouble with the law. Doesn't matter what your background is, or where you're from, if your kid grew up idolizing Peyton Manning, you'd feel good about it. But strictly from a performance standpoint, I think it's fair to ask: Can we really anoint him as the best quarterback ever, even if he holds every NFL record when he's finished, when he repeatedly comes up small in big moments? 2. Sean Payton's on-side kick to start the second half has to go down as one of the boldest, biggest gambles in Super Bowl history.
In some respects, I still don't know if it was the right call. Despite a nervous first half, the Saints were only down 10-6. If the Colts recover the ball -- and God only knows how many times it changed hands at the bottom of that pile before back-up safety Chris Reis emerged with it -- the Colts probably win that game. Manning almost certainly drives his team 35 yards for a score, and I doubt the Saints ever get a chance to breathe down 17-6.
But Payton probably figured Manning was itching to pick his team apart anyway, and the quarterback had just spent 40 minutes in the locker room looking at film and photos of the Saints defense (while The Who warbled through a pitiful, embarrassing performance), taking mental notes on its weaknesses.
What's interesting, especially to me as a sports writer, is that Payton is going to be praised up and down for his boldness, and his willingness to take a huge risk, by the same people who would be absolutely destroying him if the Colts' Hank Baskett snatches up the kick. You can see why the good NFL head coaches don't let criticism affect the way they do their jobs, and why the bad ones let it bug them. Because sometimes you have to go with your gut and make the tough call, and the outcome doesn't determine whether or not it was the right one.
3. Matt Stover is still a great field goal kicker, but he's also a kicker who simply can't kick field goals beyond 50 yards at this point in his career.
It's strange because his kick actually had enough distance, and he struck it well. But I'm guessing the extra thump Stover knew he had to put into kick caused it to drift left. That's the problem when you don't have the leg strength you once did. You try to compensate and it throws other things off.
Now, to be clear, his miss doesn't validate the Ravens' decision to let him walk this season, because he's still automatic from 45 yards in, and that's where a majority of field goals occur. Some coaches get a little too wrapped up in the idea that every kicker needs to be able to nail 50-yard field goals. Most of the time, if you lose a football game because your kicker couldn't nail a 51-yard field goal, your offense is to blame, not the kicker.
It's a shame though, because Stover's kick could have changed the game for the Colts. They were desperate for points at that juncture, leading 17-16, and his miss would have put that much more pressure on Brees. Instead, the Saints marched down the field and scored what eventually turned out to be the winning touchdown.
4. Don't overlook how big Pierre Garcon's early drop was in this game.
In the second quarter, Indianapolis led 10-3 and had the ball at its own 28-yard line. It was 3rd-and-4, and the Colts still has all the momentum. Manning made a great read and hit Garcon right in the hands, in stride, on a crossing route over the iddle. If Garcon catches it, he might run for 30 yards untouched. Instead, the Colts punt, and the Saints controlled the ball the rest of the half.
It's hard to explain how big that play really was. Sometimes I think momentum is overrated, but when one team is battling nerves, I absolutely believe in it. If the Colts march the ball down the field, the entire complexion of the first half changes, even if they have to punt at mid-field. Garcon is a good receiver, and playing with Manning, he has a chance to be really good. But that drop should haunt him.
5. Tracy Porter's interception was a wonderful example of how film study pays off.
So often in football, we see things unfold and think "What a remarkable athletic play by the defensive back!" or "What a stupid throw by the quarterback!" In reality, it's rarely that simple. Porter's interception of Manning was a wonderful example of how much film defensive backs study of quarterbacks, even though what we mostly hear about is the opposite. How many times have you been told what a football professor Manning is, and what an intelligent film nerd he is? How often have we had to hear how he out-thinks his opponents?
Well, Porter's interception was a great example of someone out-thinking Manning. It was clear from the break Porter got on the ball that he recognized the route Wayne was going to run, even though the Colts tried to disguise it by putting Austin Collie in motion prior to the snap. Porter must have studied countless hours of game footage, looking at formations where the Colts lined up two receivers wide to the left and ran double in-routes. In a crucial moment, he suspected Manning and Wayne would go back to one of their favorite routes in that formation, and he guessed correctly.
Manning isn't the only player on the field who approaches the game like a chess match. The announcers fall into that trap far too often though, making it seem like he's the only intellectual out there, and everyone else is just getting it done on raw talent. Porter reminded us that isn't the case.
-- Kevin Van Valkenburg