Super Bowl: Saints-Colts a Super matchup
MIAMI — Peyton Manning, the Big Easy.
Hardly a stretch for a nickname, you know. The NFL's dominant player can claim New Orleans heritage, after all. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he's no shrimp. And as the only four-time league MVP, he makes this quarterbacking thing look simple.
Yet when Manning leads his Indianapolis Colts onto the field next Sunday against the Saints in as juicy a Super Bowl matchup as anyone could imagine, all of Nawlins — heck, pretty much any place in Bayou Country — will be wishing the worst on a native son.
Sorry, Peyton, the Saints take precedence in their quest for a first NFL championship.
Manning, whose father Archie was the first Saints superstar, understands.
"It's certainly an exciting opportunity for our team to be going back to the Super Bowl down in Miami, and I'm very happy for the New Orleans Saints and, of course, the entire city of New Orleans," Peyton Manning says. "My parents live there, my older brother Cooper lives there. Eli and I have both participated in philanthropic organizations down in New Orleans, whether it's Katrina relief or just various charities. So New Orleans is a huge part of my life, as well as Eli's life. My dad's been a part of the Saints organization for 39 years in some ways. We definitely have strong ties.
"The Saints have had a great year. They deserve it, and I know the city is excited. And the New Orleans Saints players do just wonderful things for the community down there. It's been a great relationship between the players and fans, and what a great way for these players to reward them with a trip to the Super Bowl."
But it's Manning's job to spoil the party, to put some misery into the Miami Mardi Gras for those Saints and their fans. Nobody is better equipped to do so.
Manning once was criticized for failing to win big games, and his career playoff record is just 9-8. He's won six of the last eight, though, and led the Colts to the championship three years ago, in the rain in Miami. Indy is 16-2 this time around, and it might have been a perfect 18-0 if the Colts hadn't pulled Manning and other starters in the final two games of the regular season.
Manning set an NFL record for 300-yard playoff games with his seventh in last week's AFC championship win over the Jets. He has 22 TD passes, five this year, and averages 284 yards through the air in the postseason.
Against two of the league's stingiest defenses — Indy beat the Ravens before the Jets — Manning was masterful.
The Saints (15-3) aren't exactly the 1985 Bears. On defense, they're not even the 2009 Colts.
Still, Manning is cautious.
"You know a team is going to have a Super Bowl package," he says. "There are two weeks to prepare. That's more things they can change. You have to prepare for the unexpected."
The unexpected? Such as the Aints in the Super Bowl?
Let that one roll around your mind like the good times on Bourbon Street.
The Saints were one of five teams never to get this far; the Lions, Jaguars, Browns and Texans are the remaining outsiders. Clearly, now, the Aints are dead, and a franchise that had no home in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans has become one of the most successful clubs in the nation's most popular sport.
And while Indy has become as much a football town as a basketball haven thanks to Manning and his minions, it's difficult to find any city as infatuated with — or as dependent on — its team as Nawlins is now.
Times have been hard for the city, which still is in recovery mode from Katrina. Nothing has provided quite the boost that the Saints' ascendancy has given New Orleanians.
Indeed, a city steeped in a culture all its own shares a very fundamental trait with the rest of America: pride in local triumph. It's not something Saints fans are accustomed to, but it's something Drew Brees believes can become habit.
"Winning definitely can be contagious," he says.
The best way to establish such a habit: win next Sunday in the biggest game in New Orleans football history.
"It's a moment I've been waiting for for a long time," Brees said. "The job is not done yet but obviously we're going to enjoy this. Now we've got to finish it in Miami."
Can they? If history is an indicator, why not? After all, the Buccaneers had an even uglier resume and they won it all seven years ago, beating one of the premier franchises, the Raiders.
We know the Saints will attack on offense, and getting in a shootout with the Colts is not such a bad idea; New Orleans led the league with 510 points. The Saints, who forced 39 turnovers, must be proactive on defense to match the aggressiveness with which the Colts have performed recently — just as Indy did in its Super Bowl run after the 2006 season.
If Manning gets free rein, he's likely to have the answer for all those "Who Dats?" they're proudly screaming in the French Quarter.
It might even be a Big Easy for him.