Friday February 5th, 2010

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Hay's in the barn. Time to get off the fence. And what other prediction cliché can I dredge up now?

Colts 33, Saints 26. (More SI expert picks here.)

It comes down to a pretty simple thing. I respect and admire the game of Drew Brees, and I think he could play great Sunday. I respect and admire the game of Peyton Manning, and I will be stunned if he does not play great Sunday. There was an air of inevitability about each of the playoff games the Colts played. Once Manning went to the sideline and studied the pictures and talked to his dudes, he figured it out. Last 32 minutes of the divisional playoff game: Colts 17, Ravens 0. Last 32 minutes of the AFC title game: Colts 24, Jets 0.

I thought what I'd do today is write about the three under-the-radar players I think will impact the game heavily, perhaps even to the point of deciding who wins. It's a little more than a guess, but in talking to the players and coaches this year, I tried to figure out who, non-Manning, will be in the headlines Monday morning:

David Thomas, tight end, New Orleans. How will Indianapolis play this game? Think about it. The Colts will try to use defensive speed to burst through gaps and flood Brees with pressure from different angles. Watching the Saints play recently, you can see how often the Saints put Thomas in motion. When the ball is snapped, he often chips one of the edge-rushers, then heads out into a pattern, usually a short one. I see Thomas running five-yard curls and outs, and Brees having to throw for his hot receivers more than in almost any other game. I don't trust Jeremy Shockey staying whole for four quarters (his knee's just too iffy), so I see Thomas and Reggie Bush being huge in getting Brees out of trouble. I wouldn't be surprised if Thomas -- the best bargain in the Super Bowl, having been acquired from New England for a 2011 seventh-round draft pick -- catches eight or 10 balls and sneaks into the end zone once.

Raheem Brock, defensive line, Indianapolis. Just watch the athleticism of Brock on Sunday. You'll see him inside, trying to shoot the A-gaps, and then at left end, trying to beat Jon Stinchcomb outside. Depending on Dwight Freeney's availability, you could also see Brock at a linebacker spot too, chasing Pierre Thomas and Bush sideline to sideline. I know Brock is really looking forward to this game -- within reason -- as one in which he establishes himself as a standout player after years of being a utility player, the way Darnell Dockett and Karlos Dansby did last year for the Cardinals. I think one of the storylines Sunday night will be that even though Freeney played a third or half the snaps he's normally play, Brock and Robert Mathis filled the hole well.

Jabari Greer, cornerback, New Orleans. Last winter, when the Saints went looking for a franchise-type cornerback, GM Mickey Loomis focused on Ron Bartell of the Rams. St. Louis paid Bartell $6 million a year, so Loomis had to settle for Greer, the athletic corner from Buffalo. By one statistical analysis, only Darrelle Revis had a lower completion percentage against him this year when he was in coverage on a receiver than Greer, and that's invaluable against a thrower like Manning. "He's the only quarterback I play who throws into tight coverage consistently,'' Revis told me. That means Greer will be vital. It'll help, obviously, if the Saints can force two or three turnovers, and the most likely scenario for one or more of those turnovers is for Greer to take educated guesses on balls, as Ed Reed has done so well against Manning.

It'll be a fun game, maybe even a great game. And usually in great games, the David Tyrees of the world make a big difference.

Darren Sharper, safety, New Orleans.

Simple reason: He's a great A-gap blitzer; Brett Favre and his ribs will never forget the first-half blitz that started the mayhem in the NFC Championship Game. I believe because of the Colts' adept blitz pickup, particularly with how good the running backs are (Donald Brown says it's been by far the biggest adjustment for him from college to pro football, knowing he's the last line of defense to keep Peyton Manning clean), the blitzers who go at Manning are going to have be quick to evade Brown and Joseph Addai. That's where Sharper comes in. This has been a magic season for Sharper, who is the only one who thought he'd be as great as he's been. He's catapulted himself from very good NFL veteran safety to a guy who might be discussed for Canton someday. This game needs to be an exclamation point on his best season ever.

1. I think after watching the Colts for four hours over the past two days at practice as the Pro Football Writers Association's pool reporter, the one word I'd use to describe their practices is businesslike. Sorry for the cliché, but that's what I see in all aspects of what they do. It stretches right down to the ballboy who places the ball on the line speedily during two-minute drills, wearing an officials' jersey. Impressive.

2. I think we'd all do well to understand there are more than two teams in this league right now. This morning, I ran into Billy Devaney, the GM of the team that's on the draft clock right now -- St. Louis -- and I said to him, "Who are you picking?'' I meant, of course, in the draft. And he thought for a minute and said, "The Colts.'' I'm glad he said that because if he'd talked about who he was picking number one overall on April 22, I'd have had to struggle again with how to spell Ndamukong Suh. By the way, Devaney set the world record in the media center today for ways to say, "We're wide open to all possibilities with our pick.''

3. I think Jim Caldwell covered his bases pretty well this morning regarding the Freeney injury: "He's trending in the right direction, but it's still a day-to-day situation.'' I have seen two Colts practices as of this writing, and I can shed absolutely no light on Freeney's availability, but I have been told his mother will be available for interviews today at the media center. Seriously.

4. I think I spent approximately 236 hours on the radio this week, from the campus station at Fairfield University to my friends at KTAR in Phoenix, and I am spent. Finished. There's nothing else to say. Play the damn thing.

5. I think I saw a good example of who the Colts are Thursday at practice. The four captains went out to lead stretching and calisthenics -- Peyton Manning (offense), Gary Brackett (defense), and Adam Vinatieri and Melvin Bullitt (special teams). "Three undrafted free agents. And the first pick overall in the draft,'' said Colts PR czar Craig Kelley. Brackett (Rutgers), Vinatieri (South Dakota State) and Bullitt (Texas A&M) entered the league through the college free-agent door. Manning was the first pick in the '98 draft. It says much because the Colts have 19 undrafted free-agents on their team -- and they have a bunch of high-profile, highly drafted offensive players, led by Manning. The formula has worked like a charm, obviously.

6. I think I learned something interesting about Drew Brees that I never knew before this week. Standing with Chris Berman at Colts practice Thursday, he said, "Drew Brees went to Purdue. You know what his other college choice was?'' No idea, I said. "Brown,'' said Berman, the biggest Brown backer and one of its most famous alums in the free world. When Brees visited Brown, he told Berman his host on the recruiting visit was Sean Morey, the Super Bowl Cardinal from last year. As Brees told Berman, if he'd gone to Brown, he might be in politics right now. I've seen Brees in action, and I can tell you this: It won't be long before he is.

7. I think I'm going to warn you now: Beware the graphic photo in Monday's MMQB, when I show you the right knee of Conrad Dobler. Viewer discretion is advised. But the former Cardinal, once christened the dirtiest player in the NFL by none other than our little magazine, has a serious story to tell, and I'll give it to you in the column. Not to be a Debbie Downer or anything, but the retired players need to be heard.

8. I think there's no question the Saints watched the Week 8 Colts-Niners game to pick up some clues on how to play Indy's offense. I asked Ryan Lilja, the Colts guard, about that game, and he made me think that the Saint with the most impact on the Indianapolis offensive line could be the beefy Sedrick Ellis. That's because it was overpowering play in the middle of the 49ers line -- from tackle Isaac Sapoaga and Aubrayo Franklin mostly -- that plagued Indy much of the game. In the first three quarters, the Colts had 10 possessions; six ended in punts, and four in field goals. No TDs. "They played an odd front that we just couldn't solve,'' said Lilja. "The perfect formula to beat us is not let us run the ball and get after Peyton.''

9. I still think the stats that say it all about the forecast of this game is as follows: In the last three games Gregg Williams has coached against Manning, the quarterback has completed 71 percent of his passes, been sacked once, and been hit 10 times in 12 quarters. The Saints are going to have to do better than that.

10. I think there's one mystery left in the week -- what sort of video inspiration will Sean Payton provide his troops Saturday night? Read my NFC championship story in last weeks' SI and you'll see why I think such pregame hijinks might actually play a role in how fired up the Saints enter the game.

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