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Payton's bold gambles, Peyton's biggest loss, more Snap Judgments

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from Super Bowl XLIV at Sun Life Stadium, where the long-suffering Saints went marching into Super Bowl history with a thrilling 31-17 come-from-behind upset win over a Colts team that was widely expected to have its way with New Orleans. Who Dat indeed ...

• Another year, another superb Super Bowl. Did you ever think we'd say that after the first three decades-plus of the game's 44-year history? The first-time Super Bowl-qualifying Saints, dazed and down 10-0 in the first quarter, got off the mat in historic fashion, beating a Colts team that had owned the fourth quarter all season.

But Indy's seven fourth-quarter comeback wins, and Peyton Manning's league-leading fourth-quarter passer rating didn't mean a thing when the pressure built in this Super Bowl. It was the Colts and Manning who wilted, and the Saints who thrived, with New Orleans scoring 31 of the final 38 points after that early double-digit deficit.

• It's got to hurt a little more for Colts fans that Saints hero Tracy Porter is a former Indiana University cornerback. For the second game in a row, Porter saved the Saints with a late-game interception. Porter picked Brett Favre late in regulation in the NFC title game; and Sunday night, he picked off Manning, returning the game's only turnover 74 yards for a title-clinching touchdown with 3:12 remaining.

• He didn't start all that strongly, but nobody ever played a better final three quarters in a Super Bowl than Saints quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees. After completing just three of his first seven passes for 27 yards in the first quarter, Brees was 29 of 32 from there on -- including a spike to kill the clock late in the first half and Reggie Bush drop in the second half.

That's a mind-numbing display of excellence in the biggest game of his nine-year NFL career. Brees finished 32 of 39 overall, for 288 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 114.5 passer rating. He tied Tom Brady's 2004 record of 32 Super Bowl completions, and almost singlehandedly kept the Saints in the game when their running game was an afterthought.

• What a well-played game that was. Manning's pick was the only turnover all night, and the penalties were few and far between. It wasn't quite the shootout we all expected, but it was crisp, pure football, for the most part. And the Saints winning was no fluke. No David Tyree-type catch led to this upset. New Orleans was the better team, and outplayed the Colts entirely after the first quarter.

The Saints' comeback from an early 10-0 hole matched Washington's rally against Denver in 1988 for the largest comeback from a first-quarter deficit in Super Bowl history.

• Give him this: Sean Payton has some guts. Going for it on 4th-and-1 from the 1, down 10-3 in the second quarter? Calling for the first non-fourth quarter onside kick in Super Bowl history, to open the third quarter, even though your team was only trailing 10-6? The Saints head coach isn't afraid to make the risky call, and even though he batted .500 with those two huge decisions against the Colts -- with New Orleans failing on the 4th down and recovering the onside kick to start a go-ahead touchdown drive -- I like the way he's unafraid to roll the dice. Even in the biggest of the big games.

• I wrote on Friday about how Matt Stover's lack of length on field goals might hurt the Colts late in the game, and sure enough, Stover's miss from 51 yards in the fourth quarter was a big break for New Orleans. To review, Stover was 6 of 6 on field goals before his miss, but with a long of only 44 yards.

Stover, 42, became the oldest player in Super Bowl history. But he hasn't made a field goal of longer than 49 yards since 2006, when he was still a Baltimore Raven. Stover was a fine replacement this season for the injured Adam Vinatieri -- the greatest clutch kicker in NFL playoff history -- but with Indy trying to build on a 17-16 lead, those were big points the Colts missed out on.

• You can't say Dwight Freeney made little impact, because he had that exquisite one-handed sack of Brees in the second quarter -- the only Colts sack in the opening three quarters. But you can't say Freeney was his usual disruptive self with that well-chronicled ankle injury. He looked strong early on, but he seemed to wear down, and had his ankle re-taped twice in the second half. The sack was his only tackle of the game.

All in all, Brees had a clean pocket to work with most of the night, and he responded with a Super Bowl-record 32 completions. Though many thought defensive lineman Raheem Brock would step up and fill in admirably for Freeney, he also finished with just one tackle.

• This just put an end to any remaining debate about the team of the decade in the NFL. It's New England. The Colts had a case to make with a win tonight, given their 10 years of excellence in the regular season. But one Super Bowl win in the 2000s merely makes them the Atlanta Braves of the NFL.

All you folks who wrote and talked about Indy being crowned a dynasty with a win over the Saints, don't you feel a little silly? You should. That's why you can't jump the gun on the dynasty spiel. You just have to let it happen, and when it does, everybody knows what a real dynasty looks like.

• How clutch was kicker Garrett Hartley in the biggest game of his nascent NFL career? Hartley hit a pair of long field goals (46, 44 yards) for all the Saints' first-half points. (Punter Thomas Morstead gets credit for the onside kick.) In the third quarter, Hartley added a 47-yard field goal, to become the first kicker in Super Bowl history to convert from longer than 40 yards three times in the same game.

Stover, in turn, made a 36-yarder in the first quarter but was totally upstaged by Hartley, who's all of 23.

• A record four MVP trophies are great, but that was the most crushing loss of Manning's 12-year NFL career. It's silly to try to sum up the legacy question with Manning having so many years left to play, but losing this one is going to be a failure that re-starts talk of him not being his best once the NFL's postseason starts.

• Weird, weird Super Bowl in the first half. Colts dominated the first quarter, rolling up 10 points and 154 yards on a pair of 11-play drives. Indy had more points in the first quarter (10) than the Saints ran offensive plays (nine).

Then the Saints answered, dominating the second quarter almost as completely as Indy did in the first. New Orleans had 143 yards of their 179 total first-half yards in the second quarter, and scored on those Hartley field goals of 46 and 44 yards. The Colts had just 15 yards in the second quarter, on six plays. Indy held the ball just 2:34 in the quarter, compared to 12:26 for the Saints.

• The Saints have been hurt before by their lack of a short-yardage running game, but never more than on the first-and-goal drive in the second quarter -- when three consecutive running plays failed to produce a touchdown. Mike Bell slipped on 3rd-and-1, and then Pierre Thomas got swarmed under by three Colts (Gary Brackett, Tim Jennings and Clint Session) on 4th-and-1.

I still like Payton's decision to go for the touchdown on that possession, because you're not going to beat the Colts scoring field goals. Not going to happen.

That said, it was very curious to see Payton call three consecutive runs inside the 10. I would have let Brees throw the ball at least once, maybe twice in that goal-line situation.

• Have to admit, if you knew New Orleans would hold Indy to just 10 points in the first half, you would have loved its chances to win the game. As disastrous as their first quarter was, the Saints recovered after having the wind knocked out of them by the Colts offense. Impressive response by a first-time Super Bowl team, because many times a start like this ultimately leads to a 37-13 loss.

The most impressive thing about the Saints' win was how they held things together after getting their teeth kicked in in the game's opening 15 minutes.

• That was a killer drop by Colts receiver Pierre Garcon on 3rd-and-4 on the Colts' third drive. It forced the first Indy punt of the game and seemed to give the Saints defense some life. It was 10-3 Colts at the time, and you got the feeling the Saints defense was never going to stop Manning and Co.

• The one thing the Saints absolutely, positively didn't want to let happen in the first quarter happened: The Colts started the game with a pair of 11-play scoring drives. Indy's offense was clinic-like, slicing up New Orleans for seven gains of at least 11 yards. Besides Garcon's 19-yard touchdown catch, the plays that seemed to work best involved Joseph Addai (runs of 16 and 26 yards). The Saints' run defense has been less than stellar this year, and if you can't stop Indy's running game, Manning is then free to pick teams apart.

The 26-yard gain was Addai's longest run this season, and the Colts' 96-yard touchdown march was their longest drive of the season. It also tied a Super Bowl record for the longest scoring drive, equaling a Bears 96-yard march against the outmatched Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

Bill Polian's game face is legendary within the league. I saw it firsthand once again Sunday night when I crossed paths with the Colts general manager while ducking into the men's room at halftime. Let's just say Polian doesn't bother with pleasantries or salutations in a mid-game setting.

And to think his Colts were up 10-6 at the time.

• Don't know what the crowd split was when it comes to Saints versus Colts fans, but I do know this: Saints fans clearly made more noise when the Colts were on offense than Colts fans did when the Saints had the ball. Not that it seemed to matter. Indy was relentless on third downs, when the New Orleans fans were the loudest. Nothing ever perturbs Peyton.

• For all the pre-airing hype and controversy, I thought the Tim Tebow commercial was at least less preachy or heavy-handed than I expected. Hard to get real worked up about a spot in which Tebow tackles his mom. Or at least pretends to.

• Now, that Brett Favre commercial? Priceless. A 50-year-old Favre wins the 2020 Super Bowl MVP. Funny, funny stuff.

• You know it's been a quiet week at the Super Bowl when it takes an analyst for the NFL Network to create the only real distraction. It wasn't exactly on par with the Stanley Wilson, Eugene Robinson and Barrett Robbins sagas, but Warren Sapp gets the Trouble-Before-The-Big-Game award on an emeritus level.

Nice week for the NFL Network, eh? Michael Irvin. Sapp. Better mind your P's and Q's, Steve Mariucci. We're watching you.

• If you're wondering, this was the latest Super Bowl ever played calendar-wise. Feb. 7 is the new standard for an NFL season that seems to never really end. The first 35 Super Bowls were all January affairs, but eight of the past nine have been in February. And when the league moves to an 18-game regular-season -- and that's when, not if -- I think we're looking at a Super Bowl played on Presidents' Day weekend.

When I was looking all this up, I was stunned to see that Super Bowl XI (Raiders-Vikings in the Rose Bowl) was played Jan. 9, 1977. Just for comparison sake, this postseason, the first day of the first-round games were played on Jan. 9.

• The looming labor situation in the NFL is going to dominate much of the coverage as 2010 continues to unfold, but I think we all know that we're a long way from any sort of new collective bargaining agreement. I'd be shocked if anything significant in the way of progress toward a deal is made before 2011, when there finally will be a real deadline in play.

We know this too: NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith kind of likes jacking up the rhetorical stakes, like he did this week when saying the chances of the owners locking out the players next year was "14'' on a scale of 1-10. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, on the other hand, has yet to dip his toe into the rhetorical waters, and I don't expect he will anytime soon. It's not his style. "I'm not much on rhetoric,'' Goodell said Friday.

• Banning the three-point stance in the NFL seems like a common-sense step toward at least lessening the damage done by concussions every season. I imagine one day we'll look back and wonder why no one thought of making that the rather-easy move long ago.

• More than anyone else, NFL players trust fellow NFL players. So whenever a coach is hired around the league, his new players get on the phone and check him out even before meeting him. Like Saints linebacker Scott Fujita did when the club hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams last offseason.

"I knew his rep a little bit,'' Fujita told me last week. "When I heard we hired him, I called (Redskins defensive end) Andre Carter, who was one of my best friends at Cal, and who had played for him in Washington. I said 'What's the scoop on this guy?' Andre said "I'd play for him any day,' and that's all I needed to hear.''

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