FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- While watching Indy quarterback Peyton Manning prepare for Super Bowl XLIV against the Saints, one player kept coming to mind: Ben Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger, the Steelers' burly franchise quarterback, walked away from his first Super Bowl experience four years ago in Detroit feeling as if he had not played up to expectations. He threw two interceptions and no touchdowns and had a paltry 22.9 passer rating in the 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks. As he walked through the shower of confetti afterward, he couldn't help but feel as if his team had won despite him -- not because of him. Major distinction.
Three years later Roethlisberger returned to the Super Bowl with a burning determination to atone for that performance. He did just that by completing 21 of 30 passes for 256 yards and a 93.2 passer rater. More importantly he drove the Steelers 78 yards in the final 2:37 for a 27-23 victory over the Cardinals, his six-yard strike to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds to play providing the exclamation point.
It's not a stretch to say Manning also is looking for redemption in his second Super Bowl. He did not play poorly in his first title game three years ago, a 29-17 defeat of the Bears in which he won an MVP award that should have gone to running back Dominic Rhodes. But his play offered nothing in the way of a signature performance. He threw for 257 yards with one TD and one interception. Yawn. Ho hum. But more noteworthy is it capped a postseason in which he threw seven interceptions against only three touchdown passes and was not on the positive side in that ratio in any of his four playoff games that year.
Sunday's Super Bowl is an opportunity for Manning to finally provide a signature game in an illustrious career. It is a chance for him to right the wrongs of three postseasons ago. It is a platform on which he can do as Roethlisberger did last February and walk off the field with total elation on his face instead of gnawing hunger in his belly. Will he? I believe the answer is: yes.
Here are five reasons the Colts will beat the Saints:
1. Peyton Manning: The four-time league MVP had the best season of his career, arguably, despite having to break in second-year pro Pierre Garcon and rookie Austin Collie, wideouts who had a combined four career catches coming into the season. Manning has seen just about everything a defense can throw at him. He is smart enough to beat blitzes and accurate and strong enough to whistle passes through small windows against zone coverage. At last week's Senior Bowl practices, a Jets personnel man, still smarting from seeing Manning throw three touchdowns while leading the Colts to six scores in eight possessions in a 30-17 victory over New York a few days earlier, cornered a Titans coach and asked how the Titans deal with Manning twice a year in the AFC South. The assistant chuckled.
"The guy is absolutely amazing," the Titans coach would say later. "Whether he wins or not this weekend he's one of the alltime greats for me. Not many guys have built a stadium; he's done that. There's really no answer to what you do with him. He's going to make a mistake like everybody else, but it's not going to happen often. And he's not going to make the same mistake twice."
2. Defense: The unit often gets overshadowed by Manning and the offense, but it is more than deserving of the spotlight. Under new coordinator Larry Coyer, the defense has been more creative and aggressive. No longer content to rely almost exclusively on the bend-but-don't-break Cover 2 scheme of seasons past, Indy has turned up the heat. Its 146 blitzes in passing situations during the regular season were more than three times its total in 2008.
Coyer's pressure makes the Colts harder to prepare for. Opponents have scored 20 points this postseason and have been shut out in six of eight quarters. Before the Colts rested their starters for the final two-plus games, they ranked second in fewest points allowed. Texans coach Gary Kubiak says the Indy defense might be the most underrated unit in the league, while another AFC South coach says this might be the best defense the Colts have had since Manning arrived in 1998.
3. Super Bowl experience: The Colts have a decided advantage here. Nineteen players and 11 of 22 starters were on the active roster three seasons ago when Indy beat Chicago 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI -- including stars such as Manning, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, safety Antoine Bethea, tight end Dallas Clark, and linebacker Gary Brackett.
New Orleans has only four players on its active roster who've appeared in a Super Bowl, with safety Darren Sharper being the only fulltime starter. The Saints discount the experience angle because of all the hardships the organization has faced since Katrina. But I can't help but believe some of their players will have big eyes early in the game.
4. Dwight Freeney/Raheem Brock vs. LT Jermon Bushrod: Bushrod, who was thrust into the starting lineup after former first-round pick Jammal Brown sustained a season-ending injury in training camp, is widely regarded as the weak link in the Saints' offensive line. He was expected to get help against the speedy and powerful Freeney, but with Freeney now questionable with an ankle injury it's uncertain whether New Orleans will feel the need to devote an extra blocker in pass pass protection. If it doesn't, that could be a mistake. Brock has the ability to beat Bushrod in one-on-one situations, as does end Robert Mathis if coordinator Larry Coyer moves Mathis to the opposite side and the Saints don't adjust.
5. Jim Caldwell: The rookie head coach has not gotten the credit he deserves, but the fact remains that he has pushed all the right buttons. His steady, cool-under-pressure demeanor has helped the Colts get through some tough situations, including seven games in which they rallied from fourth-quarter deficits. Case in point: Caldwell's adjustments in the AFC Championship Game against the Jets helped turn an 11-point deficit into a 30-17 victory. People say he was handed the keys to a Ferrari, which is true, but they said the same thing about Norv Turner in San Diego and the Chargers have yet to reach a Super Bowl in his three seasons. That's not meant to be a knock against Turner; instead it's a reminder that Caldwell's contribution to the Colts' success should not be pooh-poohed.
CLICK HERE FOR DON BANKS' FIVE REASONS WHY SAINTS WILL WIN