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Super Bowl Preview XLI

Feb. 05, 2007
Feb. 05, 2007

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Feb. 5, 2007

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Super Bowl Preview XLI

The matchup in Miami will hinge on a line-of-scrimmage mind game. Can Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher outsmart Colts quarterback Peyton Manning for football's ultimate prize?

QUESTIONS CAMEendlessly in the Manning household, mostly from the second of Archie andOlivia's three sons, and mostly about football. It was Peyton who invariablyasked his father about his career at Ole Miss from 1968 to '70 and who was sotaken with his dad's stories that he committed pregame radio broadcasts of theRebels' starting lineups to memory. It was Peyton who first became aquarterback and queried Archie about the succession of fierce middlelinebackers whom he had played against: Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, Tommy Nobis,Jack Lambert.

The kid learned football, but he also learned football's heritage. "Peytonwas always a history guy," says Archie. "He knows which guys in my erawere really great. He knows about the great players in his own eratoo."

One of those current greats first crossed paths with Manning during a game atChicago's Soldier Field in November 2000. Manning was in his third season, enroute to his second Pro Bowl and the Indianapolis Colts' second consecutiveplayoff appearance. He passed for 302 yards and a touchdown that afternoon andbrought his team back from a 27-point deficit before losing 27--24. On theother side of the ball, Bears rookie linebacker Brian Urlacher, a 6'4",258-pound former college safety, racked up 14 tackles and seemed to beeverywhere at once. "Fun game, man," recalls Urlacher. "I had apretty good game ... for a rookie."

This is an article from the Feb. 5, 2007 issue

Manning talked tohis father soon afterward. "Urlacher is really good," Peyton toldArchie. "He's big, he really runs well, he's smart." On that dayUrlacher was added to Manning's list of great middle linebackers.

They have not facedeach other since. In 2004 the Colts beat the Bears 41--10, again at SoldierField. Manning passed for four touchdowns, and Edgerrin James rushed for 204yards. Urlacher watched from a chair in his basement, six days after emergencysurgery to relieve swelling in his left calf. "Believe me," says the30-year-old Manning. "I wasn't disappointed about that."

"I was mad ashell," the 28-year-old Urlacher says. "I wanted to be out there playingagainst him."

He will get thatchance on Sunday in Miami. Manning versus Urlacher is the most significantindividual battle of Super Bowl XLI, a rare title-game matchup of the game'sbest quarterback and its best middle linebacker, future Hall of Famers with acombined 13 Pro Bowls selections. It will often commence with their face masksnearly touching, Manning shouting and gesticulating as he changes plays (orpretends to), Urlacher barking out signals as he calls for countermoves (orpretends to), all just prelude to the snap of the ball.

"It's going tobe a classic battle," says Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck,who lost to Chicago 27--24 in overtime in the divisional playoffs.

"It should be ahell of a chess match," says Rex Ryan, defensive coordinator of theBaltimore Ravens, 15--6 losers to the Colts in the divisional round, but theonly team to hold Indianapolis's offense without a touchdown in its last 34games.

They are iconicplayers--the cerebral quarterback and the punishing middle linebacker--but thisis hardly a showdown of brain against brawn. Manning's greatness is built onmore than gray matter; he has a quick release, an accurate arm, terrificvision, a strong pocket presence and fortitude to spare, having started 156consecutive games. "He's a tough guy," says Urlacher. "A lottougher than people seem to think he is."

Likewise,Urlacher's assets don't stop at the neckline. "I guarantee you he'swatching every bit as much film as Peyton is," says Detroit Lionsquarterback Jon Kitna. "He's special because he's got size and speed[Urlacher runs a 4.59 40] but also because of his football IQ, which issomething that a lot of people are missing when they talk about Brian."

The Super Bowl willbe their defining moment. For the winner it becomes the most significant lineon his résumé (John Elway); for the loser it represents his biggest void (DanMarino). "The most important thing is to win the game," says Urlacher."But I'm not going to lie; I'd like to make some plays on this guy. Not alot of defenses do that against Peyton Manning."

They will matchwits from the instant the referee spots the ball.

PLAY CLOCK :30

Sometimes the Coltswill huddle, sometimes not. In either case offensive coordinator Tom Mooredictates instructions into Manning's helmet by radio. Bears defensivecoordinator Ron Rivera, in a box above the field, calls the formation into theheadset of linebackers coach Bob Babich on the sideline. Babich uses handsignals to relay the call to Urlacher. "They always take too long,"says Urlacher, laughing. "I'm on the field, yelling at Coach Babich,'What's the call!'"

Once the teams cometo the line, the complexity lies more in the guessing game--the last-secondadjustments and counters--than in the multiplicity of formations. The Coltswill line up with Manning in shotgun or under center, and either Joseph Addaior Dominic Rhodes in the backfield. There will be three or four wideouts. TheBears will usually start in their 4--3, deploying two safeties deep in a CoverTwo look. "Neither the Bears' defense or the Colts' offense is realcomplicated," says quarterback Drew Brees, whose New Orleans Saints lost toChicago 39--14 in the NFC Championship Game. "They don't run a lot offormations. But they both have a lot of confidence in what they do."

PLAY CLOCK :15

Manning begins aseries of movements that are now familiar to even the most casual fan: pointingout the safeties, pumping his right leg, leaning over and shouting to theoffensive linemen. What is he doing? Sometimes he's calling the play. Sometimeshe's changing it. "Sometimes," says Urlacher, "he's just screwingaround with us."

Meanwhile, Urlacheroften jumps into the A gap, right over the center. "That's so he can listento the quarterback and make you think he's going to blitz," explainsBrees.

Hasselbeck says,"He leans in so he's right in your face, and you start to audible and thenhe starts to audible, except you're not really sure if he's audibling or not.It's pretty intense, although it's more intense at Soldier Field, with thecrowd noise. That won't be a factor in Miami."

PLAY CLOCK :10

By now Manning hasseen the Bears' defensive alignment and is adjusting his call accordingly. TheColts players shift. It's Urlacher's turn to act. "The key for us is tohold our alignment until Peyton is finished with his acrobatics and then gointo our own movements," Rivera says. "And that's all on Brian."Rivera snatches a video controller off his desktop on the second floor of HalasHall, the Bears' training facility in Lake Forest, Ill. "Here's what Briandoes for us," he says, cuing up two plays on the wall-sized screen, bothfrom Chicago's win over the Seahawks.

Play number 1: TheBears lead 14--7 in the second quarter, and Seattle has third-and-seven fromits own 40. Urlacher is in the A gap, and the Bears have a blitz called.Anticipating it, Hasselbeck checks off; running backs Shaun Alexander and MackStrong split, a tip-off that the Seahawks are going to throw and use at leastone of the backs to protect Hasselbeck. Urlacher, realizing that even with theblitz the Bears will not have enough rushers to outnumber Seattle's blockers,frantically changes the defensive call to Tampa Two, a variation of Cover Twoin which the middle linebacker is responsible for the deep zone between thesafeties. Urlacher then drops back and deflects a pass intended for wideoutDarrell Jackson.

Play number 2: Fourminutes later, still 14--7. Seattle has another third-and-seven at its 39.Urlacher is sitting deep, figuring that Tampa Two is the best setup, until hesurveys the Seahawks' formation and determines they can block only six passrushers. So Urlacher audibles to a blitz in which he "mugs the center"(Rivera's words), linebacker Lance Briggs rushes from the right side andnickelback Ricky Manning steams in from the left. Manning, untouched, forces ahot read, and the hurried throw is nearly intercepted by cornerback CharlesTillman, who knew from Urlacher's signals that Hasselbeck would be passingunder pressure.

Two audibles. Twostops. "We get off the field," says Urlacher. "Both times."

Still, the Coltswould love it if the Bears try to outguess Manning. "If you want to playthat game," says tight end Dallas Clark, "it's going to backfire onyou."

Urlacher knows thattoo. "Peyton has the upper hand," he says. "Ideally, we would justchange last, but it's harder for us to change. I have to lean over and shout atthe linemen, and Lance and [outside linebacker] Hunter [Hillenmeyer] have to dothe same thing. Then I have to get the DBs' attention and signal them. It takesa while, and there's no way you can go back. I'll just check once at the mostand make sure we're all on the same page. Because if we've got guys runningdifferent schemes and Peyton just snaps the ball--which he can do at any timeif he sees we're confused--that's when you get gashed."

Indianapolis centerJeff Saturday says, "Every team tries to play that game with Peyton. In theend it comes down to execution after I snap the ball. It always does."

POSTSNAP

The Bears and Coltsare similarly cohesive. "Take a look at these teams," says Kitna."They're not complex, but they're both exceptionally well coached, and evenin this era of free agency, they've played together a relatively longtime."

Chicago plays thebest Tampa Two in the league, with the speedy Urlacher in pass coverage."The only way to beat Urlacher down the middle is to get him running andthrow the ball behind him," says Kitna. "Drew Brees threw one ball toMarques Colston like that, and Colston made a great catch. But to me, that's aone-in-10 play. With Urlacher out there, throwing down the middle is buyerbeware."

Urlacher knowshe'll be challenged on Sunday. "I haven't been tested in Cover Two allyear," says Urlacher. "But this is Peyton Manning. He's got to test medown the middle. I'm expecting it."

The Bears alsoaggressively pursue the ball, whether on running plays or short passes. "Iliken their defense to an accordion," says Hasselbeck. "You runsomething and it stretches out, and then when they identify the ball, it closesdown very quickly." Despite often dropping 30 yards in pass coverage,Urlacher led the NFC with 141 tackles.

Manning led theleague with a 101.0 quarterback rating and 31 touchdown passes, against justnine interceptions. The Colts feed off his ability to identify a defense's softspots. "They have good plays into the weaknesses of every coverage,"says Ryan. "You have to disguise things as much as possible because ifPeyton knows what coverage you're in, you're in for a long, long day."

Manning will try toslow Urlacher by first faking a handoff to the running back on nearly everypassing play. "The play action keeps Urlacher close to the linelonger," says Hasselbeck, "and makes it tougher for him to think passonly."

The gulf betweenSuper Bowl victory and defeat is enormous. For the winner there will be theultimate fulfillment, for the loser a lingering question: When? So where doesthe advantage lie? Both teams have had letdowns. The Bears surrendered 268passing yards to journeyman Tim Rattay of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 34--31overtime win on Dec. 17, and if not for a bobbled snap on fourth down in thefourth quarter, Seattle might have beaten them in the playoffs. Manning had a39.6 quarterback rating in the playoff win over the Ravens. "It might havebeen a zero rating if we hadn't dropped two interceptions," says Ryan."He told me it looked like a video game out there. So it's possible toconfuse him."

Brees says thatAddai could be the X factor, if he can break off a few early gains and forcethe Bears into dangerous man-to-man coverage on wideouts Marvin Harrison andReggie Wayne, neutralizing Urlacher by taking him out of the coverage scheme."They played a ton of man-to-man against us," says Brees. "We hadguys open, but we just turned it over too much [four times]."

Ryan believes theBears' rushing attack will outmuscle Indy's defense, limiting Manning'spossessions and forcing him into impatient throws and turnovers. Hasselbeck hasa broader take. "I don't think it will be close," he says. "One ofthese teams is going to get its way eventually."

It's all guesswork.The only assurance for Manning and Urlacher is that each will spend the eveningin the other's head, often separated by only inches. When the game is finished,they will be divided by immeasurably more. One will have a Super Bowl ring; theother will not.

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"The most important thing is to win," saysUrlacher. "But I'm NOT GOING TO LIE-- I'd like to make some plays on thisguy."
The Colts would love for the Bears to try to outguessManning. "If you play that game," says Clark, "it's going toBACKFIRE on you."
This isn't BRAINS AGAINST BRAWN. Manning relies on morethan gray matter. Urlacher's assets don't stop at the neckline.
PHOTOJOHN BIEVERPHOTOICON/SMIPHOTOPETER READ MILLER SIGNLANGUAGE
The Bears' task will be to read Manning's mad gesticulations--some meaningful,some not--and react quickly.
EIGHT ILLUSTRATIONSDAVID N. BERKWITZPHOTOBOB ROSATOMYWATCH
Urlacher expects to be challenged deep down the middle more than he had been byany team this season.