Super Bowl: Time to rename it the Super Throw?

Super Bowl XLIV will be one of the closest, highest-scoring Super Bowls ever, given the Saints' and Colts' air games.

The National Football League says Sunday's game will be Super Bowl XLIV. But it could also easily be Super Bowl I.

The Feb. 7 game between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints is, perhaps, the clearest statement yet of how completely the forward pass has transformed professional football.

The game is no longer built upon grinding defense and punishing rushing attacks, and the Saints and Colts typify this new NFL, which more closely resembles a frequent-flier program of pass first, pass often. Sunday's game exemplifies what the Super Bowl has now become: not a slog in the trenches but a glamour matchup that holds the promise of in-game pyrotechnics.

By the measure of the NFL's passer rating, the contest between the Colts' Peyton Manning and the Saints' Drew Brees will be the second best quarterback matchup in Super Bowl history, trailing only the Joe Montana-Dan Marino matchup of 1985.

For their part, oddsmakers suggest this will be one of the closest, highest-scoring Super Bowls ever. It is the first in 16 years to feature the two best regular-season teams.

In many ways, the Colts and Saints appear to be similar. Most obviously, they share an array of offensive weapons that would make the Pentagon jealous. Yet beneath that broad similarity lie two teams that will try to win the game in opposite ways.

The Saints are pro football's masters of sleight of hand. Coach Sean Payton's goal is not to steamroller opponents, but to play an elaborate shell game with the extraordinary talents on his offense.

Having to contend with the Saints' formidable corps of receivers, ends, and backs is challenging enough. Payton adds to his opponents' difficulties by constantly changing how his offense looks when it comes to the line of scrimmage.

For defenses trying to unravel what the Saints are doing, Payton makes his offense a constantly moving target, introducing permutations upon permutations. His offense, run by Brees, is a football hydra, ever sprouting fantastical heads.

The defense is built on the same principle. Among the weakest in the league by many measures, the Saints have masked their deficiencies by becoming the NFL's most dedicated pickpockets, making an art of forcing fumbles and interceptions. Safety Darren Sharper led the league with nine interceptions, setting an NFL record by gaining 376 yards on those interception returns.

To add to the confusion, they also blitz more than any other team except the New York Jets.

In the Colts, however, the Saints will meet the team perhaps best suited to unraveling their trickery.

On offense, the Colts' collection of talent is essentially a gift to Manning with the instructions: Use as needed.

Manning's understanding of football has become a part of the game's lore. His dissection of the game through hours of watching film comes dangerously close to turning football into a school project. He is the anti-Brett Favre – the son of football royalty (Saints legend Archie Manning) who approaches each game as though it were an AP math test, solving defenses' calculus with an almost humdrum efficiency.

"He's often predictable in a good sort of way," says Joe Horrigan of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "His professionalism makes him a little less the Joe Six-pack sort of quarterback."

The Colts defense is often maligned as the weak link in Manning's quest for more Super Bowl rings. That should not be the case this year, says ESPN analyst and former NFL player Merrill Hoge.

"One thing that's lost in all this because of the [Saints and Colts great] offenses is how good this Colt defense is," he says. "This is the best defense Manning has ever had."

Like the Colts offense, the Colts defense stands in stark contrast to that of the scheming Saints. Its mantra is not confusion but speed. Possibly the fastest defensive team in the NFL, the Colts come like locusts, swarming opponents in a haze of blue.

And in linebacker Gary Brackett, the Colts have a Manning for their defense – someone to counter the Saints' offensive shell game. "Brackett is the most underrated player in football," says Mr. Hoge.

It will be football played between the ears as much as between the hash marks, and all at a speed sure to make the head – and perhaps the scoreboard – spin.


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