The two heavyweights in next week?s Super Bowl are obviously quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, but neither can set off a confetti shower on his own. With that, let?s take a look at which players on the Colts and Saints could be X-factors in Super Bowl XLIV.
1. As one member of the Patriots told NESN.com earlier this week, teams try to invite the Colts to run the ball, like the Jets did in the AFC Championship by fielding six and seven defensive backs on nearly every play. Granted, Indy doesn?t often accept that invitation, as the Colts ranked second in the NFL in regular-season pass attempts and 30th in rushing attempts. However, if the Colts decide their defense can?t withstand the Saints? offensive pressure, they might try to maximize time of possession, and running backs Joseph Addai and Donald Brown will have to take advantage of their carries. Addai has 27 postseason carries for 103 yards (3.8 yards per carry), and Brown has 12 carries for 28 yards (2.3). Neither has a touchdown in the playoffs.
2. Wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie got plenty of well-deserved attention after combining for 18 receptions, 274 yards and two touchdowns against the Jets. They needed to be great in that game, since the whole world knew cornerback Darrelle Revis would shut down wideout Reggie Wayne. Now that Revis Island has been deserted, though, expect Wayne to have a monster game and earn strong consideration for Super Bowl MVP honors. Wayne had eight catches for 63 yards and one touchdown in the divisional round against the Ravens, and he?ll take care of business against the Saints in the Super Bowl.
3. If the Colts don?t put any heat on Brees, they?ll have no chance of stopping the New Orleans offense. The Vikings slowed down the Saints in the second half of the NFC Championship by getting a strong push from their defensive line, and that?s how the Colts have to do it, too. Their line isn?t as good across the board as Minnesota?s, but the Colts generate relentless pressure from defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Both will make it a long night for the Saints? tackles, and the winners of those battles will go a long way in deciding the pace of the game.
4. Safety Melvin Bullitt is kind of like a firecracker in the Colts? defense. He?s fast, powerful and, of course, explosive, and he has great instincts around the ball. Bullitt, whose name is fitting for his style of play, is always good for a hard hit, and it would obviously be a big advantage for the Colts if he can jaw the ball loose at some point.
New Orleans Saints
1. Perhaps no one has revitalized his career in the playoffs more than Saints running back Reggie Bush, who was so good against the Cardinals that he made a 31-point, one-sided affair exciting to watch. He actually had a 46-yard touchdown run in which he made seven Cardinals miss a tackle, and cornerback Bryant McFadden was so awestruck that he missed Bush twice. Bush, who was the second overall pick in the 2006 draft, has 258 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in the Saints? two victories.
Bush only has 12 carries in the playoffs, but he?s a threat in the passing game and is dynamite as a punt returner. But, since the Colts are vulnerable to the run, the Saints might turn toward Bush and running backs Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell to eat up some clock. This game could definitely be a track meet, but when possessions come at a premium prior to halftime and the end of regulation, the team with the ball will try to score with the least possible amount of time remaining. At that point, the team with the most efficient running attack could claim some vital points.
2. The Saints don?t have a defensive player who is as good as Freeney, but their defensive line has more depth than Indy. Defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant are great at creating pressure on the outside, and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is a monster in the middle. There?s no exact science to halting Manning, but the Saints are at least well-suited to do it. They need to create pressure with their front four and maximize their density in the defensive backfield. That?s how the Giants held down the Patriots two years ago, and that?s what the Saints need to do next Sunday.
3. Safety Darren Sharper changed the face of the Saints? defense in a magnanimous way, as he helped them force a ridiculous 39 turnovers in the regular season and seven in the playoff games. In their 18 games in 2009, the Saints have forced an average of 2.56 turnovers per game, and they?ve forced at least three turnovers 10 times. And Sharper, who was signed last offseason, has forced more than 25 percent of those regular-season turnovers. He had nine interceptions — returning three for touchdowns — and one fumble recovery. The rest of the New Orleans defense has followed Sharper?s leadership, and the Saints try forcing turnovers on every single play.