Why the Saints Will Win the Superbowl
February 7, 2010

As the two best teams in the NFL line-up to determine this year's champion today, a lot has been written that the game will feature the crowning of a new "best player ever", or at least a new entrant into the discussion.  With a win today, Peyton Manning will have a second Superbowl win on his mantle to go along with his amazing statistics.  In the minds of the sportswriters, that will be enough to put him among the greatest ever to play in NFL history.  Like many sports myths, it makes a great story.

Unfortunately, there's a lot wrong with this plot.

First of all, it's hard to argue that the greatest NFL player isn't Jim Brown.  In nine seasons, he ran for eight rushing titles; no other back in history has more than four.  He is still the only running back to average better than 100 yards rushing per game and the only one with more than 1000 carries to average better than 5 yards per carry.  He also holds the record for most seasons leading the league in TDs (5).  He was and still is the gold standard by which all running backs are measured. 

And unlike Jerry Rice, who has become the standard for recievers, Brown's success was in no way influenced by a new wave of play-calling.  With Rice, he had the benefit of having two Hall of Fame quarterbacks throwing to him - Joe Montana and Steve Young - and playing in a ground-breaking offensive system, the West Coast offense.  He still would have been great without Bill Walsh's new offensive philosophy, but to what extent remains highly debatable.  With Jim Brown, he would have been the greatest running back ever regardless of the system.  What's more amazing is that Brown retired when he was still at his peak   He was 29 years old, had just completed the second best rushing season of his career and had just set a new record for most touchdowns scored in a season (21) when he decided a film career was more to his liking.  It took Walter Payton an additional 4 seasons, each with two more games than what Brown had played under, to break Brown's record of most rushing yards in a career.  When he retired, Jim Brown was the owner of 20 NFL records, and like Babe Ruth, even though a couple of players have surpassed those records, he is still the guy everyone is compared to when talking greatness.

And there's an argument that Peyton isn't even the greatest QB ever.  There are a number of common entrants into that discussion: Joe Montana, John Elway, Tom Brady, Otto Graham...  I'm not convinced Manning is even the greatest Colts QB ever.  That distinction belongs to Johnny Unitas.  His numbers aren't as gaudy as Peyton's, but he played in an era where the forward pass was still thought of as a trick play.  He still holds the record for most years leading the league in TD passing (4) and most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (47), a record that no one has come within 11 games of breaking.  When Johnny U. was playing, 11 games was one game shy of a complete season.  He's my choice for greatest QB ever for these reasons, along with the boatload of other distinctions and accolades he holds.

But back to the orginal premise, Peyton won't be the greatest player ever after today and part of the reason is because he's not going to win his second Superbowl today.  Look, I'm a big fan of Peyton, even though he went to Tennessee.  Up until this point in his career, I've felt he was under-rated.  He was wrongly blamed for the Colts' failures against the Patriots in the early part of his career; a lack of a defense and a running game were the real culprits, just like they had been with John Elway.  And there's no debate that he is masterful with the way he handles the Colts' offense and in a one-on-one comparison against any current QB, Peyton has the edge.  But football is not an individual sport.  And that's why the Saints have the edge in this match-up.

I have no illusions that the Saints defense can match-up any better than the Ravens or Jets.  But they don't need to.  They have two excellent cornerbacks who can keep the Colts' primary recievers in check and fast linebackers who can keep tabs on TE Dallas Clark  Jahbiri Greer, the guy who will likely get the assignment to cover Reggie Wayne, has allowed only one passing touchdown against him this season, and Tracy Porter is second on the team with 4 interceptions.  Safety Darren Sharper led the team with 9 picks and returned three of those for touchdowns.  They won't stop the Colts' passing attack completely but even if Peyton is perfect, they'll certainly keep them from scoring touchdowns at will.  And they will create turnovers.  Only Green Bay's defense was better in that regard.  In the championship game, the Vikings put the ball up for grabs eight times with the Saints recovered five of those.  Granted, the Colts take care of the ball better than the Vikes, but the Jets forced two fumbles in their match-up, recovering one, yet they are near the bottom of the pack at creating turnovers.  It's not unreasonable to expect the Saints D to force one or two in this game, maybe more.  In a game probably decided by high-powered offenses, turnovers will be huge.

The reputation of the Colts defense has gotten a big boost recently as well after handling two of the best rushing teams in the NFL quite easily in the playoffs.  But Colts won''t be able to put nine defenders in the box, as they did against the Jets and Ravens.  Not unless they want Drew Brees - who, by the way, happens to be better statisitcally than Manning this year -  to throw for 500 yards in the game.  The Saints have a very capable rushing attack, ranked sixth best in the NFL, to go along with perhaps the best passing attack in the NFL.  Trying to compare how to stop the Jets versus how to stop the Saints on offense is like trying to compare how to stop one bull from running amok versus how to stop a million cats.  As great as Peyton is, there's a strong argument that that Saints offense as a whole is even better. 

More to that point, the defenses the Saints offense had trouble with were teams that could apply pressure with just four guys and leave the rest in coverage, yet also stop the run.  The Colts don't have any proficiency in stopping the run and their primary pass-rusher will play this game (if at all) on a gimpy ankle.  Fans of the Colts point to the success of the Vikings and Cowboys at stopping the Saints offense, but as long as they are thinking wishfully, why not throw in the '86 Bears and the Steel Curtain for all the similarities those defenses have with this incarnation of the Colts.  The fact is that the Colts D is built on speed, an advantage that is muted on a grass playing field, and that the reason they had enough defense in 2006 to win it all was because they had a premier run-stopper in the middle in Anthony MacFarland... and they were facing an incompetent quarterback in the Superbowl.  Neither of those are the case today.  Add to the mix that the Saints have a decent running game with which to chew up the clock, thus limiting Manning's time on the field, and it's clear that the Saints have more than a puncher's chance to win this one. 

The Saints defense has already contained two Hall of Fame QBs this postseason.  Is Peyton Manning really that much better, or more to the point, is his supporting cast really that much better than the ones accompanying Brett Favre (who had the advantage of handing off to one of the best running backs in history, Adrian Peterson) or Kurt Warner (who throws to perhaps the best wide reciever in the game, Larry Fitzgerald)?  As great as Peyton Manning is, are the guys he gives the ball to really any better than those guys?  I don't think so.  If that's true, then the Colts have no better shot of beating the Saints than the Vikings or Cardinals did.  Whatever advantage the Colts may have at QB - and if you look at Brees' seasonal stats and/or his performances in big games while he's been with the Saints - is negligible by comparison, while the Saints have clear advantages in the running game and on defense when it comes to creating turnovers.  And those two factors have been critical at deciding who wins the Superbowl in just about every Superbowl that's ever been played.  This year won't be any different.  And as much as Peyton gets accolades for his late game heroics, no team this year had a wider margin of scoring and limiting the opponents scoring in the fourth quarter than the Saints.  The Saints will be in this game and have the match-up, just like the Giants did against the Patriots two years ago, to win it.