Monday, February 08, 2010

'Who Dat?' Done It

As odd as it is to write, the New Orleans Saints are Super Bowl champions.

Good for them, I say.

It wasn't a fluke, either. The Saints fell behind 10-0, but it was almost like a rope-a-dope maneuver. From that point, New Orleans owned the show, outscoring Indianapolis 31-7 and clearly establishing themselves as the better-prepared team, along with being the better team.

There are many ways to emerge victorious in a one-game playoff. It's part of why playoffs are a bit of a misnomer when it comes to determining the best team in a given sport. However, there is no questioning a team that dominated virtually from start to finish, and then beat three future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in very different ways to win a championship.

(Think about it. The Saints jumped all over Kurt Warner and the Cardinals, running up points like crazy and then coasting through most of the second half. They practically broke Brett Favre in half in the NFC title game. While they didn't hit Peyton Manning much, they rattled the hell out of him mentally and confused him like he hasn't been confused in a long time.

Yes, I know I picked Indianapolis. If I had it to do over again, I'd pick the Colts, too. Not to pat myself on the back, but at least I got part of the equation right.

Turnovers. Special teams. Fundamentals. These things don't always decide games. But they're usually a good starting point. And they're terribly hard to predict. ... it's so hard to say that one team or the other will win the battle of "little things" in a game like this.

The Saints won the battle.

I had a feeling before the game that something like this would happen. Sean Payton made clear his message to his team throughout the week, and he made clear during meetings with the CBS broadcasters that he would not let his team get caught playing passive, not-to-lose football.

They were going to be the aggressors, and in doing so, the Saints made up a new blueprint for success in the NFL.

New Orleans treated this like a hockey game, really. They wanted to initiate from the start, but they also knew they weren't going to bash Manning around like they did to Favre. Instead of initiating a physical assault on Manning, they initiated a mental one. Read Dan Graziano, FanHouse colleague, on the Saints' plan.

You have to go back to Monday, Jan. 25, the day after the Saints beat the Vikings to claim the NFC title. In a meeting with his coaches, Saints head coach Sean Payton was discussing the idea that they would do well to encourage the Colts to run.

"You guys can't be upset," Payton said to defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, "if they have 100 yards rushing."

Williams, who agreed with the sentiment, went a little harder.

"We can't be upset if they have 200 yards rushing," Williams said.

So a couple of days later, Payton addressed the defense in a team meeting and hedged.

"You guys can't be upset if they get 150 yards rushing," he said.

So a multi-faceted game plan developed, and one of its key facets was a shift to a 3-4 alignment for the first quarter so the Saints could cover the Colts' receivers deep and invite them to run the ball up the middle.

"We tried to invite them to run as much as they would do it," Williams said late Sunday night, when it was all over.

The Colts did. They racked up 66 rushing yards in the first quarter and raced out to a 10-0 lead that might have had Saints fans panicked but was pretty much along the lines of what Williams had been expecting. As long as the score didn't get out of hand, he knew he could stick with the amoeba game plan, which called for a switch back to a 4-3 alignment for the second quarter and then a ton of shifting looks in the second half.

"You can't beat Peyton Manning if you don't keep changing what he's looking at," Williams said.

That last quote is the money shot from this game. You can read 3,000 more words on the Super Bowl, and none of them will be as significant as those 14.

Finally, someone had the guts to change defensive looks, possibly allowing themselves to be singed for a time, because they knew they couldn't afford to get into a pattern.

I'm not about to say that this is the downfall of the Colts or of Manning. He's an elite quarterback, and he will be enshrined in Canton someday. He will have more chances to win rings, and he will likely hoist the Lombardi Trophy again.

But he met his match -- for at least one night -- in Williams. He met his match with an opponent who refused to sit back and play passively, allowing Manning to dictate matchups and tempo for four quarters. He met his match with an opponent who refused to allow Manning to adjust, because Williams was prepared to be the initiator in the mental game during the second half.

Payton, however, gets the award for aggression. It's one thing to see a hole in a team's kick return game that can be attacked by an onside kick. It's another to 1) have enough faith in your kicker (who had never tried an onside kick), 2) have enough faith in a defense that was beaten regularly in the first half to make a stop if necessary, and 3) have the guts to make the brashest Super Bowl play call in years.

The guts of Payton, the confidence and swagger of Williams, and the talent of guys like Brees, Tracy Porter, and -- yes -- Thomas Morstead made this team unbeatable on this night.

Even for a guy like Manning, who is used to having nights like this go his way. This time, Manning found an opponent who refused to let him win, no matter what he could have tried.

Let's see how many teams follow the blueprint, because it's not a popular path to choose.

NFL teams aren't known for ruthless aggression from a standpoint of strategery. They prefer to do what everyone else does, and play this bland, conservative style of football, hoping the other teams screws up.

Since guys like Manning rarely screw up, teams who play the Colts conservatively are ripe for the picking. But the Saints clearly saw things on film in the AFC title game, when the Jets bottled the Colts up until the two-minute warning of the first half.

Where the Jets went wrong, though, is that they had no answer once Manning figured them out. They didn't have anything to throw at him, because he had seen it all and had a way to beat it.

Williams, as noted by Graziano, knew going in that they had to be constantly changing looks, the way the Saints do on offense.

By turning his defense into an offense, Williams held the key to a Super Bowl win for a franchise -- and a city -- that will revere it like no other.

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