Monday, January 29, 2007

Colts to Win

Who prevails when a great offense goes up against a great defense? This classic sports argument of strength versus strength will take center stage come Super Bowl XLI this Sunday in Miami. The AFC’s best offense in the Indianapolis Colts will take on the NFC’s best defense in the Chicago Bears. The last time these two teams met was 2004 in Chicago, when Colts’ quarterback and future hall of famer Peyton Manning threw four touchdowns in a 41-10 rout. Most believe that Bears’ erratic and streaky quarterback Rex Grossman stands no chance up against Manning while others point to Trent Dilfer, a similarly mediocre quarterback who led the Baltimore Ravens to a title in 2000.

Normally, Grossman’s performance is dictated by his first two drives. If Manning strikes early, Grossman will be forced to throw the ball from behind, something that normally has resulted in costly turnovers throughout the regular season, instantly crushing his confidence. The Colts want Grossman to pass, but this means Bob Saunders and the Colts defense must do what Seattle and New Orleans could not do in Chicago’s two playoff wins, stop the run in order to force Grossman to try to make plays with his arm. Considering all the fuss about the Colts’ soft run defense in the regular season, Indy has held its three playoff opponents to a solid 73.3 yards a game, shutting down the likes of Larry Johnson, Jamal Lewis, and Corey Dillon late in games. When Peyton Manning scores early and the renewed Colts defense slows down running backs Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, look for Grossman to start to press and turn the ball over.

On the other side of the ball, Chicago’s 6’3” 300-pound defensive tackle Tommy Harris is no longer clogging the middle to stop the running game while the secondary has not been the same since the loss of Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown. The Bears defense was tremendously successful in shutting down Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints’ high octane offense in the NFC championship game, 39-14, but that was in the slippery grass field of Soldier Field in Chicago, when it was 28 degrees and snowing. While Manning and the Colts are also not going to be in the comfort of his own dome, sunny Dolphin Stadium in Miami should provide for as neutral as a field as possible.

Peyton Manning threw for 349 yards while storming back from a 21-3 deficit against the Patriots defense that supposedly had his number for the past several years. Before the AFC championship game, the Colts won on the road against the Baltimore Ravens, a team built similarly to the Bears in that they both rely on stingy defenses and turnovers to win games. Tom Moore’s pass heavy offense has seen Peyton Manning become more efficient in checking down and dumping off to his running backs, picking up short yardage and sustaining long drives. This tires out the Bears hard hitting linebackers, who will have to contend with running backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, who are constantly keeping fresh by substituting for each other. Chicago is known for using the Tampa 2 defense, but will need to throw more blitzes and disguises at Manning who, with time, can easily pick apart a Cover 2 with wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. The Tampa 2 defense also relies heavily upon the middle linebacker to drop back into coverage, so look for Peyton Manning to do his signature play actions and pump fakes to get Brian Urlacher off balance, and hit tight end Dallas Clark up the middle for big completions several times as he did against the Patriots.

The Colts, coming from the clearly superior conference, have had to go through much tougher competition than the Bears have in the weaker NFC. The Colts played eight different playoff teams this year, including two wins against the Patriots, who beat the Bears earlier in the season. Throw in the fact that the AFC team has won seven of the past nine Super Bowls, and it is easy to see why Vegas has the more seasoned and experienced Indianapolis Colts as a rather large seven point favorite.