FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The final game of the 2009 season is finally here, and every angle has been over-analyzed by now. It's about time to sit down and watch two great quarterbacks battle it out for the Lombardi Trophy.
While the Saints had the No. 1 offense in the regular season, they seem to be overshadowed by one man: Peyton Manning. In the ultimate team sport, it's dangerous to lean towards an individual and away from a team with an emotional bond that brought an entire city together in its greatest time of need. It should be a great game. Here are the 10 things I will be watching closely:
1. Who establishes the run?
With two tremendous passing attacks, you might wonder why this tops my list. The Saints ranked 28th in rushing a year ago and jumped to sixth this season. They want to use a balanced attack, but the Colts really slowed down the Jets' top-ranked rushing attack in the AFC title game. The tip here is that the Saints don't run outside, and they can't let the Colts' defense bounce the run game wide. The Colts' speed wins that battle.
For the Colts, don't forget they won Super Bowl XLI three years ago with a great rushing attack against the Bears. Even though the Colts ranked last in the NFL in rushing, the Saints, who ranked 21st in run defense, can be run on.
2. Getting to the quarterback
Both teams hired "pressure" defensive coordinators this season, and the improvement has been significant. The Saints use a lot more blitz calls than the Colts. In a game with two of the best rhythm passers, the defense that disrupts the QB should win. Manning was only sacked once every 58 attempts in the regular season and once every 21.8 attempts in two playoff games. Drew Brees was sacked once every 26.7 attempts in the regular season, but just once every 63 in the playoffs.
3. The Freeney mystery
The issues surrounding Dwight Freeney and his injured ankle can change the whole complexion of this game. If he doesn't play, then Robert Mathis goes to right defensive end and defensive tackle Raheem Brock plays left defensive end. It makes the Colts thin on the defensive line, which means we could see more 3-4 looks. If Freeney plays, the Saints will run right at him and test that ankle. If he only plays on pass situations, there will be a lot less chip blocks -- and thus more plays in which the Saints send five receivers out in the pattern.
4. Who are the X-factors?
Reggie Bush has to be considered a big X-factor. Keep an eye on his alignments. If he lines up in an I tailback spot, look for a draw or screen. If he's offset in the backfield, look for a choice route against the linebackers. If he's in the slot, a reverse or a vertical route could be possible.
For the Colts, the X-factor has to be rookie receiver Austin Collie. As the fourth option in the passing game behind Reggie Wayne, tight end Dallas Clark and second-year receiver Pierre Garcon, Collie will draw the least amount of coverage. Whoever lines up on him will get little to no help. Austin was targeted 17 times in the two playoff games and caught 11 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns.
5. Special teams
The special teams battle means a few things. It means winning the field position game with the "hidden yards." It means making the clutch 50-yard field goal. It means blocking a kick or punt. The Saints have better return men in Courtney Roby and Bush. The Colts have a veteran kicker who has been here before while the Saints have an inexperienced kicker. Both teams have rookie punters. I don't care for either team's coverage units. Special teams have been overshadowed by two great offenses this week, but it is a very dangerous factor here.
6. Can rookies handle the pressure?
The Colts will have at least one rookie starting in the secondary (Jacob Lacey or Jerraud Powers, who is battling an injury). Brees will waste little time going after the rookie. Collie, as previously noted, will see significant time in this game. Both punters are rookies and if they have to kick out of their own end zone, the pressure will be brutal. Of all the youngsters, I like Collie's chances for success the most.
7. In the red zone
Each team wants to pressure the opposing quarterback, but eventually both will back off and play a bend-but-don't-break defense and hope to force a field goal rather than a touchdown. Both offenses are among the top five red-zone scoring teams. The Colts get touchdowns 66 percent of the time and score points 89 percent of the time. The Saints get touchdowns on 58 percent of their red-zone trips and walk away with points 85 percent of the time. The Saints have the No. 2 red-zone defense and only gave up seven passing touchdowns in 56 trips. The Colts may have to rely on their run game in the red zone.
8. First down is big
Both teams are excellent at converting third downs. The Colts are tied for No. 1 in the NFL with a 49 percent conversion rate, and the Saints are at 45 percent. The real issue is how they are going to do on first down to set up shorter third-down situations. The Saints average 4.6 yards on first-down runs, while the Colts average 3.9 yards. Both teams strive for balance on first down and hover close to the 50/50 mark when it comes to run/pass.
9. Halftime adjustments
The secret for both defenses is to save a large majority of the pressure calls until the second half. Don't give either QB a set of pictures to study and adjust to the calls. Both defensive coordinators have to realize that the quarterbacks have exceptional fourth-quarter numbers and will not fall apart down the stretch. Between Brees and Manning, they have connected on 15 touchdowns and just one interception in the fourth quarter this season, and have been sacked a total of six times.
10. Make-or-break matchups
Saints offense vs. Colts defense: Receiver Marques Colston on rookie corner Jacob Lacey or Jerraud Powers. Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod vs. Robert Mathis or Dwight Freeney. Guard Carl Nicks vs. DT Antonio Johnson.