Starting with the first Super Bowl -- known then as the AFL-NFL Championship Game -- I've been to all but three of the big games. You always remember something about each one.
After last year's Super Bowl, NFL.com's Pat Kirwan and myself were on a bus returning to our hotel from Raymond James Stadium, talking at length about the next year's game. Would the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers return to the title game?
We both believed that competitive balance in the NFL -- nine different NFC teams have reached the Super Bowl in this decade -- would make it hard for either team to be back. As the bus slowly made its way through post-Super Bowl traffic in Tampa, Fla., we went through all 32 teams, trying to predict the participants in Super Bowl XLIV.
Here are some of the key matchups that will determine the outcome:
Saints QB Drew Brees
vs. Colts QB Peyton Manning
Without a franchise quarterback, teams have little chance of winning the Super Bowl, and there are two outstanding signal-callers in this year's game. Under Brees and Manning's direction, their teams combined for 27 regular-season wins -- the only time a title game featured teams with more total wins was Super Bowl XXXIII, when Denver's John Elway and Atlanta's Chris Chandler had a combined 28 wins in the 1998 season.
Brees just completed his fourth consecutive season with 4,000-plus passing yards. He also tied his career high of 34 touchdown passes and posted a personal-best 109.6 passer rating. He has made the same impact on the Saints that Roger Staubach did when he first came to the Dallas Cowboys. Brees also is similar to Manning in that his understanding of the game is unbelievable. Brees has great intangibles, charisma and work habits. Plus, he has big hands for someone his size, which helps him handle the ball in wind and rain.
Manning wins because of his accuracy and ability to adjust, as he did against the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game two weeks ago. He also has adjusted to new personnel, working in young receivers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon.
This is Manning's third game against first-year Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in the last two seasons. Last season, Manning had his second-lowest completion rate of the season (51.7) with one touchdown and two interceptions in their first meeting, a 23-21 home loss to Williams' Jacksonville Jaguars. In the second meeting, Manning completed 85.3 percent of his passes for three TDs and no interceptions in a 31-24 road victory.
Colts P Pat McAfee vs. Saints P Thomas Morstead
This game will mark the first time that two rookie punters start in a Super Bowl, and McAfee and Morstead can help set the tone with field position. Both averaged more than 43 yards per punt during the regular season and placed more than 31 percent of those kicks inside the 20-yard line.
McAfee was a Punt, Pass & Kick champion as a 16-year-old. He also was an outstanding soccer player in high school. While playing for West Virginia in 2006, McAfee kicked a 51-yard field goal at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field -- still the longest field goal in that stadium's history. He has a very strong leg and is very good at kickoffs.
Morstead is a punting star in the making. He's long-limbered, with great leg strength and a strong body. He has great height on punts and outstanding hang time. Morstead also handles kickoffs and is very good at it. He can kick field goals and extra points if needed. He's said to be a good leader -- he doesn't sit around at the end of the bench like most punters.
Saints WR Marques Colston
vs. Colts CB Kelvin Hayden
Colston, a four-year pro, led the Saints in receiving during the regular season, but he caught just two passes for 22 yards during the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings. He's a physical receiver with good size and height, and deceptive speed for the position (he ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at 225 pounds at the 2006 combine). He also has very good jumping ability. When the Saints are in the red zone, look for Brees to try to connect with Colston on a high throw. Colston also will catch balls coming across the middle.
Hayden is in his fifth season, his third as a starter, with the Colts. He played wide receiver at the University of Illinois for three years before moving to cornerback. He's a very good zone corner, with read-and-react ability and excellent quickness for the position (he was a high school sprint champion in the Chicago area). He has good burst to the ball in man coverage. Like Colts safety Antoine Bethea, Hayden is a low-block tackler. He has very good hands. And, of course, he scored on a 56-yard interception return that sealed Indianapolis' Super Bowl XLI victory.
Saints DE Will Smith vs. Colts LT Charlie Johnson
This is an important matchup for both teams, a meeting of two extremely athletic players who haven't received a lot of attention for their outstanding play.
Smith is in his sixth season with the Saints after being a first-round draft pick in 2004. He led the team with 13 sacks this season, and he has a very quick first step and the speed to rush off the edge. He's a great competitor and smart player who's extremely disruptive. He also plays well against the run and can drop back in coverage.
Johnson had to play as a rookie in 2006 because starting right tackle Ryan Diem was injured, and he did well for the three quarters he was on the field in Super Bowl XLI. Johnson is a good athlete who played tight end in high school and college, and he shows good lateral quickness. Johnson took over the full-time left tackle job this season and is an upgrade over Tony Ugoh after becoming stronger.
Saints LT Jermon Bushrod
vs. Colts DL Raheem Brock
This is a speculative matchup because it's still not certain how the Colts will handle Dwight Freeney's ankle injury. One thought is that Robert Mathis will move to Freeney's side and Brock will take Mathis' defensive end spot if the All-Pro can't play.
Brock has started 104 games during his eight-year career, including all 16 in 2006 when the Colts won Super Bowl XLI. He originally was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, who relinquished his rights because of salary-cap issues. He doesn't have Freeney's speed or athletic ability, but Brock does have enough quickness to rush the passer if needed.
Bushrod played in just three games in his first two NFL seasons. However, he became the starter this season after two-time Pro Bowl pick Jammal Brown went on injured reserve earlier this year. Bushrod has long arms, good strength and athletic ability, and he has come a long way this season. That said, if Freeney was healthy, he would be a tough matchup for Bushrod.