FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The old formula for a Super Bowl championship was to play defense and run the ball.
The Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints feature the No. 1 quarterback from each conference in terms of touchdown passes and completion percentage. Balance between the run and pass always seemed to be a desired trait of a great offense, but how can anyone say it's critical when the Colts storm into South Florida with the NFL's third-ranked passing game and the 32nd-ranked rushing attack? The Saints enter with a more balanced offense, but they appear to be the underdogs.
So what makes these offenses work? Critical components need to be evaluated and compared. It always starts with the quarterback, then the offensive line, the playmakers, the game plans, third-down conversions, red-zone efficiency, goal-to-go success and, finally, turnovers.
The Colts' Peyton Manning, the epitome of a field general, prepares so well for every opponent that he's rarely fooled by a defensive scheme. He makes quick decisions and gets rid of the ball as well as any quarterback in the history of the game. Manning was sacked just once every 58 dropbacks this season, and when you consider that a game such as the Super Bowl could have as many as 40 pass plays for the Colts, he might not even be sacked once by the Saints.
Manning typically comes out in the first half of games and attacks a defense through the air. Over the course of the season, he passed the ball 67 percent of the time in the first half and averaged 7.7 yards per attempt. His no-huddle attack is just another example of his preparation and desire to impose his will on a defense. The Colts ranked third in the league with 49 opening-drive points.
The Saints' Drew Brees is a distribution passer, always looking for the open receiver in a rhythm passing game. Nine different Saints had double-digit receptions this season, and the team still managed to run the ball nearly as much as it passed. Brees was sacked once every 27 dropbacks, which is off from his career average of once every 40, but he still led the NFL's highest-scoring offense. The Saints scored the most opening-drive points in the league with 51.
These two quarterbacks show what it takes to earn a Super Bowl berth. Forget the concept of a "caretaker" or "game manager." Teams need a dominant passer.
Some say it all starts up front, and it's hard to argue that point. However, if the greatest line in the NFL blocks for a bad quarterback, that team still will not go very far.
With both quarterbacks in this Super Bowl possessing an ability to read coverages and employ a quick release, it helps the lines look good. Regardless, those players still need to open up holes for the running game and buy the quarterback time when receivers are covered.
The Colts are a pass-blocking offensive line, led by Jeff Saturday, one of the smartest centers in the league. Manning often changes plays at the line of scrimmage, and Saturday will then make all the protection adjustments that coincide with the new play call. Saturday is especially adept at making those sort of adjustments.
The Colts' left tackle situation has been questionable all season, with Charlie Johnson and Tony Ugoh sharing time because of injuries. Right guard Kyle DeVan has a tough matchup against the Saints' Sedrick Ellis or Anthony Hargrove. The Colts' run game came alive in the AFC Championship Game against the New York Jets and now will face a Saints defense that isn't as good. There is a chance the Colts' line can open up some running lanes.
Like the Colts, the Saints' left tackle position has been affected by injury. Jermon Bushrod has played in that spot, but he often struggles in pass protection. The Colts are sure to match their best pass rusher against Bushrod, but the potential loss of defensive end Dwight Freeney would really help the Saints' protection schemes.
The Colts have wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who often commands rolled coverage. Wayne caught 100 passes this season, and his presence opens up opportunities for other receivers. Tight end Dallas Clark also had 100 receptions and causes matchup problems against opponents' linebackers. Even some safeties struggle to cover Clark. These two players have 11 playoff receptions each, but they also set up Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon for 29 receptions.
The Saints' playmakers are wide receiver Marques Colston and running back Reggie Bush. Colston is a matchup nightmare for the rookie cornerbacks who will line up for the Colts on Sunday. Bush touched the ball 22 times via run, reception or punt return in two playoff games, gained 258 yards and scored two touchdowns. He will make it difficult for the Colts to play certain coverages because he can easily beat a linebacker. Bush could be the X-factor in this game, with the Colts' special-teams coverage units being a question mark.
The Colts run the ball 48 percent of the time on first downs and average just 3.87 yards. The Saints run the ball 49 percent on first downs and do better, averaging 4.58 yards. That's a significant difference heading into second down. The Saints' run success sets up the first-down play-action pass, which puts a lot of stress on the safeties.
Keep a close eye on how often the teams go to a no-huddle offense. Manning loves to use it as a means of reducing opponents' pressure packages. The Saints' offense dried up when it lost three consecutive games to close out the regular season and didn't score more than 17 points. However, the Saints roared back to life in the playoffs with 76 points in two games.
Red-zone and goal-to-go situations
These are two of the NFL's best red-zone scoring teams. And in a potentially high-scoring game like this, no team wants to walk away with a field goal instead of a touchdown.
The teams are close in success rate, but in goal-to-go situations, the Colts -- even without a real good running game -- still had a slight edge in scoring. The Colts got in the red zone 79 percent of the time and walked away with points 97 percent of the time. The Saints scored a touchdown 67 percent of the time and walked away with points 86 percent of the time. The Saints actually had six more goal-to-go situations than the Colts this season but scored only one more touchdown.
Losing possession of the ball in a game that typically has 12 series is devastating to a team. Giving either one of these teams a short field with which to work is a disaster.
Manning hasn't lost a fumble all season, including the playoffs. His teammates have lost just four fumbles, if you exclude those by backup rookie quarterback Curtis Painter (who had two fumbles in two games). Manning has thrown 17 interceptions, including playoff games, and is capable of tossing a pick against this opportunistic Saints defense.