Mathis: 'Nothing is gonna keep' Freeney from playing in Super Bowl

There isn't much doubt in Robert Mathis' mind that teammate Dwight Freeney will be by his side come Super Bowl Sunday.

Mathis, one half of the Indianapolis Colts' dynamic pass-rushing tandem, has seen Freeney gut his way through too many injuries in the past to think he will miss the Super Bowl with the ligament tear in his left ankle that kept him out of practice last week. Still, he's preparing as if Freeney may not be on the opposing side of the defensive line on every snap, and said he will do everything in his power to compensate for the superstar's absence, if need be.

"You have to pick up the slack, and you have to prepare as if he's not going to play," Mathis said Monday night. "I truly believe he's going to be on the field -- nothing is gonna keep him out of this game -- but you have to prepare and be on top of all the details.

"If he doesn't play, it doesn't put any more pressure on you. You just know that you're going to get a little bit more attention (from extra blockers) than you would if he's in there. You got to stay on your game and can't relax and rely on him being in there."

Mathis and Freeney have been as formidable as any pair of ends this decade, and complement one another well. Freeney is more flashy, more gregarious, more at home in the spotlight. Mathis, though highly impactful, is content to be the less-talked-about member of the duo, the Robin to Freeney's Batman, per se.

"Personally, I'm not a guy who likes a lot of attention, so it doesn't bother me," Mathis said. "He knows how to handle being in the limelight like that a lot better than I can. It doesn't bother me at all. You like to be recognized for what you've accomplished, but I feel like I'm getting my much due."

Mathis, 28, in his seventh year out of tiny Alabama A&M, is coming off another superb season, in which he registered 9.5 sacks despite missing two games to injury. Since solidifying his status in 2004, his second year in the NFL, he has never produced fewer than seven sacks in a season. He has raised his overall play to go from a situational pass rusher to an every-down end, and his numbers rival that of Freeney, a former first-round pick (Mathis was a fifth-round pick, perhaps part of the reason he receives fewer accolades than warranted).

Mathis is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. He has at least 9.5 sacks in five of the last six seasons. Since 2004, the only NFL players with more sacks than Mathis (59.5), are Freeney (60), Carolina's Julius Peppers (62), Dallas' DeMarcus Ware (64.5) and Minnesota's Jared Allen (72). That's highly exclusive company.

He also leads all NFL players since 2004 with 32 forced fumbles, far more than anyone else in the league (Miami's Jason Taylor is second with 24, and Freeney is third with 23). He's one of the game's best bargains as well, ranking 23rd among all ends in 2009 with an average salary of $3.9 million. Mathis is set to earn $4.7 million in salary over the final two years of his deal (2010 and 2011), and another $2 million in roster bonuses. Freeney, Allen and Peppers, meanwhile, all average $15 million a season or more.

Frankly, Mathis is the most overlooked star taking part in this Super Bowl, and someone likely to play a pivotal role, particularly if Freeney is limited to being on the field only on certain downs. Mathis said his prep work will not change despite Freeney's iffy status. Mathis always studies both tackles anyway, given how injuries can become a factor at any point in a contest, and the flexibility built into the Colts' aggressive scheme as well.

"Every week you study both tackles, because at any point and time of the game we can flip (sides)," Mathis said. "So you do that a little bit anyway, study both tackles and their tendencies and things of that nature.

"If he doesn't play, it doesn't put any more pressure on you. You just know that you're going to get a little bit more attention (from extra blockers) than you would if he's in there. You got to stay on your game and can't relax and rely on him being in there."

Mathis benefits from Freeney's presence, no doubt, and vice versa. He also gets to play in an attacking scheme where defensive lineman are allowed to surge upfield on most downs and in essence play the run on the way to the quarterback. Without the game-changing prowess of Freeney and Mathis, Indianapolis would not have won more games than any other franchise this decade. They are the foundation of what the Colts do on defense.

Sunday's task will not be easy, however. The Saints have a talented and cohesive offensive line, and quarterback Drew Brees is brilliant in his decision-making. Brees might have the quickest release in the game, making sacks hard to come by.

"They work well as a unit and they're pretty much locked in what they have to do," Mathis said. "So you've got to be that much more prepared going against them, and if not their offense will make you pay. Drew Brees is very hard to sack, because he knows what he wants to do with the football, and it's hard to get to him before he does it."

Mathis said he is taking a no-nonsense approach to this week. He's not interested in hitting South Beach, or gawking at celebrities. It's about football, and football only. "It's a business trip," he said. "So you can do all that afterwards. You'll have all the time in the world to have fun and sightsee later. Right now, we have to take care of business."

And for Mathis, that means going about his business quietly. He'll leave the sound bites up to others, and while the world's cameras congregate around Freeney at Media Day on Tuesday, Freeney will be perfectly happy to be camped at a smaller station down the concourse, dreaming about what a second Super Bowl ring on his finger might feel like.

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