Turnovers. They still rule the day, friends.
Research tells us that the team that wins the turnover battle in pro football prevails approximately 70 percent of the time, according to Stats LLC. That's right. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, even a plus-one turnover differential has resulted in the opportune team routinely beating the inopportune team, no matter the strength of rosters, location of game or amount of air in the footballs. So, what's the win percentage of teams that enjoy a plus-two turnover differential? Over 80.
Bill Parcells was one of the first coaches to really stress winning the turnover battle. That's why his championship teams in New York were so careful with the football -- and why it's no surprise that Sean Payton, a Parcells disciple, similarly emphasized this point when he took over the reins in New Orleans. Were Parcells and Payton the only two coaches paying attention to what we now consider the obvious? Of course not. But their accomplishments speak to the larger importance of this aspect of the game. Parcells got his rings, and in 2009, Payton nabbed one of his own -- thanks, in no small part, to the Saints' 39 takeaways and plus-11 turnover differential. Oh, and a couple big plays in the big game.
Sure, Sean Payton is a fantastic play caller, mixing and matching his pieces enough to succeed more than the savviest Stratego player you've ever come across. Essentially, Payton is the NFL version of the Dungeon Master in D&D, knowing where everyone is on the map and using that knowledge to shape his play design. Having Drew Brees run point is a bonus of Hall of Fame proportions. In fact, the Saints quarterback set a completion-percentage record in 2009 (70.6, which Brees then surpassed in 2011 by posting a 71.2). And when he wasn't hitting Marques Colston in the end zone, New Orleans' sixth-ranked ground assault was doing its part.
Yet, the early goings of Super Bowl XLIV featured none of that, instead largely presenting sluggish offense in the game's first 30 minutes. Indy led 10-6 at halftime, primarily on the strength of an impressive 96-yard, first-quarter drive courtesy of Peyton Manning. For much of the opening half, New Orleans couldn't get out of its own way: dropping balls, losing footing and ultimately settling for two Garrett Hartley field goals.
The second half is when it got real. (Yes, I wanted to use another word there. No, my editor wouldn't let me.)
Payton, knowing his club needed a spark, went into his bag of tricks. As you can see in this NFL Films video, the Saints coach had explained a potential onside kick to the game officials in the pregame, so they knew what to look for if New Orleans decided to bust it out. At the beginning of the third quarter, Payton decided to do exactly that, dialing up the play called "Ambush."
"I'd never kicked off before this year and so I'd never had an onside kick," Morstead told NFL Films. "But they wanted it to be a surprise, so we just started working on it. I saw one from game film that Olindo Mare had done a couple years ago. And I did it perfectly the first time we ran it in practice, and coach just called it 'Ambush' right then. It stuck."
With the fantastic field position, Brees began driving the offense and the nation began to believe that an upset could be brewing. Pierre Thomas' beautiful catch, run and dive into the end zone put America's team (for a day, anyway) up 13-10.
OK, wait a second. Does a successful onside-kick recovery officially count in the stat sheet as a turnover? No, not according to NFL rules. But, while this play wasn't recorded as a takeaway, the Saints did take away a possession from Manning, who had just claimed his NFL-record fourth MVP award one month prior. Keeping it out of that guy's hands? Yeah, kind of beneficial. Not to mention, getting the ball at midfield carried the same field-swapping effect as corralling a pick or recovering a fumble. So, whether you consider this a turnover or a dash of special teams genius, it really was a takeaway -- a takeaway that directly impacted the outcome of the Super Bowl.
Anyhow, New Orleans suddenly led the mighty Colts! Fun ... engrossing to millions ... and shooooort-lived.
Manning immediately responded with a 10-play, 76-yard touchdown drive, coolly completing five of his six passes for 52 yards. Meanwhile, Colts tight end Dallas Clark continued to wage war on the men in black, white and old gold. The Saints were the sentimental choice to win it all. Manning and Clark weren't feeling sentimental at that point.
But the Colts weren't the only team with a dynamic signal caller, that's for sure. Brees, who supplanted Peyton's dad as the most beloved QB in franchise history, marched the Saints on drives of 37 and 59 yards, leading to another Hartley field goal and a Jeremy Shockey touchdown -- yes, that Jeremy Shockey -- to go up 24-17. The latter drive included an as-close-as-it gets, successful two-point-conversation snag-and-roll by Lance Moore.
Trailing by seven with less than six minutes remaining -- and 70 yards to paydirt -- Manning got possession and proceeded to calmly hit Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne twice apiece, before putting another ball right on Austin Collie to saddle the Colts up at the New Orleans 31 for a third-and-5. Having seen several slants throughout the game, linebacker and defensive leader Scott Fujita, who was mic'd up for NFL Films, warned Tracy Porter to look for quick, in-breaking routes.
Warning heeded. On the game's definitive play, Porter pulled a Butler -- five years in advance -- jumping the route and bringing a recently Hurricane-ravaged city sheer joy, yard by yard, 74 of them to the house.
And yet another matchup decided by the simplest formula in the sport: More takeaways than giveaways = taking home the spoils.
Did you know?
The Saints (13-3) and Colts (14-2) combined for 27 wins during the 2009 regular season, tied for the third-highest total among Super Bowl combatants. The other two Super Bowls featuring teams with 27 combined regular-season wins: XXXIX between the 2004 Eagles (13-3) and Patriots (14-2); XXVI between the 1991 Redskins (14-2) and Bills (13-3).
And the premier Super Bowl matchup of all time -- at least in terms of regular-season behemoths -- remains XIX, which pitted the 1984 49ers (15-1) against the Dolphins (14-2). That's a staggering 29 regular-season wins (math!) between them. San Francisco bested Miami in that matchup, 38-16, at Stanford Stadium.