MIAMI – Hoosiers and Who Dats.
And, oh yes, the two best teams in the NFL also happen to be on hand for today’s Super Bowl.
Peyton Manning and his AFC champion Indianapolis Colts are five-point favorites to spoil the ending of the New Orleans football renaissance for Drew Brees and the Saints. The odd twist to this story is that the boy who grew up in the Big Easy rooting for his dad as he quarterbacked the awful Saints may end up breaking its heart.
“You hear the term Hoosier Hospitality, and I really didn’t know what that meant, coming from New Orleans, where you hear Southern Hospitality,” said Manning, the league’s only four-time MVP who guided the Colts to the NFL title three years ago, in the same stadium. “I really feel it is kind of the same thing. It is good people.
“What has been exciting for me since I have lived there, it’s always been a sports town, but it’s really turned into a football town. That is the kind of place you want to play football.”
New Orleans always has been a football town, even when the Saints were the Aints – back in the days Archie Manning led the team and fans wore paper bags on their heads. But that four-decade love affair morphed into something soulful when the Saints inspired a city in ruin in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s important for not only the people in New Orleans, but I think the people around the country because you do understand how much it means to that community and what they’ve been through,” Brees says. “Our success as a team over the last four years, but especially this year, has been tremendous just in regards to giving so many of the members of that community hope and lifting their spirits.
“There is still a lot of work to be done there in regards to the rebuilding and the recovery post-Katrina. There are still a lot of people in some pretty dire straits. For us to be able to have the success we’re having, it just does so much for that community as far as bringing everyone together. There’s a bond that we have with our fans – between our organization and our fans – that’s truly special.”
The Saints (15-3) led the league in scoring with 510 points. If Colts All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney and his 13 1/2 sacks can’t go on his damaged right ankle, Brees, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston and company might light up the Miami night with touchdowns.
So could the Colts (16-2) with their deep receiving corps and the incomparable Manning. Surpassing the 75 points in the 1995 Super Bowl (San Francisco 49, San Diego 26) is not out of the question. Doing it by halftime isn’t totally absurd.
When the Colts won their only championship representing Indy, Tony Dungy was the coach. Now it’s his hand-chosen successor, Jim Caldwell, and only two rookie coaches have won the Super Bowl. One of them, Don McCafferty, did it for the Baltimore Colts in 1971, the first title game after the AFL-NFL merger.
Dungy’s championship came in a historic matchup with Lovie Smith, the first two black head coaches in a Super Bowl. Caldwell’s presence as the fourth black man to guide his team to the big game has been a virtual non-issue.
“I think because of the fact that it’s becoming less of a story shows you that obviously there is some progress being made,” Caldwell said. “But I really do believe there are still a lot of things I think in terms of different thresholds and milestones to be crossed in that particular area.”
The Saints and Colts approached the unbeaten threshold in December. New Orleans was 13-0, fell at home to Dallas, then rested many regulars in losing the last two games. Indianapolis was 14-0 and perhaps headed for a 15th victory when Manning and other starters were removed in the third quarter against the Jets. New York rallied to win, and the backups lost at Buffalo in the season finale.
Didn’t matter much, did it? They both got here, albeit in different manners. The Colts handled the Baltimore Ravens and Jets pretty easily. The Saints, following a romp past Arizona, needed several mistakes by Minnesota – including Brett Favre throwing an interception in the final seconds – before finally erasing that Super Bowl void in an overtime victory.
So will it be Mardi Gras in Miami or Peyton’s place?
“I feel like both teams have gotten to this point because of the success of the teams,” Manning says. “Certainly if you look at our regular season and playoff schedule, it has been a team season. Different guys have stepped up along the way, making critical plays at critical times.
“That is how I feel this game is going to turn out. It will be somebody stepping up along the way, in a critical situation, making a play and you never know just who it might be.”
Could be a Who Dat. Or a Hoosier.