Football

'Grimy' Saints time has come

A few weeks ago, before Dwight Freeney's right ankle became a more prominent lull-before-the-ultimate-game story than Rex Ryan's middle finger, I saw the Colts beating the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.

Actually, I didn’t see anything. It’s difficult to envision the future when you’re spending the present asking questions about the past, such as, “where did I put my cell phone?” (Oh, how I long for those uncomplicated days when cell phones were the size of a car battery.)

Anyway, I predicted a Colts victory, and the prediction ended up in the newspaper; and now, dear reader, it is my humbling task to appeal for a mulligan. I like the Saints today.

What happened?

Two weeks of Super Bowl monotony happened, with the Colts stressing how they’ve been there and done this – literally. It was in Miami where the team won the Vince Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 4, 2007.

A robotic approach to the game of their lives fits the Colts, except in their case, Supe 44 is not really the game of their lives. It’s a back-to-the-basics exercise devoid of excitement, adventure and fun.

There’s something to be said for the Super Bowl Experience factor. Issues that can distract neophytes to the circus – distributing tickets among family and friends; overwrought press conferences; managing the adrenaline flow during prolonged pregame and halftime shows – don’t usually faze guys on the return trip.

But the Colts have taken their attention-to-every-last-detail mentality to a point where it’s eerie: They’re back in the same hotel, and in some cases, the same rooms. And while this methodical, mechanical approach worked three years ago, I must point out it worked against the Chicago Bears. Among the Bears’ many deficiencies was a quarterback (Rex Grossman) ill-suited to compete in a regular-season game, much less the most widely watched, single-day sporting event on the planet.

The Colts have every right to draw confidence from their last Super Bowl visit to Miami, but the opponent today is the “Aints.”

As in: Ain’t da Bears.

Instead of gauging Grossman’s telegraphed targets by the wide eyes he showed in the throes of a bull rush, the Colts will be challenged to unnerve the infinitely more polished Drew Brees.

Brees is the sort of catalyst who can affect both teams at once. By sustaining a succession of clock-killing drives, he could have more influence in frustrating Peyton Manning than anybody on the Saints defense. The Colts do a lot of things well, but what they don’t do well is force three-and-outs. A patient quarterback content to systematically move the chains is a quarterback Indianapolis shouldn’t be eager to face.

No matter how deftly Brees extracts time off the clock, Manning has the wherewithal to make up a two-touchdown deficit in two quick possessions. Although it’s asking too much of the Saints to contain the four-time league MVP, they’ve got the ability to make this most cerebral of quarterbacks think twice.

Kurt Warner was contemplating retirement before the Cardinals’ playoff game against the Saints, but the beating he endured in New Orleans sealed the deal. In the NFC Championship Game, Brett Favre took several hard hits – some within the rules, some not – but make no mistake: That limp Favre showed midway through the fourth quarter wasn’t some made-for-TV diva act. He was mauled by Bobby McCray, whose $25,000 fine for the helmet-to-lower-leg “tackle” that nearly sidelined the Vikings quarterback has done nothing to discourage the Saints’ knock-em-silly-and-deal-with-the-consequences-later behavior.

New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, perhaps the only man on either team who offers insights worthy of quotation marks, created a stir when he promised a Nashville radio station that the Saints would deliver a series of “remember me” hits on Manning. Williams, bless him, has declined to soften his strident remarks.

“I don’t know what I should’ve said,” he told reporters the other day. “Maybe I should’ve said we’re going to blow him kisses or send him a Valentine Day card or something like that. But I don’t know that that would’ve been the right message to send to the guys that I have.”

The aggression must begin by storming Manning, but just as important will be the “remember me” hits put on the Colts’ seemingly bottomless well of top-quality receivers: Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, not to mention All-Pro tight end Dallas Clark.

“We want to call ourselves a little grimy,” Saints linebacker Darren Sharper said last week. “Not dirty all the way, but maybe a little grimy.”

The notion of Sharper and his defensive teammates as hooligans in football pads is in stark contrast to the national perception of the Saints: Noble pro athletes whose quest to bring home a first world-championship trophy to New Orleans represents the irrepressible spirit of a once-decimated but ultimately indestructible city.

Can the images co-exist? Can a borderline dirty – OK, grimy – defense play a large part in a storybook scenario of the Saints rising to the challenge against the favored Colts?

Why not?

Thirty years ago this month, a bunch of college kids from the U.S. overcame the ridiculously prohibitive odds of dethroning a veteran USSR all-star team that boasted the most talented hockey players in the world, pro or otherwise. I’ve got no idea what kind of message coach Sean Payton plans on giving the Saints before kickoff today, but he could do worse than borrow from the speech the late Herb Brooks gave Team USA before its semifinal showdown against the USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

“Great moments,” Brooks told his players, “are born from great opportunity. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em 10 times, they might win nine. But not this game. …

“You were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. I’m sick and tired of hearing what a great team they have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”

This is your time, New Orleans.

Saints 27, Colts 24.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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