Super Bowl XLIV Preview: Saints & Colts in Miami

Adam Underhill


Well, it’s been about a week since we saw the Vikings go down in a burst of flames at the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans. That was a game in which Minnesota statistically dominated the Saints (counterparts by way of the Mississippi), but wound up choking away a chance to win the game late in the fourth quarter via a boneheaded penalty (12 men in the huddle) and an even more boneheaded play—Brett Favre tossing an unnecessary interception with his team in field goal range. The pundits have written, the fans have shouted, and the dust has settled. Two teams remain, but before we get to them, it’s important to do a sober postmortem on the fallen. A Viking funeral, if you will. Thus, given my familiarity with Favre, the Vikings, and their fans, please allow me to put division rivalry aside and offer the following words of condolence to followers of the Purple and Gold:


Sorry, it’s only been a week.

I know I’m rubbing it in, but you have to understand something here. All season long, I’ve been enduring the sports fan equivalent of my next door neighbor sleeping with my ex-wife… with the lights on and the curtains open. And then having to read about it online the next day. So you’ll excuse me if I take some small, immature pleasure from the ex-wife setting fire to his house.

Now, Favre and the Vikings decisively beat the Packers twice in 2009, fair and square. That wasn’t easy to get over, but don’t think I didn’t try! I told myself that Green Bay made the right decision when they traded Favre. But with every inch Minnesota moved closer to the Super Bowl, with every great game Favre played, and with every reminder that he might be hoisting the Lombardi trophy with another team, it became harder and harder to believe that the Packers had not made a colossal mistake. When Arizona eliminated the Packers, and the Vikings moved to the NFC title game, I began to wonder if watching football wasn’t really just a fool’s errand, to say nothing of writing about it. The Vikings were going to win their first championship with OUR guy, I thought, and Packer Nation will never hear the end of it. This, after Favre had almost single-handedly sabotaged Green Bay’s shot at a Super Bowl four times since 2001, by my count. And trust me, the trash talking fallout after such a scenario as described above would last ten millennia in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

There were two articles of faith that kept me not only living, but watching:

1. These were the Minnesota Vikings; and
2. This was Brett Favre.

The Vikings, of course, have a reputation as a snake-bitten franchise. In 49 years, they’ve gone 0-4 in Super Bowls. Since losing their last Super Bowl, which was around the time the Sex Pistols were yukking it up with Bill Grundy, Vikings teams have now gone another 0-4 in NFC Championship games, often in soul-crushing (if you’re a Viking fan) fashion. Sure touchdown passes dropped, sure field goals missed, blowouts…think of a way to choke, and the Vikings have done it. In 2003, the Vikings choked away a game, a division title, and a playoff berth all on the same last-second, fourth down pass play at Arizona. Surely, I thought, they would find a way.

With Favre in the fold, however, I was more than a little nervous. True, Favre has had his share of terrible playoff performances in the past decade. But in 2009, on a talented team, the 40-year-old Favre put together the best regular season of his career: 33 touchdowns against an impressively-low 7 interceptions. Moreover, the path to the Super Bowl was through domed stadiums, where Favre (we’re told) was less likely to break down, physically or mentally. As often as I’d seen him implode in recent years, I had a hard time believing that it would happen this time, especially with the seconds ticking down and the Vikings in field goal range and in control. My only hope was for Favre to make a mistake that would top even HIS worst gaffes of all time.

The old man didn’t disappoint.

Satisfying as it was, I will give the devil his due. Brett Favre, at age 40, continues to be the most entertaining NFL player of my generation. I would not have gotten so worked up about all of this, otherwise. He defied almost everyone’s expectations, got to within a few seconds of a Super Bowl, took a violent beating, and went down swinging. My final thought is this: Did he fight hard enough? It’s been dissected to death, but instead of the errant, across-the-body throw that resulted in an interception, Favre certainly could have run a few yards. He might have slid, but he might also have been annihilated by Saints defenders. After the game, I remembered Super Bowl XXXII, and John Elway’s legendary scamper for a first down; he took a hit that left him spinning in the air like a propeller. But he got the first down, and the play became a signature for that game and Elway’s career. It erased his own 0-3 Super Bowl “choker” label. For years, I hated Elway for getting his at the Packers’ expense, but respected him for wanting it that badly at 37. A young Favre played in that game, too. This entire season, he must have thought of going out like Elway – a champion. In the Superdome, on that play, in that moment, with possession of the ball and a field goal attempt at hand, Favre felt like he had to go for the jugular. He had a chance to cement his legacy for toughness and grit. He could have erased years’ worth of questionable moments in one fell swoop. Instead, he made the worst of three possible decisions, at the most crucial moment.

Since the start of the 1994 season, nine different franchises have made a trip to the Super Bowl for the first time: San Diego, Atlanta, Tennessee, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Seattle, Arizona, and now New Orleans. The previous eight teams were 2-6 in those Super Bowls, with Baltimore and Tampa Bay the only virginal victors. Tennessee and Baltimore each went to a Super Bowl within five years of relocating. The Titans were formerly the Houston Oilers, while the Ravens were the first incarnation of the Cleveland Browns, although officially the Browns’ “continuity” stayed behind in Cleveland and attached itself to the expansion Browns team in 1999. Only four teams, the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, and Detroit Lions, have not received a Super Bowl berth. The first three are recent expansion teams, while the Lions have been playing professionally (well, mostly) in the NFL since 1930, when they were in Portsmouth, Ohio.

For fans of this un-Fab Four, New Orleans provides a ray of hope. In back to back Super Bowls, we have seen the Cardinals and now the Saints (how Catholic) play in the big game. This kind of competitive diversity is good for players, fans, and the NFL. Do you think that hope springs so eternally for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, or baseball’s Kansas City Royals? If the NFL loses the salary cap, which is becoming more and more likely for 2010, it may lose forever the balance of competition and intrigue that separates it from other sports entities.

Of course, the Saints are more than a hard-luck franchise. For most the team’s dreary existence, it’s been more like a punch line. The Saints entered the league in 1967, but did not even record a winning season in its first twenty. The team had a competitive streak in the late 80s and early 90s under head coach Jim Mora, before slipping back into mostly sub-mediocrity. (Mora later coached the Colts – get ready for an onslaught of his press conference outtakes on ESPN, CBS, and NFL Network.) Fans at “Ain’ts” games famously wore bags on their head in the dog days of the early 80s. Former head coach Mike Ditka was laughed out of town after trading ALL of the team’s 1999 draft picks (plus a 2000 pick) to the Redskins in order to move up and select Ricky Williams. And of course, there was Katrina – no need to go Anderson Cooper on you with that one. And yet the fans don’t carry the same fatalism as Viking fans or Eagles fans, perhaps because the opportunities for real disappointment have been so seldom, or perhaps because the scale against which New Orleanians measure heartbreak is larger than that of any other city.

It goes without saying that the Saints will be the overwhelming sentimental favorites to win on Sunday. Americans love underdog stories, but these are not the ’69 Mets or the ’01 Patriots. A Saints victory in the Super Bowl would not simply be David slaying Goliath. If you see Drew Brees lifting the Lombardi Trophy, it will be the football equivalent of Tim Robbins emerging from the sewage pipe and ripping off his prison duds in the thunderstorm toward the end of The Shawshank Redemption. Of course, here’s hoping he passes for 500 yards – that’s the length of five football fields… just shy of half a mile.

Saints history is fairly straightforward. The history of the Indianapolis Colts is a little more convoluted – but no less fascinating. When you think back to the earliest days of the NFL, teams that come to mind probably include such dinosaurs as the Bears, the Cardinals, and the Packers. And yet, the franchise that is the Colts is connected, by a gossamer’s thread, to the team that is considered to have won the very first NFL game.

In the days when teams played in Duluth and Decatur and Kenosha, a team called the Dayton Triangles defeated the Columbus Panhandles, 14-0, on October 3, 1920, in Dayton, Ohio. Four thousand spectators paid $1.75 a head to watch. The Triangles, named for the park in which they played, had formed seven years earlier at the University of Dayton (neé St. Mary’s College), first as a basketball team and then as a football club comprised of alumni and other local athletes. After a hot start, the Triangles struggled, both on the field and at the gate. They became a traveling team before being purchased and moved to my adoptive hometown, Brooklyn, New York, in 1930.

The team was renamed the Dodgers and played in Ebbets Field, though with little of the glory of their namesakes. Unlike “Dem Bums,” the NFL’s Dodgers never finished better than 2nd place. Probably the most notable event for this era of the franchise was its 23-14 defeat of Philadelphia on October 22, 1939. It was the first NFL game to be shown on television.

By 1945, the Dodgers’ owner, Dan Topping, accepted ownership of the New York (football) Yankees of the All-American Football Conference, a rival to the NFL. The NFL responded by canceling the Dodgers (by then called the Brooklyn Tigers) altogether, although at that point there was little left to eradicate. The struggling team had merged with the Boston franchise the year before. In a strange twist, the NFL would absorb the AAFC in 1949, and merge the AAFC’s Yankees with its own Boston Yanks, they of the leftover scraps from the Dayton/Brooklyn franchise. Only the Boston Yanks were no longer the Boston Yanks—they had moved and become the New York Bulldogs. Thus the NFL’s New York Bulldogs franchise was really a mishmash of teams known as the New York Yankees, the Triangles/Dodgers/Tigers, and the Boston Yanks. Of course, the Bulldogs could not resist the siren call of baseball’s profitable name association, and so they became the New York Yanks.

Fittingly, the Yanks moved from the Polo Grounds to Yankee Stadium in 1950, where they posted a winning record. The following year they bottomed out at 1-9, and the franchise again collapsed and expanded like an infinitely renascent universe, when a group of Texas businessmen (one can picture the ten-gallon hats) bought the rights to the franchise and moved it to Dallas, naming it the Texans.

The Texans were ahead of their time, as they could barely sell out a fifth of the Cotton Bowl in college-crazy Dallas. With five games left in the season, majority owner Giles Miller sold his winless club back to the NFL. The league moved the team’s operations to Hershey, Pa. They were still the Dallas Texans in name, but they finished 1952 as a traveling team. Only a Thanksgiving Day “upset” of the second-string Bears kept the Texans from losing all of their games.

When the season ended, the league picked up the pieces of its once-proud, now vagabond franchise. What remained of the team that won the first NFL contest ever played was handed to the city of Baltimore and became the Colts. That team flourished in Baltimore until 1984, when it moved suddenly to Indianapolis. The Indianapolis Colts, of course, will play in the Super Bowl on February 7.

I wouldn’t be forthright if I didn’t note that the NFL does not consider the Colts to be a continuation of those earlier teams. Officially, the story of the Dayton Triangles ended in Dallas – as the last NFL team to simply cease to exist. Of course, we know that matter cannot be created nor destroyed, only altered. This law is universal but has special meaning in sports; we like to think of our modern standard-bearers as part of a long and evolving chain. No athlete is an island. Somewhere – perhaps 110 miles east of Indy – the ghosts of some gentlemen from Dayton who long ago scared up some cleats, footballs, and helmets will be rooting for the Indianapolis Colts. You can find a treasure trove of stories, photos, and miscellany about the Dayton Triangles here.

Because of their sorry history, it would be easy to dismiss the Saints as mere upstarts against the Colts. However, the Saints are not a 9-7 wild card team. They finished 13-3 and fought hard against an arguably better Vikings team to get to Miami. They have one of the most accurate passers in NFL history in Drew Brees, and the league’s top-ranked offense. When the Saints look across the field at the Indianapolis Colts on Super Sunday, they’ll respect their adversaries, but I’m sure they will not be in awe of them. New Orleans was tested by Minnesota, and emerged three points better. They’re ready for prime time.

Per usual, the Colts have a prolific offense of their own, powered by all-time great Peyton Manning. The deficiencies are in each team’s defense. In the regular season, the Saints allowed 357 yards per game. The Colts, meanwhile, gave up 339. Expect a shootout.

Whom do you pick in a shootout? The Colts may have a rookie head coach, but they are an established, veteran outfit, with a junior head coach (Manning) under center. The team won a Super Bowl with a middling defense in 2006. Indy came from behind seemingly all season, and has won every game that “mattered.” It stands to reason that if Peyton Manning has the ball in his hands, needing a score in the final two minutes, the Colts will be in their briar patch. They may be without defensive end Dwight Freeney – we don’t know yet – but even without his talent, Indianapolis seems to be steady and sure of victory. In our hearts, we want New Orleans, but in our heads, we know it will be Manning and the Colts. By every metric, and by all logic, Indianapolis should win this game, if only by a field goal.

But I remember reading, a long time ago, that the greatest thing about football is that, as in life, you just never know which way the damn ball is going to bounce.

Saints by three. But it don’t come easy.