Super Bowl XLI Preview

Super Bowl XLI Preview

Super Bowl XLI Preview - Indianapolis (15-4) Vs. Chicago (15-3)

By Tony Moss, NFL Editor -- (Sports Network) - After roughly four hours of play on Sunday night at Dolphin Stadium, one of two midwestern cities, separated by less than 200 miles of Interstate 65, will be rejoicing in a Super Bowl win.

The Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears are the combatants in Super Bowl XLI, and both teams have suffered through considerable enough periods without success that a win on Sunday night will rank as an especially celebratory moment.

The Colts will be making their first Super Bowl appearance of a 23-season residency in Indianapolis, having previously achieved little in the way of postseason success after relocating from Baltimore following the 1983 campaign. The lone Super Bowl title for the franchise came for the then- Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V, a 16-13 miscue-laden triumph over the Dallas Cowboys.

The Bears will also be looking to secure their second Super Bowl win in franchise history. The 1985 edition of the "Monsters of the Midway" followed a 15-1 regular season with a three-game romp through the playoffs that culminated in a 46-10 trouncing of the New England Patriots. But Chicago failed to make it back to the game's ultimate stage for the 20 seasons that followed that victory, and entered the 2006 postseason having won just one playoff contest in the previous 15 seasons.

Both the Colts and Bears overcame significant obstacles to earn their Super Sunday engagement.

After starting the year 9-0, Indianapolis struggled to a 3-4 mark down the stretch, with the NFL's lowest-ranked rushing defense helping to lower the Colts' stock entering the postseason. But Tony Dungy's third-seeded team tightened its screws defensively in consecutive victories over the Chiefs (23-8) and Ravens (15-6), then out-gunned the Patriots (38-34) in a memorable come-from-behind victory in the AFC Championship.

Despite finishing the regular season with a 13-3 mark and earning the NFC's top seed by a wide margin, Chicago's playoff staying power was also called into question as the postseason commenced. Season-ending injuries to defensive playmakers like tackle Tommie Harris (hamstring) and safety Mike Brown (foot) had weakened a formerly-stifling defense, and the erratic play of quarterback Rex Grossman garnered major headlines in the season's second half as well. But both sides of the football contributed to the Bears' postseason victories over the Seahawks (27-24 in overtime) and Saints (39-14), setting the 87-year-old franchise up for a shot at just its third NFL title since 1946.

Sunday's historic matchup pits Dungy against former pupil and Bears head coach Lovie Smith, with the duo ranking as the first two African-American head coaches to reach the Super Bowl in NFL history.

Also notable is the first Super Bowl appearance of Indianapolis quarterback and perennial Pro Bowler Peyton Manning, who is on pace to own several of the NFL's most revered career passing records but has never won a title at either the collegiate or professional level.

SERIES HISTORY

The Colts hold a 22-17 lead in their all-time series with the Bears, including a 41-10 rout at Soldier Field when the teams last met, in Week 11 of the 2004 season. Prior to that victory, Indy had never defeated Chicago since the former franchise left Baltimore following the 1983 season. The Bears had won the previous four head-to-head matchups, defeating Indy at Soldier Field in 1985 and 2000, and in the RCA Dome in 1988 and 1991.

The franchises will be squaring off in the postseason for the first time.

Dungy is 8-5 in his career against the Bears, including 7-5 while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996 through 2001. Chicago's Smith, who served as linebackers coach on Dungy's staff with the Bucs from 1996 through 2000, is 0-1 against both his former mentor and Indianapolis.

COLTS OFFENSE VS. BEARS DEFENSE

Wouldn't it be humorous if Peyton Manning finally wins the big one in what, so far, has been a horrible postseason, statistically speaking? Through three playoff games so far, Manning (4,397 yards, 31 TD, 9 INT) has been intercepted six times to just two TD passes. He came into this postseason with nine career playoff appearances and compiled 15 touchdowns to eight picks in that span. Manning, though, silenced his critics -- for a week anyway -- who said he couldn't win the big postseason games when he guided the Colts to an 18-point comeback over the Patriots to reach the Super Bowl, the largest comeback in championship game history. Against New England, he threw for 349 yards with a touchdown and interception. His three victories this year have doubled his playoff win total and moved his mark to 6-6.

A common theme between the two Super Bowl clubs this year is the usage of a 1-2 punch at running back. The Colts will counter Chicago's duo of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson with the less sexy names of Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai. Addai carried the load in the Colts' playoff-opening win over the Chiefs with 122 yards and a score, but has managed just 95 yards and a touchdown in the last two games. Rhodes, meanwhile, has carried the ball about 14 times a game so far this postseason and is averaging just over 64 yards per game. Rhodes has also been held out of the end zone so far in the postseason. Both Addai and Rhodes are also contributing little out of the backfield in the passing game.

It's been all Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne for the Colts this season, except in the playoffs. Harrison (95 receptions, 12 TD) and Wayne (86 receptions, 9 TD) both went over 1,300 yards receiving in the regular season, but have been limited to just one touchdown between the two of them so far in the postseason. However, Manning's struggles early in the playoffs as well as the emergence of tight end Dallas Clark as his favorite target thus far are the most likely factors in Harrison and Wayne's struggles. They'll be just fine for the Super Bowl.

Tight end Clark (30 receptions, 4 TD) has been big for the Colts so far this postseason. He twice has gone over 100 yards receiving and is exploiting the large field he is seeing as teams try to shutdown the Colts long game. His ability to get open has provided a safety net for Manning when Harrison and Wayne are covered down field. That being said, Clark has yet to find the end zone in the playoffs, meaning he is not producing as the field gets shorter. He did have a monster game against the Patriots, though, as he made six catches for a team-high 137 yards.

Even though the Super Bowl is played on Sunday, the Colts' offensive line is anchored by Jeff Saturday, who was selected to play in his first Pro Bowl this year. Saturday and company were a brick wall during the regular season, as they allowed just 15 sacks, tops in the league. The line has allowed five sacks so far this postseason, including three against the Patriots. Still, it will be a great matchup to watch, as the best on the offensive side go against the dangerous and talented Bears defense.

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The Bears have the luxury of possessing three very good pass-rushing linemen in Adewale Ogunleye (43 tackles, 6.5 sacks), Alex Brown (46 tackles, 7 sacks) and rookie sensation Mark Anderson (28 tackles), who led the team with 12 sacks in a situational role. Chicago compiled 40 sacks during the regular- season and was able to generate constant pressure on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees in the NFC Championship. The trio will need to apply similar heat on Manning, who can tear apart any secondary when provided time, to keep the Colts at bay.

Part of the Bears' defensive downfall late in the season was attributed to the year-ending torn hamstring that dominating tackle Tommie Harris (28 tackles, 5 sacks) suffered in early December. Despite that obviously significant loss, Chicago remains in pretty good shape along the interior. Tank Johnson's (26 tackles, 3.5 sacks) off-field issues have been well-documented, but the troubled lineman has played well when he's been able to take the field. Ian Scott (22 tackles) is a steady and experienced run-stopper.

The strength of Chicago's defense lies in the linebacking corps, as Urlacher (141 tackles, 3 INT) and weakside starter Lance Briggs (130 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) are two of league's best at their positions. Blessed with the speed of a safety on a 255-pound frame, Urlacher can roam sideline-to-sideline and excels in coverage. He will likely spend a lot of time shadowing Clark. Briggs is also very good against the pass and will be responsible for keeping Manning's damage underneath to a minimum, since the Bears don't blitz that often. Hunter Hillenmeyer (48 tackles), the other member of the trio, is a tough and solid tackler on the strong side but is subbed out in nickel situations.

Nathan Vasher (45 tackles, 3 INT) made the Pro Bowl in 2005, but Charles Tillman (80 tackles, 5 INT) had a better year among the two Bears corners this season. Tillman, the more physical and experienced of the pair, will mostly be matched up on the savvy Harrison. Vasher wasn't quite the playmaker he developed into a year ago, when he led the NFC with eight interceptions, but is still a quality defender on the right side. Nickel back Ricky Manning Jr. (53 tackles, 2 sacks) has made an impact in his first season in Chicago, as the former Carolina Panther tied Tillman for the club lead with five picks.

The safety spot is probably Chicago's largest area of concern heading into Sunday's contest, and has been a sore spot ever since standout Mike Brown (23 tackles) suffered a season-ending foot injury in mid-October. The Bears haven't been as effective stopping the run without Brown in the lineup, and have struggled to find a suitable replacement at his strong safety spot. Todd Johnson (32 tackles) had first crack at the job but later gave way to Chris Harris (54 tackles, 2 INT), who lost his starting free safety job to rookie Danieal Manning (67 tackles, 2 INT) in Week 3. Manning is a terrific athlete, but has had bouts of inconsistency that show he's still an unfinished product.

BEARS OFFENSE VS. COLTS DEFENSE

There isn't a player on the Bears' roster under more scrutiny than Grossman (3193 passing yards, 23 TD, 20 INT), who posted eight passer ratings of better than 98.6 during the regular season, but also offered up a clip of 36.8 or worse on five occasions. Whether "Good Rex" or "Bad Rex" shows up will be a storyline worth watching. To his credit, Grossman has largely avoided the major mistake during the 2006 postseason, though he has thrown just two touchdown passes, and is completing just 50 percent of his throws (32-of-64). Backup Brian Griese (220 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) was an inactive rookie on the Broncos' 1998 Super Bowl-winning team.

The Bears figure to offer the Colts equal doses of running backs Thomas Jones (1210 rushing yards, 6 TD, 36 receptions) and Cedric Benson (647 rushing yards, 6 TD), both of whom have had their moments in 2006. Jones is the more versatile of the two backs, and has four of Chicago's seven touchdowns in the 2006 postseason. Jones rushed 19 times for 123 yards and two scores against the Saints in the NFC Championship. Benson is the more powerful back, but has averaged just 2.9 yards per rush during the postseason. Third-string back Adrian Peterson (41 rushing yards, 2 TD, 6 receptions) is one of the team's most valued special-teamers, and fullback Jason McKie (25 receptions) has some pass-catching skills out of the backfield.

Muhsin Muhammad (60 receptions, 5 TD) remains the team's most valued possession receiver, though deep threats Bernard Berrian (51 receptions, 6 TD) and Rashied Davis (22 receptions, 2 TD) have grabbed more of the headlines during the postseason. Berrian has 10 catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns during the 2006 postseason, including a 105-yard effort against New Orleans in the Championship round. Davis, the former Arena League star, had four catches for 84 yards against Seattle in the Divisional Playoff, including a pivotal reception that set up Chicago's game-winning field goal. Muhammad, meanwhile, has just four catches for 58 yards in two '06 playoff games combined. Oft- injured fourth receiver Mark Bradley (14 receptions, 3 TD) suffered a sprained ankle against the Seahawks, and is considered questionable for the Super Bowl. If he can't go, ex-starter Justin Gage (4 receptions) will likely be active for a second straight game.

Each of the Bears' three tight ends - Desmond Clark (45 receptions, 6 TD), John Gilmore (6 receptions, 2 TD), and Gabe Reid (4 receptions) - has a catch in the 2006 postseason, though as a group, the trio has combined for just four receptions and 51 yards without a touchdown in those two games. The only true pass-catching threat among this corps is Clark, who was 10th among NFL tight ends in receiving yards and tied for fourth in touchdowns during the regular season.

The offensive line has been arguably the team's most reliable offensive sub- group, as left guard Ruben Brown, center Olin Kreutz, right guard Roberto Garza, and right tackle Fred Miller have all started each of the Bears' 18 games. Left tackle John Tait is the only player that has missed any time, having been absent for a couple of games in December with an ankle problem. John St. Clair filled in for Tait in both of those contests, and has appeared in all 18 games as a backup and special-teamer. The Chicago line did a credible job protecting the quarterback during the regular season, allowing just 25 sacks, but struggled at times in the area of run-blocking. The Bears averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in 2006, which ranked in the bottom half of the league.

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Indianapolis wants to get Chicago into obvious passing situations where it can unleash disruptive defensive ends Dwight Freeney (29 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (65 tackles, 9.5 sacks) on the erratic Grossman, who has proven to be vulnerable when facing consistent pressure. The Colts managed only 25 sacks during the regular season after amassing 46 in 2005, but that lower figure is partly due to their opponents' preference to attack them with the run. Don't let Freeney's rather pedestrian stats fool you, as he's still one of the game's premier pass rushers and can make a major impact if not contained.

Tackle Anthony McFarland (41 tackles, 2.5 sacks) has provided needed beef alongside the smallish Raheem Brock (47 tackles, 3 sacks), a converted end who's more effective pressuring the quarterback than plugging gaps. Depth along the interior is thin, however, as Corey Simon hasn't played all year because of a mysterious illness and Montae Reagor (10 tackles, 1 sack) has yet to return from a midseason car accident. Second-year pro Darrell Reid (26 tackles), a special-teams standout, is the top reserve.

Although the linebacking unit was disappointing as a whole for much of the regular season, 2005 Pro Bowler Cato June (142 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) put together another outstanding year on the weak side. A former college safety, June is a fast and active defender and an outstanding coverage linebacker who topped the Colts in tackles and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. Morris (55 tackles) has upgraded the strong side since displacing Gilbert Gardner (53 tackles) as the starter in December. In the middle, Gary Brackett (120 tackles) is a workmanlike player with a good nose for the ball.

The starting tandem of Nick Harper (75 tackles, 3 INT) and Jason David (55 tackles, 2 INT) are both under six feet tall, but both players compensate for their short stature with speed and excellent tackling ability. The duo, along with versatile and valuable nickel man Marlin Jackson (82 tackles, 1 INT), helped Indianapolis allow the second-fewest passing yards (159.3 ypg) in the league. Harper sprained his left ankle during the AFC Championship Game, however, leaving his status for Sunday in question. Jackson, who sealed the Colts' victory over New England in the title game with a last-second interception of Tom Brady, would take over one starting spot if Harper is unable to go.

The Colts have had to patch things together at the safety spots all season long. Not only has Sanders (27 tackles, 1 INT) missed considerable time, but regular strong safety Mike Doss (29 tackles, 2 sacks) suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 7. Rookie Antoine Bethea (90 tackles, 1 INT), a sixth-round pick out of Howard University, has been a pleasant surprise filling in for Doss and Jackson has seen a lot of time at both safety spots as well. Still, the x-factor remains Sanders, who raises the play of the entire defense when he's out on the field.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri's resume is beyond reproach. He's made 82 percent (37-of-45) of his field-goal attempts during the postseason and has 19 career game-winning kicks in the final minute of the fourth quarter or in overtime under his belt. The two-time Pro Bowler has also done a good job on kickoffs, as his 18 touchbacks during the regular-season were the second-most in the league. He does have the benefit of playing half his games in a domed stadium, though.

Indianapolis' high-powered offense doesn't provide many opportunities for Hunter Smith, as the Colts punted a league-low 47 times this season. The eight-year pro averaged a solid 44.4 yards per kick, a number that's also aided by the cozy conditions of the RCA Dome. In outdoor games this year, Smith's average is just 41.8 yards per boot. He also serves as Vinatieri's holder.

Terrence Wilkins has taken back three punts for touchdowns in six NFL seasons, including a key 82-yard score during Indianapolis' 21-14 victory over division-rival Jacksonville in Week 3. The 31-year-old returned from a two- year absence from the league to average a respectable 9.2 yards on 21 attempts. Wilkins also handled the majority of the kickoff return duties, and averaged 24.5 yards per runback during the regular season. He took 52 of the Colts' 58 kick returns. The backup wideout wasn't as effective in the three playoff games, however, averaging 19.9 yards on nine attempts.

Special teams defense was a sore spot for Indianapolis for much of this year. The Colts allowed opponents to average 13.1 yards per punt return, the second- worst mark in the NFL. That statistic doesn't bode well for a team that will have to face the electrifying Devin Hester on Super Bowl Sunday. Indy also gave up 23.6 yards per return on kickoffs, which ranked only 26th overall. The Colts' leading tackler on special teams was starting strongside linebacker Rob Morris, who racked up 21 stops. Reserve defensive tackle Darrell Reid (19 tackles) and veteran linebacker Rocky Boiman (17 tackles) were also active on returns.

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Re: Super Bowl XLI Preview

Bears kicker Robbie Gould (32-36 FG) is a perfect 5-for-5 on field goal kicks through two postseason games, and hit all three attempts against the Saints in the conference championship game. However, the undrafted free agent is in just his second year, and has kicked in only three playoff games in that span. Two of those have been this year. Needless to say, nerves could be a factor for the Penn State product. The Pro Bowl selection had 11 touchbacks on kickoffs this season.

Handling the punt duties for Chicago will be Brad Maynard. In his 11th season, the former third-round pick out of Ball State averaged 44.2 yards per kick and stuck 24 of his 77 punts inside the 20. Maynard averaged a healthy 47.4 yards per punt against the Saints, who featured the dangerous Reggie Bush.

Hester (13.0 avg.) returned all but three punts for the Bears this season, and totaled 609 yards. He took three of those 47 returns to the end zone, with his long going for 84 yards. Hester's defining moment came against Arizona, when he took a punt back 83 yards to the end zone late in the fourth to cap a 20- point comeback. The rookie began to see fewer opportunities toward the end of the season, and had just two attempts against the Saints, averaging 12 yards. Rashied Davis (23.5 average) returned 32 kickoffs for the Bears this past season, and finished with 753 yards. However, it was Hester (26.4 average) who served as the game-breaker, returning a pair of kicks for scores and posting 528 yards on 20 returns. It should be noted that both of Hester's TDs came in Week 14 against the Rams.

Another area the Bears excel at is their special teams defense. In regards to kickoffs, Bears opponents' average starting position was around the 25-yard line, which was second-best in the NFC. That fact wasn't lost on Pro Bowl voters, as Brendon Ayanbadeho (25 tackles) will go to Hawaii as the special teams selection.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Colts are a heavy favorite in this game due mainly to the fact that it is difficult to envision Peyton Manning losing to Rex Grossman. However, it should be noted that there was a time when it was considered unthinkable that Tom Brady could beat Kurt Warner, Jeff Hostetler could get the better of Jim Kelly, or Doug Williams could take down John Elway. All occurred, and each of the above results were determined by more than just one player or position. When comparing the entire rosters of the Colts and Bears, there are actually shades of difference in terms of talent level. Indianapolis has the more consistent and potent offense. Chicago boasts the tougher, more credible defense. In light of those circumstances, we'll allow special teams to break the tie. Most NFL coaches would take Hester and Gould over Terrence Wilkins and Vinatieri, though not by much. And "not by much" will be the margin by which Chicago prevails, in upset fashion.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 23, Colts 20

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