Super Bowl XLI: Colts at Bears
Never shy in front of the camera, Peyton Manning seemed to enjoy Tuesday's Super Bowl media day, joking and mostly enjoying the circus-like atmosphere.
The Indianapolis Colts superstar quarterback, though, never lost sight of what being able to attend that occasionally bizarre press conference meant to him.
''I know how hard it is to get here,'' he said, ''because it has been.''
The two-time MVP and perhaps the NFL's most recognizable player has finally reached the league's championship game, looking to help the Colts complete their unlikely run when they face the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI in Miami on Sunday.
Manning seemed unlikely to make it to the Super Bowl again this year after Indianapolis lost four of its last seven games following a 9-0 start, failing to earn a first-round bye despite going 12-4 and winning the AFC South.
Oddsmakers have made Indianapolis -6.5 point spread favorites for Super Bowl XLI, the over/under has been set at 48 total points.
Unlike the disappointments and near-misses of past postseasons, though, Manning, along with a suddenly tough defense, led the Colts to three victories - including one over the team's playoff nemesis - as the franchise reached the Super Bowl for the first time since 1971.
Indianapolis completed its run to Miami, and advanced to the championship game for the first time since the team's underhanded 1983 move from Baltimore, with a thrilling 38-34 victory over New England in the AFC title game. Manning rallied his team from a 21-3 deficit for the biggest comeback in conference championship game history.
Manning threw for 349 yards and a touchdown, Joseph Addai capped the quarterback's late drive with the winning score with 1 minute left and Marlin Jackson intercepted Tom Brady on the next drive to seal the win and send the RCA Dome crowd into a frenzy.
Too nervous to watch on the Patriots' final possession, Manning ripped off his helmet in celebration as the game ended. New England beat Indianapolis in the playoffs in 2004 and '05 en route to Super Bowl wins - frustrating and containing one of the most prolific passers in NFL history in the process.
Those memories make Manning, the top pick in the 1998 draft, appreciate the chance he and the Colts have even more.
"You feel a small window of opportunity," he said. "While we're here, we sure want to go ahead and win it."
To do that, Manning will have to apply his famously obsessive game preparation to solving the Bears, owners of the NFC's top defense during the regular season.
Chicago (15-3) surged into its first Super Bowl since 1986, and is confident it can add another championship to that one after a dominant performance in the conference title game. Frustrating the NFL's passing yardage leader this season, Drew Brees, the Bears rolled past the New Orleans Saints 39-14 at a raucous Soldier Field behind a characteristically aggressive and opportunistic defense.
The Bears intercepted Brees once, sacked him three times and forced him into a 27-for-49 performance. Chicago pulled away in the third quarter, outscoring New Orleans 21-0.
"We gave up some big plays," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "But we never put our heads down."
Chicago's convincing win, along with Indianapolis' tight victory, gave the Super Bowl its first two black head coaches. Lovie Smith has the Bears in the title game in just his third year, while his good friend, Indianapolis' Tony Dungy, has taken a long road to Miami, reaching the Super Bowl in his 11th season as a head coach.
"It means a lot," Dungy said. "I'm very proud to be representing African-Americans. I'm very proud of Lovie."
Dungy is in his fifth season with the Colts since being fired by Tampa Bay, and he's overcome recent tragedy to get here. His 18-year-old son, James, was found dead after an apparent suicide 13 months ago.
Both men are known for their low-key and dignified approaches, and it's almost certain neither coach will be seen losing his temper Sunday - regardless of their teams' play on the national stage.
"There is this stereotype of how all coaches have to behave, what you are supposed to be and that isn't the case," Smith said. "I just think guys should be who they are. You can win a lot of different ways and whatever your approach is, just believe in it, get the guys to buy into it and of course you can accomplish anything."
Now Smith, a former defensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams, and current Bears defensive coach Ron Rivera will need their players to fully buy into the scheme they come up with to contain Manning and disrupt the Colts' frequent use of the no-huddle offense. The Bears may try to apply heavy pressure, something they did successfully against Brees, drop more defenders into coverage, as the Patriots often did against the Colts in the playoffs, or give Manning several different looks.
Whatever the Bears do, they'll have to be more effective than they were in the teams' last meeting - a 41-10 Colts rout on Nov. 21, 2004, when Manning threw four touchdown passes and Indianapolis finished with a 486-224 edge in total yardage.
That Bears team had Craig Krenzel at quarterback and finished 5-11 for its third straight losing season. Urlacher was injured and didn't play in the matchup.
"You are not going to fool Peyton Manning. He knows where to go with the football before it's even snapped," Urlacher said.
Urlacher and the Bears defense could get a boost from the availability of defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who was granted permission by a judge to leave Illinois as he awaits trial on gun possession charges.
While Manning's ability to complete passes to 1,300-yard receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne against the formidable Bears defense will go a long way toward determining Sunday's outcome, the performance of Chicago's overlooked quarterback could be a major factor.
Overcoming criticism and the intense pressure of playing in a football-crazed city, Rex Grossman has provided his team with enough big plays and solid football to help guide Chicago into the Super Bowl. The fourth-year player survived calls for his benching from fans and local media after several poor games this season, and directed the Bears on the winning drive in overtime to defeat Seattle in the divisional round.
In the conference championship game, Grossman was just 11-of-26 for 144 yards, but didn't make any mistakes.
"This is great and all, but we have one game to go," Grossman said.
The Bears don't expect their young quarterback to carry them, and Grossman probably won't have much success moving the ball if Chicago can't establish its running game led by Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. That, however, is something Indianapolis' three opponents in this postseason have failed to do.
The Colts held Kansas City's Larry Johnson to 32 yards rushing in the first round; limited Baltimore's Jamal Lewis to 53 yards the next; and allowed only 93 rushing yards to New England as a team.
"You need at least two good running backs to make it through a season," said Smith, whose team rushed for a season-high 196 yards in the NFC title game and has averaged 145.5 in its last six contests. "We are a running football team. We get off the plane running the ball."
Smith's team also could have an advantage on special teams, with the dangerous Devin Hester a threat to turn any punt or kickoff into a big play. Hester scored three touchdowns on punt returns this season, and averaged 26.4 yards per kickoff return - fifth in the NFL.
While the Bears have the better return game, the Colts can feel comfortable turning to kicker Adam Vinatieri if the game is on the line. Vinatieri has kicked four field goals in the Super Bowl - three of which gave New England victories.
Signed away from the Patriots in the offseason to replace Mike Vanderjagt, who often struggled in big spots, Vinatieri has lived up to his clutch reputation in this postseason. He's 11-for-11 on field goals in these playoffs, and accounted for all of the Colts' points in their 15-6 victory over Baltimore in the divisional round with five field goals - three from 42 yards or more.
Vinatieri is one field goal shy of tying Ray Wersching for most in the Super Bowl.
Like the Bears, the Colts will also be looking for their second Super Bowl title. The team, then based in Baltimore, defeated Dallas 16-13 in Super Bowl V.
By: Michael Cash - theSpread.com - Email Us
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