Indianapolis Colts: 16-2.
How they got here: They started the season 14-0 to clinch the AFC North and number one seed in the playoffs. On January 16th, they defeated the Baltimore Ravens 20-3 in the divisional round and then defeated the New York Jets 30-17 in the AFC championship on January 24th.
The Colts are here because of two reasons. The first is obvious, Peyton Manning. Coming into a season with both a rookie head coach and no Marvin Harrison, many people believed they would have trouble in a strong division. However, Manning had one of his best years, simply because he turned young receivers into legitimate threats (ie: Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon).
Manning completed 393 of 571 passes and threw for 4500 yards with 33 touchdowns and 16 interceptions during the regular season. The interceptions seem high; his fourth highest total in his career, but the thing to remember is he had to teach the young players to run routes. During the season, there were several plays where Collie or Garcon simply missed the play. They went outside instead of instead or left instead of right. Manning makes no excuses, but he probably has five or six fewer picks if his teammates were where they were supposed to be.
Even more impressive was the two playoff games. Manning complete 56 of 83 passes and threw for 623 yards with five touchdowns and only one interception. The best game came against the New York Jets, the best defense in the NFL. Darelle Revis, arguably the best corner this season, was thrown to repeatedly and beaten several times.
The second reason they are here is the improved run defense. The Colts have always had a good pass rush with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, but they have had a tough time containing the run in the past. They have ranked near the bottom for the last five seasons, including their Super Bowl championship season. Although they ranked only 24 in the league this year, they actually were much better than the ranking suggests. The last three games of the season, when they rested their starters, they gave up 589 yards on the ground to the Jaguars, Jets and Bills which increased their opponents' average to 124.5 rushing yds/game. If you subtract those numbers and games, they gave up 102.5 yds per game, which would have put them at ninth in the league behind the New York Jets.
The biggest way to see the improvement is the playoffs. They faced the No. 1 and No. 5 rushing offenses in the league, and they allowed only 86.5 yards rushing in the two games. The play of Manning and the rejuvenated rushing defense has made the Colts nearly unstoppable this season.
Five players to watch:
1.) Dwight Freeney – He is a key pass rusher on the Colts, and they need to get pressure on Drew Brees to slow the Saint’s passing game down. However, he has had an ankle injury and is listed as Questionable on the Colts injury list. Will he play and if he does, will he be effective enough on the outside?
2.) Dallas Clark – Since the Colt’s running game isn’t a threat, ranked 32nd during the season, they will need Manning to create first downs by screen passes and short slants. Clark is one of the best tightends in the league, because he blocks and catches well. They will need him to keep it up against the Saints if they want to keep Brees off of the field.
3.) Antoine Bethea – If the Colt’s want to stop the Saints passing attack, they need stellar play in the secondary. Bethea had 95 tackles, four interceptions and two forced fumbles during the regular season. As the Pro Bowl leader of the front seven, he must continue to play well and lead the others in doing so.
4.) Pierre Garcon – He has turned into a key deep threat for Manning during the season and playoffs. They will need his speed to create some quick scores against a Saint’s passing defense that ranked 26th during the regular season and 10 out of 12 during the postseason.
5.) Austin Collie – The other young receiver must be able to make the tough catches like he has all season. If Collie drops a few passes or doesn’t get open for short gains, The Saints will have more reason to double Clark. The Colts will need solid play from Collie if they want to move the ball consistently.
They will win the Super Bowl if…
Manning controls the tempo. The Colts were the best team in the league this year, and they are now in the Super Bowl facing the second best team in the league. However, both teams have weaknesses and had two weeks to prepare for them. For the Colts, they will win if Manning continues to be the best game manager in the game. We know he can throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns, but we also know he can win if he controls the clock when they have the ball. The best way to beat the number one offense in the league is to keep them off the field.
They will also win if the Saints cannot run the ball. The Saints ranked sixth in rushing this season. The Colts have already handled the fifth and first rushing offenses, but neither team had a quarterback as good as Drew Brees. The defense will have to limit the ground attack and put enough pressure on Brees to limit the damage. When you face the best offense, sometimes holding to a few points less than their average is enough.
They will lose the Super Bowl if…
Manning cannot move the chains. The Colts need Manning to win. Look at the two games he rested, Curtis Painter didn’t exactly light it up. When you don’t have a rushing attack, you need a hall of fame quarterback.
They will also lose if the Saints have all day to throw. Forget the running game, the Saints will find open players down the field and score a lot of points even if they can’t run the ball. Dwight Freeney’s status is huge because of this reason.