Sports Nut

The Saints Go Marching Home

Plus, how the Colts finally beat the Patriots.

The Bears’ Adewale Ogunleye dumps Gatorade on coach Lovie Smith

With 1:50 to go in the first half, Drew Brees and the Saints offense took the field down 16-0. But then Brees lofted a long third-down pass to Marques Colston, fired to Terrance Copper for another first down, and zipped a slant to Colston to get the Saints in the end zone. In a mere 70 seconds, the Saints had reclaimed their mojo. Chicago was toast.

After that glorious second half—three ankle-breaking Reggie Bush touchdown runs, four Fred Thomas interceptions—it’s hard to believe the Bears ever held the lead. But if it weren’t for that first-half drive, the Saints might not have won, much less captured the NFC crown by the shocking score of 89-16. For Chicagoans, the 73-point final margin was an unpleasant echo of the Bears’ 73-0 victory in the 1940 NFL championship game. Now, in light of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s announcement that the Bears must disband forever, it’s unclear if anyone in the Windy City will ever smile again. Perhaps it’s inappropriate to think about the Bears today, with work sensibly suspended on this (and every subsequent) Jan. 22 so that every American can worship the Saints in the manner they see fit. But if your mind flits to the piteous, downtrodden Illinoisan people, please, pray for them.

OK, that’s not exactly how it happened. The Bears beat my New Orleans Saints 39-14. A game that was closer than the score indicated, by the way. (The Saints deserved to lose by, at most, 24 points.) Justin Peters, your gumbo-filled beignets are on the way.

Why did the Saints lose? The fumbles had a lot to do with it, which is particularly vexing considering I explicitly told the Saints not to fumble. Beyond that, I’m not much in the mood for detailed analysis. So, in the interest of balanced subjectivity, I talked to some Bears lovers to find out how Sunday’s game looked from the other side. “Drew Brees looked a lot like Rex Grossman,” gloated northwest Indiana native Mike DeBonis. Ben Healy, who grew up in Hinsdale, Ill., said: “I think the Bears defense looked great. They took control of the game.” When asked if he’d like to thank anyone for Sunday’s victory, Healy said he’d “just like to thank the Bears.” He also plans to wear a Bears stocking cap for the next two weeks, which he expects to spend “thinking about the Bears a lot and being happy about it.”

And that’s about all I have to say about that. I will, however, leave Saints fans with two notes of consolation. First, the Saints are a young team with a great coach—they’ll be in contention for years to come. Second, professional football is a brutal, incapacitating sport. By “missing out” on the Super Bowl, the Saints players will add years to their lives. Compare that with the fate of, say, Chicago’s massive defensive tackle Tank Johnson. Thanks to the Bears’ extra-long schedule, by the age of 40 he won’t have the joint flexibility to pick up his guns.

New Orleanians can also take a bit of solace in the performance of native son Peyton Manning. After years of close calls and playoff chokes, Manning capped the Colts’ comeback from an 18-point deficit with a last-gasp touchdown drive. Indianapolis clinched the game when Tom Brady threw an interception in the final minute. It’s worth emphasizing that, unlike my extended Saints reverie above, everything in the previous two sentences is true. The Colts beat the heretofore-invincible Patriots 38-34. Peyton Manning was clutch. Tom Brady choked in the playoffs. Tony Dungy is going to the Super Bowl. Bill Belichick is going home.

How did this happen? Brendan I. “Love the Colts” Koerner says the turning point came when center Jeff Saturday saved Indy’s bacon, recovering a fumble in the end zone to tie the game at 28. “When I looked in his furious, lard-ass eyes, I knew we were gonna win,” Koerner says.

To my eyes, the Colts’ key moment came after Pats cornerback Asante Samuel’s brilliant interception and return put the Patriots in front 21-3. In simple terms, Manning didn’t go limp. Rather than resorting to safe, short passes, he kept flinging the ball down the field. With Samuel and a surprising Ellis Hobbs playing sticky defense on Indy’s Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, Manning repeatedly found tight end Dallas Clark running free in the middle of the field. Those routes were open because the Colts smartly maintained a balanced offense when playing from behind, mixing in runs from Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai. But even so, the Patriots got a consistent pass rush from their defensive line and blitzers off the edge. Manning dealt with the pressure by flouting the conventional wisdom that a quarterback must step up in the pocket. Rather, he backpedaled to buy his receivers enough time to break into the clear, then lofted the ball into the wide open spaces between the Pats linebackers.

In the Belichick era, the Patriots have won bushels of games they had no business winning. See, for example, last week’s game against the Chargers. The Pats have done this so many times that it almost stopped making sense to evaluate them rationally. Now that they’ve finally lost a game in January that they should’ve won, their mystique will dissipate. It’s about time.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady never had a magic formula for winning in the postseason. The Patriots won three Super Bowls because they were a talented, well-coached team and because they made winning plays at the end of tight games. That the Pats, and Tom Brady, continually made these clutch plays doesn’t make them lucky, or undeserving. But it also isn’t evidence that New England won because of some kind of innate “clutchness.” Just like Peyton Manning’s postseason failures prior to this season didn’t mean he was a choker.

Manning’s late-game drive to send the Colts to the Super Bowl will burnish his legacy. The fact that he finally beat the Patriots, though, doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a better player than he was last week. It just shows that if you give a great quarterback enough chances, he’s going to succeed. And Tom Brady’s game-ending interception? If you give a great player enough chances, he’s going to fail, too.