One thing is clear after this year’s championship games—returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown is a feat best avoided. Like Ohio State’s Ted Ginn Jr., Chicago’s Devin Hester scored before the first Buffalo wing was slathered in ranch dressing. And as in the BCS contest, there were few highlights thereafter for the team taking the early lead. Indianapolis dominated the remaining 59 minutes and 45 seconds, comprehensively beating the Bears 29-17 to win Super Bowl XLI.
Now that Peyton Manning has a championship ring and an MVP trophy, expect him to be featured in every single advertisement next season, as opposed to every other commercial. You’ll never see a more unassuming MVP performance. I can’t recall a most valuable player in any championship game in any sport who didn’t make a single great play. But other than a touchdown pass to a wide-open Reggie Wayne on a busted coverage, Manning was efficient but hardly dazzling. He was helped by Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera’s steadfast refusal to blitz. Chicago, like the Colts, prefers to sit back in a Cover Two defense and get pressure from their front four. Considering that the sole proven method of flustering Manning is to throw him off his rhythm by bringing extra rushers, the Bears should have mixed it up a bit. Instead, Chicago allowed Peyton to look as comfortable in torrential rain as Gene Kelly.
The same can’t be said of Rex Grossman, who was expectedly mediocre. After a nice first-quarter dart to Muhsin Muhammad for a touchdown, the Chicago QB offered little else. A sequence in the third quarter, with the Bears down five and threatening to take an unlikely lead, typified his night. Grossman first slipped and took a sack, then fumbled a snap between his legs and pratfalled for another huge loss. Grossman eventually ended all hope for his team by lollipoping a pass on a stop-and-go route that was picked off and returned for the clinching score by Colts corner Kelvin Hayden. (Unlike previous obscure defensive backs, Hayden probably won’t be able to parlay a pick in the big game into a huge free-agent contract, but he should at least see more of the field next season.)
While Grossman’s terrible second half had a lot to do with the Colts’ victory, Indy’s most important performer wasn’t a quarterback. On the eve of the playoffs, I argued that center play is the key to winning the championship. Indy’s Jeff Saturday, who played a key role in the Colts’ playoff losses the last few seasons, proved me right with a superb performance Sunday night. With Chicago missing stud defensive tackle Tommie Harris, it fell to Saturday and his line to take advantage and blow open holes in the middle of the Bears D. Mission accomplished, to the tune of 191 total rushing yards from Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes. Saturday also coordinated the pass protection that kept Manning clean and gave him time to complete the short dump-off passes that won him the MVP award. Come on, Peyton, give the award to the man who snapped you the ball. Or at least give Saturday the Cadillac.
Meanwhile, Bears center Olin Kreutz played a part in two fumbled snaps. And excepting a 52-yard dash by Thomas Jones early, Chicago’s line failed to enforce its will on the smaller Colts defense. It’s tough to pin much blame on Chicago’s offense, however, despite Grossman’s ineffective play. It was tough for the Bears offense to get any tempo going since they were on the bench for nearly 30 minutes of game time on either side of halftime. Indy controlled the clock and sapped Chicago’s will with their pounding running game, and the vaunted Bears defense missed tackles all over the field. Only Indy’s inability to punch it in from close quarters kept the game from being a blowout.
Grossman’s interception for a touchdown was one of eight turnovers in the game, the downpour helping to create the sloppiest Super Bowl since the Colts won an unsightly game against Dallas 36 years ago. The CBS telecast was pretty unsightly as well, and not just because the main camera kept fogging up. The rain wreaked havoc, from the failure of a sideline reporter’s mike just before kickoff, to splattered lenses on the field cameras, to a crowd that was too waterlogged to provide any fodder for cutaways that might have roused a lifeless atmosphere.
The game felt at times more like a midseason clash between the Titans and Texans than the Super Bowl. Billy Joel bricked the national anthem (although Prince rocked). Soldiers were shown watching the game live from Iraq just before kickoff, never to be seen again. In a game supposedly overloaded with cameras, CBS had no conclusive shot of a challenged play involving the number of Bears defenders on the field. The network also waited until after the Muhammad score to show a decent replay of Indy’s previous touchdown.
There were some good moments for CBS, in particular a cameraman taking one for the team and getting the shot despite being bowled into a gigantic puddle. Hester’s opening touchdown was augmented by a great shot of the Chicago return man checking himself out on the stadium JumboTron during the runback. Analyst Phil Simms was his usual solid self. Play-by-player Jim Nantz was bland as usual, although I liked that he pierced the myth of Adam Vinatieri’s infallibility in Super Bowls, pointing out after his first-half miss that the golden kicker botched two field goals in Super Bowl XXXVIII as well (a fact conveniently forgotten after he booted the game-winner). It would have been nice, too, for Nantz and Simms to take a few seconds to mention Jeff Saturday’s outstanding performance. The center, though, remained anonymous as always on a night when he should have been the biggest star of football’s biggest game.