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Saints prepare for Manning

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McClatchy Tribune
January 26, 2010
— It’s doubtful that in the massive pile of humanity on the Louisiana Superdome turf following New Orleans’ dramatic overtime victory Sunday, Saints players were thinking about whom they were going to face in two weeks.

Maybe they should have been.


If the Saints are going to have a chance against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami on Feb. 7, they’re going to have to start preparing for quarterback Peyton Manning right now.


At the same time the Saints were benefiting from five Minnesota Vikings turnovers in the NFC Championship Game, the New York Jets were on their way home wondering what they could have done to stop Manning. All the Jets came with was the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and they left Lucas Oil Stadium bruised and battered to the tune of 461 yards and 30 points.


If the best defense in football can’t hang with Manning, how will the Saints’ 25th-ranked defense?


“It’s hard to play a guy like Peyton,” Jets safety Jim Leonhard said. “He’s at the top of his game. When you’re the MVP, you’re playing good football. I think he really steps up in big games. You have to take advantage of every mistake he makes because he’s not going to make very many of them. He’s really playing well.”


The matchup many people wanted to see—Manning vs. Brett Favre—didn’t materialize. “It would have been a great storyline,” Jets fullback Tony Richardson said, but it’s not as if the Saints head to Miami with a slouch under center.


In fact, this could be the best Super Bowl quarterback matchup since Favre and John Elway faced each other after the 1997 season. In the first duel between two No. 1 seeds since 1993 (Dallas vs. Buffalo), it will be the NFL’s most valuable player (Manning) against the NFL’s top-rated passer (Drew Brees).


All Brees did against a formidable Vikings defense Sunday was complete 17 of 31 passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns. It wasn’t the best game he has had this season, but the kind of fortitude he showed in leading the Saints to a dramatic overtime victory mirrored Manning’s performance against the Jets.


“I don’t think I’ve ever sacked Brees,” Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “It would be nice.”


Looking at common opponents won’t give you much material on how these two teams match up. They had five regular-season opponents in common—Buffalo, the Jets, Miami, New England and St. Louis.


The Saints went 5-0 in those games; the Colts went


3-2. However, the Colts’ losses against the Jets and Buffalo came when they played without some starters because they had clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs.


The one area that could be troublesome for the Colts is their pass defense. Like the Vikings, they rely on two big-time pass rushers upfront— Freeney and Robert Mathis— to create pressure and hope their secondary can hold up. The Jets had some success throwing on the Colts’ 14th-ranked passing defense with rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez.


“I think they can take advantage of some things in the secondary,” Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “They’ll get (cornerback) Jerraud Powers back, and that will help. You just can’t make a lot of mistakes against them. You can’t have turnovers because they’ll turn those into points.”


The difficult part for the Saints in handling Manning will be deciding how to stop their increasingly potent receiving corps. The Jets had the luxury of putting all-pro cornerback Darrelle Revis on top receiver Reggie Wayne man-to-man, knowing they wouldn’t have to give any help.


That allowed their safeties to double-team Dallas Clark, the top receiving tight end in football with 100 catches for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. But it didn’t help much because receivers Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie combined for 18 catches for 274 yards and two touchdowns.


The Saints do not have a corner like Revis, and safeties Darren Sharper and Roman Harper are going to be hard-pressed to offer the kind of help necessary to shut down all four of those targets. Even if the Saints do come up with a plan, Manning might find a way to beat it.


“They have some matchup issues,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said of the Colts’ offense. “You have some problems with those guys. I think their defense plays good enough. You don’t have to be great on defense.


“It kind of reminds me of the old Cowboys. I mean, that offense carried that team for years. Their defense is decent.”


The Saints, meanwhile, feel like they can match points with anybody. They led the league in total yards (6,461), points (510) and passing touchdowns (34, tied with Colts and Vikings). Their defense is coming off a game in which it intercepted two passes and forced three fumbles, ending the spectacular season Favre put together for the Vikings.


They’ll go to work first thing Monday morning.


“Brett prepared us, but now we’ve got another challenge in Peyton,” Sharper said.



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