Maybe Sean Payton and Jim Caldwell knew what they were doing.
The decisions made by the head coaches of the Saints and Colts to rest their starters over the final couple of weeks of the regular-season drew plenty of criticism, who charged that the two top seeds were running the risk of destroying any momentum their teams had heading into the postseason.
Those critics grew louder, especially when Indianapolis forfeited its shot at a perfect season when they yanked their starters midway through a Dec. 27 loss to the Jets.
But with Championship Sunday squarely in the rearview mirror, those two now have the last laugh — theirs remain the two best teams standing, and will meet Feb. 7 at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium in Super Bowl XLIV.
In the NFC Championship Game, the Saints gutted out a wild, 31-28 overtime win over Brett Favre and the Vikings (check out that recap here) where sportswriters ran out of proper adjectives midway through the fourth quarter. It was an out-of-your-head masterpiece that ended when kicker Garrett Hartley gave everyone an emotional rescue with just over 10 minutes left when he banged home the game-winner from 40 yards out.
Along the way, it provided New Orleans with its first-ever conference championship, and more good times for a region that has forged a special bond with a very unique team in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“Four years ago there were holes in this roof,” Payton said. “The fans in this region and this city deserve this.”
Meanwhile, in the AFC title contest, the Colts used a workmanlike second-half effort for a 30-17 win over the Jets (you can find that recap here), a game where Indianapolis spotted the upstart Jets an 11-point first half lead, but ended up suffocating them in the second-half on the way to their second AFC title in four years.
While the Saints’ win was an E ticket ride at Disney World, by comparison, Indianapolis’ victory had all the emotion of an insurance seminar: efficient and businesslike. After their win over the Jets, Caldwell and the Colts were understated, reserved and very professional. (The only slight surprise came when Peyton Manning took a shot at the mouthy Jets by saying, “We kept our mouths shut and went to work.”)
“I’ve never been one to look for any special attention,” said Caldwell. “I’ve never needed anybody to tell me I’ve done a good job. The great thing about this league? We’ve got a great barometer that tells you what kind of job that you’ve done, and that’s that won-lost record.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday in New Orleans and Indianapolis:
BRETT FAVRE WILL LIKELY BE BACK FOR AT LEAST ONE MORE SEASON
Favre was magnificent all season long — finishing with a career-low seven interceptions and guiding the Vikings to within 40 or so yards of a Super Bowl. But with a trip to Super Bowl XLIV on the line, he turned back into that guy again, throwing a bad pick late in regulation. With 19 seconds left, facing a third and 15 and the ball on the Minnesota 38-yard line, the quarterback rolled out, had room to run — not enough to get the first down, but had enough to get into field goal range.
Instead, he shot one over the middle. It was a ball intended for Sidney Rice that would have clearly landed the Vikings in field goal range. But New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter stepped in front off the pass, forcing the game into overtime and leaving Favre in the crosshairs again.
“I probably should have ran it,” Favre said. “I don't know how far I could have gotten. But in hindsight, that’s probably what I should have done. I don’t know how many yards we needed for a field goal, but I knew we needed some. I was just late to Sidney.”
Much will be written about that final Favrian fling, but truth be told, the Vikings did themselves no favors all game. Statistically, they had their way with Minnesota, but there were six fumbles (three of them lost), to go along with a pair of picks from Favre. And a killer too-many-men-in-the-huddle flag late in the fourth quarter that pushed Minnesota back and ultimately led to the Vikings decision to throw the pass that ended Favre’s season.
It is important to remember that if not for Favre, the Vikings do not get as far as they did. And he ended up on Sunday 28-for-46 for 310 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. That being said, if he does decide to retire this offseason — or at least move on to a different team — it was pointed out here that Favre will have ended his Green Bay career with an interception, ended his New York Jets career with an interception and ended his Minnesota career with an interception. Gut feeling says that’s not the way he wants to go out.
“I know people are rolling their eyes or will roll their eyes,” said Favre, who took a tremendous beating throughout the game, and, at one point, his ankle might be broken. “In a situation like this, I really don’t want to make a decision right now based on what’s happened because I do know the year could not have gone any better aside from us not going to Miami. I really enjoyed it, to be honest.
“Just wondering if I can hold up, especially after a day like today. Physically and mentally. That was pretty draining. I am going to go home, a couple of days and just talk it over with the family.”
THE NEW ORLEANS DEFENSE IS CONSISTENT
On paper, it looked like the New Orleans defense was blown out of the building — the Saints allowed an astonishing 475 net yards on the night, an average of almost six yards a play. Minnesota gained 165 yards on the ground, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, while Favre had 310 passing yards. The Vikings converted on 58 percent of their third-down opportunities, 67 percent of their red-zone chances and had almost a 10-minute edge in time of possession. And Minnesota gained 218 more yards and had nearly twice as many first downs as the Saints.
Recipe for disaster, right?
But as was the case all season long, the Saints’ defense did a great job when it came to forcing turnovers. They entered Sunday’s game with 41 takeaways, and they were at it again against the Vikings. In addition to Porter’s pick of Favre late in regulation, New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma had a second-quarter interception of Favre that halted a Minnesota drive that had crossed over into Saints’ territory. And Favre, Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian all fumbled the ball away.
The Saints weren’t above turning the ball over themselves on Sunday — New Orleans fumbled three times and lost one of them — but it was the Vikings who ended up shooting themselves in the foot on Sunday.
“We really gave those guys the game,” said Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, who fumbled twice, both of which were recovered, but ended up with 122 rushing yards and three touchdowns. “Too many turnovers. It's eating me up inside.”
SINCE 2006, FEW TEAMS HAVE SHOWN A BIG-GAME RESILIENCY LIKE THE COLTS
Back in 2006 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots took a 21-3 lead on the Colts, but Indianapolis ended up answering and coming away with a 38-34 win in one of the great postseason battles of the last 10 years. In Super Bowl XLI, Chicago’s Devin Hester opened the game with a kick return for a touchdown, but the Colts kept their heads about them and walked away with a 29-17 win. Earlier this season, the Patriots were up 31-14 on the Colts in Indianapolis before the Colts responded with a 21-point fourth-quarter for a 35-34 win, one of their seven comebacks wins this season.
And earlier in the 2009 playoffs, Baltimore thought they had Indy on the ropes with an excellent start, only to see the Colts answer with a lightning bolt at the end of the second quarter in the form of two scores to make the rest of the game a fait accompli.
On Sunday, it was more of the same. Behind a solid performance from rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, the Jets bulled to a 17-6 first-half lead. (The most surprising thing about the first half was not the brilliant performance from Sanchez, but the fact that this guy made a great catch on a deep ball that quieted the Indianapolis crowd and had Jets fans speculating this might actually happen.)
But as they had done so many times, the Colts knew there was lots of football left. Thirty-two minutes worth, to be exact.
“We talked about being patient against these guys,” said Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns in the win. “We knew it would be a four-quarter game.”
Indianapolis stepped back, assessed the situation and went to work. Just before halftime, Manning engineered a four-play, 80-yard drive that took 58 seconds and ended with a quick 16-yard scoring strike to Austin Collie in the back of the end zone to make it 17-13.
New York still had the lead and the ball to start the second half, but there was a feeling that the momentum had started to shift to Manning and the Colts. The next time he got the ball, Manning took the Colts 57 yards in eight plays, connecting with Pierre Garcon in the far corner of the end zone to make it 20-17 with 8:03 remaining in the third quarter.
Indianapolis wouldn’t trail again. The Colts tacked on another touchdown midway through the fourth when Manning hit Dallas Clark with a 15-yard touchdown pass to push the lead to 27-17 with 8:52 left in regulation. Indianapolis then followed that up with a ball-control clinic on its next series, suffocating the Jets with a 12-play drive that consumed 5:33 and ended with a Matt Stover field goal to make it 30-17.
After Manning — who now has seven career 300-yard passing games in the playoffs, passing Kurt Warner and Joe Montana for the most all-time — had finished playing with a New York defense that ended the regular-season as one of the best in the league, a humbled Rex Ryan could only tip his hat and marvel at the ability of Manning and the Colts to withstand the 32-minute onslaught that ended with Indianapolis winning its second AFC title in four years and the Jets wondering what might have been.
“We tried everything,” the New York coach told reporters. “We tried man, two-man, tried zone, you name it. You’ve gotta give him credit. He’s a heck of a quarterback.
“Today wasn’t our day,” he added. “They are the cream of the crop.”
"We've been here before,” Indianapolis linebacker Gary Brackett told reporters. “I think the guys were a little rattled at first, I think we took their best shot, but we came back.”
THE INDIANAPOLIS RECEIVING CORPS IS MUCH MORE THAN JUST REGGIE WAYNE
While Wayne was slowed by Darrelle Revis and tight end Dallas Clark was ineffective, Manning was able to connect with the rest of his receivers: Pierre Garcon had 11 catches for 151 yards, while Austin Collie had seven catches for 123 yards. Between the two of them, they accounted for 18 of Manning’s 26 completions, and each came away with a touchdown.
Wayne (three catches, 55 yards) and Clark (four catches, 35 yards, one touchdown) would be heard from, but without the two relatively anonymous pass-catchers, the Colts would be the ones heading home and the Jets would be making plans for dinner on South Beach.
Collie was at his best on the 80-yard Indianapolis drive at the end of the first when he accounted for all 80 yards, hauling in passes of 18, 46 and 16 yards. In addition, it was a particularly sweet day for Garcon, who had career highs in receptions and yardage. In addition, the receiver, who has many relatives back in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, Garcon got up on a podium and displayed the Haitian flag for the second straight week.
“This is what it’s all about,” Garcon told reporters afterward. “Just trying to do it for the country.
“It’s just bringing awareness to that because what’s going on over there is very tough,” he added. “Nobody should go through that, especially people who are less fortunate already. It’s just bringing awareness. Everybody’s been really showing their hands and helping us out, and I really do appreciate it.”
“Pierre was awesome; Collie didn’t have any rookie look in his eye all day,” Manning told reporters after the game.
ONE KICKER CAN HOLD HIS HEAD HIGH THIS POSTSEASON
Garrett Hartley connected on a 40-yarder to end things on Sunday night, ending a postseason season full of despair for kickers: If it wasn’t Shayne Graham, it was Neil Rackers. If it wasn’t Neil Rackers, it was Nate Kaeding. If it wasn’t Nate Kaeding, it was Jay Feely (more on him later).
With a trip to Super Bowl XLIV on the line, Brees and the Saints maneuvered down the field that left Hartley staring at a 40-yarder, and a shot at redemption. It had been a tough year for the former Oklahoma kicker, who began the season with a four-game suspension for a banned stimulant. He ended up winning his job back, but came under fire for missing a late kick in a loss to Tampa Bay.
But after a 10-play, 39-yard drive included two Vikings penalties and three plays upheld after review, the second-year kicker delivered the game-winner with 10:19 left in the extra session, banging home the game-winner and kick-starting the biggest party New Orleans has ever seen.
“I’m just doing my part,” said Hartley who said he had a dream the night before the game he would hit a 42-yarder to win it. “I just turned around and, I guess, put my hands up in the air and hugged (Mark) Brunell, just knowing that this team’s headed to Miami now.”
“I just told him there’s a little fleur de lis up there right between both uprights, and I said, ‘Why don’t you see if you can hit this fleur de lis dead center?’” Payton said. “He has just been real consistent for us, and obviously, it was a big kick.”
FOR THE JETS, KICKERS GIVETH AND KICKERS TAKETH AWAY
On Sunday, Feely wasn’t so lucky, as he missed a pair of field goals for the Jets. He missed a 44-yarder and a 52-yarder — both difficult attempts if you’re a rookie outdoors in possibly shaky conditions, but unforgivable if you’re a veteran kicking in a big game indoors. The 44-yarder was a first-quarter attempt that ended up wide right, and the 52-yarder was on New York’s first drive of the third quarter and also went wide right.
The second miss was technically a tougher kick, but would have helped the Jets halt a momentum swing late in the second quarter and early in the third quarter that ultimately decided the course of the game. He did make a 48-yarder in the second quarter, but on an afternoon when points were at a premium for New York — and the Jets yielded good field position on each miss — the errant kicks did come back to haunt the Jets. They also provided a stark contrast to their earlier playoff good fortune where they benefited from a combined five straight missed field goals just to reach the AFC title game.
MARK SANCHEZ ANSWERED A LOT OF QUESTIONS
The thought was that if you could make the Jets a one-dimensional team — that is, if they were forced to abandon the run and force rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez be the one to beat you — New York could be had.
But Sanchez was at his best on Sunday against the Colts. The quarterback, who bottomed out with his four-interception effort against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 22, was 17-for-30 for 257 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on Sunday, the finest performance for any rookie quarterback who has ever started a conference championship game.
“Mark Sanchez, I’m sure he surprised our entire team with his arm and his mechanics,” Colts linebacker Clint Sessions told the media. “He didn’t buckle under pressure at the beginning of the game. I give a lot of credit to that guy. He’s got a bright future.”
It was all the more impressive because Sanchez went a sizable portion of the game without running back Shonn Greene because of a rib injury. As a result, the powerful New York running game — which piled up more yards on the ground than anyone else over the course of the regular season — was slowed, and it was all on Sanchez.
It was a bittersweet finish for Sanchez, who guided the Jets to seven wins in their final eight games before Sunday’s playoff defeat to the Colts.
“I started to become the quarterback that this team needs,” Sanchez told reporters after the game. “I started making the decisions that a quarterback who makes it to the AFC Championship Game makes. I still got a long way to go. I haven’t arrived. I haven’t figured it out. I haven’t made it.”
THE JETS ARE AT A CROSSROADS
With a good nucleus and not many salary questions, it appears the Jets have built a sustainable model for success, at least one that will continue to make the AFC East more interesting in 2010. They have a talented young quarterback, a physical style and a forward-thinking coach who appears to have his finger directly on the pulse of his team.
However, it will be interesting to keep an eye on the Jets going forward — historically, when the Jets have prospered over the last 10 to 15 years, it has been in the first year or two of a new coaches regime — the new coach has sparked a turnaround, only to see things start to slide backward in following seasons.
Dating back to 1997, the last five men to coach the Jets — Ryan, Eric Mangini, Herm Edwards, Al Groh and Bill Parcells — all started on an excellent note, only to fizzle out in their later years with New York. None of them had a below .500 mark in their first season on the job, but things dissipated quickly: in his third year in New York, Parcells was 8-8 and missed the playoffs. Herm Edwards went from 10-6 in his first season, and was below .500 the rest of the way, including a 6-10 mark in his third year and 4-12 in his fifth season. And Mangini was 10-6 in his first year, and went a combined 13-19 the next two seasons.
For his part, Ryan believes the Jets are heading in the right direction.
“We’re close,” he told reporters who asked about the future of his team after the game. “We’re close. There’s no question.”
THE SAINTS AND COLTS WILL MAKE FOR A COMPELLING SUPER BOWL
Truth be told, New Orleans and Indianapolis were the two best teams in the National Football League from start to finish this year, and both teams deserve their spot in Super Bowl XLIV. This year will mark the first time since 1993 that two No. 1 seeds advanced to the Super Bowl (Buffalo against Dallas), and should make for a compelling game.
The big-game experience of the Colts is a big edge — while their roster has turned over at a few key positions over the last few seasons, many of the same core players (Manning, Wayne, Saturday, Clark, Mathis, Freeney, Brackett, etc.) on this year’s team were a part of their run to Super Bowl XLI. Their work against the two premier defenses in the league in New York and Baltimore in their last two playoff games have shown that they remain a world-class offense that any defense would struggle to contain.
But as the stakes have grown higher, the Saints have managed to rise to challenge on every occasion. They have a powerful offense of their own, and after Sunday’s roller-coaster ride of a ballgame, they remain optimistic about their chances against Manning and the Colts.
“He’s a special player,” Payton said of Manning. “We had a chance to watch some of his game today and then we turned it off. The four best teams played today, and the first half of that game, the little bit that we got to watch, we saw two AFC teams playing their hearts out. It’s a credit to Indianapolis and Peyton (Manning). It’s been a while since the number one seeds met, and we are excited to be in this game and look forward to the challenge.”