There are three things a team and its fans must do to ensure a successful Super Bowl Sunday: win the passing battle, win the turnover battle and, naturally, win the tailgate battle.
It looks like one team is poised to do all three on Sunday. It starts, as every NFL game does, with the respective quarterbacks.
Drew Brees vs. The Chosen One
Over at Cold, Hard Football Facts, we dubbed Peyton Manning “The Chosen One” because of his unmatched pedigree. You know the family story. Don’t need to rehash it here. Three Legends of the South. First Family of Football, blah, blah blah. You also know that Peyton’s the most prolific of the bunch, a record-setting quarterback in both college and the NFL destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He’s great. One of the best ever. We don’t doubt that.
But with pedigree comes the benefit of the doubt. All else being equal, the pedigree tips the scales in the court of public opinion. Pedigree is why a yuppie tool such as Chip Diller ends up in the Omega House while Flounder is relegated to the Delta House. Pedigree is why Kennedys win elections despite behavior that would destroy a lesser name.
Pedigree also is why certain quarterbacks repeatedly win NFL MVP awards under unusual circumstances.
Manning won MVP honors for a record-setting fourth time in 2009. But we’re still trying to figure out why. Great season, yes. Gutted out some great wins, yes. The Colts are in the Super Bowl, yes.
But back in 2003 and 2004, Indy’s quarterback was handed the award because he put up big numbers playing for teams that won despite bad defenses.
Remember that old argument? Numbers trump victories, declared MVP voters and Colts fans.
Then in 2008 and 2009, voters changed the argument to satisfy their love affair with the pigskin pedigree of the Chosen One: Manning won the award both years, despite the fact that his teams possessed strong defenses and despite the fact that several other quarterbacks each year put up better numbers, in some cases much better.
The fact of the matter is that Saints quarterback Drew Brees had the better season by almost every measure.
• Brees threw for more touchdowns than Manning (league-best 34 to 33)
• Brees threw fewer INTs than Manning (11 to 16)
• Brees produced a much higher average per attempt than Manning (8.5 to 7.9)
• Brees produced a much higher passer rating than Manning (league-best 109.6 to 99.9)
• And, just for stats and giggles, Brees set the single-season record for passing accuracy, completing 70.62 percent of his passes (Manning completed 68.8 percent).
Brees also led his historically dysfunctional franchise to a team-record 13 victories and its first Super Bowl appearance in 44 tries.
Pedigree trumps production.
But the bottom line is that the advantage at quarterback on Sunday lies not with the Colts and their MVP quarterback, as it usually does, but with the Saints.
It’s all about the interceptions
There are a handful of “magic” stats in sports — those that, beyond the final score, are extraordinarily reliable at separating winners from losers when you look at the postgame box score.
Perhaps no indicator in sports is more important than interceptions. All football fans know about the importance of turnovers. Fumbles, though, often are fluky — like a basement-dwelling WEEI listener landing a date.
Interceptions, though, tell us quite a bit about the relative merits of each quarterback and each team. They certainly have an incredible impact on wins and losses.
The proof is on the scoreboard. Quarterbacks who throw fewer picks are a perfect 10-0 here in the 2009 postseason. It’s no one-year fluke. Quarterbacks who throw fewer picks are a tremendous 273-56 (.830) in every playoff game since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970.
Zero picks from your QB? You win 80 percent of the time. Two picks? You win just 30 percent of the time.
That’s a tremendous impact. And it creates, if recent numbers are any indication, a clear advantage to the Saints.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees threw just 11 picks on 514 pass attempts this year (2.14 percent). Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw 16 picks on 571 pass attempts (2.80 percent). Not a big advantage, but an advantage just the same.
Brees, meanwhile, has yet to throw an interception in his two playoff games this season. (Manning has thrown one against superior pass defenses and with more attempts).
But those numbers are part of a larger trend that favors Brees.
In his short postseason career (five games), Brees has thrown just two INTs in 186 playoff attempts (1.08 percent). That’s a very impressive rate: As of today, Brees boasts the lowest INT rate in playoff history (min. 150 attempts).
He’s 0-2 in the two playoff games in which he’s thrown picks. He’s 3-0 in games when he’s produced a clean slate.
Like we said, INTs are important.
The defensive advantage
The Saints also enjoy a pretty notable advantage on defense by almost every measure.
First of all, the Saints were No. 3 in the league this year in Defensive Passer Rating (68.6) — a stat we consider the most accurate indicator of success on pass defense. Indianapolis, meanwhile, was No. 12 in Defensive Passer Rating (80.6) during the 2009 season.
That’s just one spot ahead of New England (81.8), and Boston sports fans are intimately familiar with what Brees did to the Patriots back in November: He torched them with one of the most prolific passing days in NFL history.
More importantly, New Orleans produced 28 picks this year, third most in the NFL. The Colts hauled in 16 INTs.
The Saints were sparked by offseason acquisition Darren Sharper, a future Hall of famer who had a career year with nine INTs (tied for the league lead), returning three for touchdowns. His 376 return yards were an NFL record.
(Makes you wonder what would have happened if the Patriots grabbed Sharper instead of Leigh Bodden last summer.)
The Saints have continued to play better defense than Indy here in the postseason, and they’ve done it against far more prolific quarterbacks. New Orleans faced Kurt Warner and Brett Favre, two prolific veterans, two former champions and two future Hall of Famers. Indianapolis faced second-year man Joe Flacco and rookie Mark Sanchez.
Here’s how the two teams have fared on pass defense:
Saints: 52-of-82, 63.4 percent, 576 yards, 7.02 YPA, 1 TD, 3 INT, 73.0 passer rating
Colts: 38-of-66, 57.6 percent, 491 yards, 7.44 YPA, 2 TD, 3 INT, 72.2 passer rating.
The Saints clearly performed better in the regular season, while the numbers are a virtual dead heat. But considering the quality of the competition here in the playoffs, that's an indicator in favor of New Orleans.
New Orleans dominates the tailgate wars, too
OK, maybe the Saints don’t win the passing wars Sunday despite all the advantages they have. Stranger things have happened than losing to Peyton Manning and the Indy victory machine. Hell, it was Manning and the Colts who first exposed the NFL’s last great dynasty with their 38-34 win over the juggernaut Patriots in the 2006 AFC title game.
With that said, we know with 100 percent certainty that Saints fans will dominate the tailgate wars off the field. In fact, it will be a bloodbath.
Indianapolis is a culinary backwater, an Afghanistan or Rwanda of culinary creativity or gameday cookery. Seriously, for three years now I’ve asked fans and food writers from central Indiana for some signature local dishes, and I have come up empty each time. Indianapolis is one of those cookie-cutter culinary towns where people go to Olive Garden for fine Italian and Long John Silver's for seafood. Ouch.
Here’s how bad it is: I have a friend in Quincy, an immigrant from Albania, who travels to Indianapolis all the time for business. He acts as if he’s being condemned to years of starvation in an American Siberia every time he goes. Not an encouraging critique of Indianapolis when you consider that:
A) This guy grew up in one of the poorest countries in the Western World and;
B) He now lives in Quincy, where the egg roll special on karaoke night at the Cathay Pacific is considered haute cuisine.
New Orleans, meanwhile, might be the greatest place in the world to experience regional cuisine you simply don’t find anywhere else.
Here’s one of my personal favorites that I got from the folks at Tujague’s — a landmark 154-year-old restaurant in the heart of the French Quarter. It’s an easy dish to make Sunday for an authentic taste of the Big Easy. Plus, last I checked, there wasn’t a chain of Tujague’s in central Indiana strip malls.
Tujague’s Remoulade and Shrimp
3/4 cup very finely chopped white onion
1/2 cup very finely chopped celery
1/4 cup very finely chopped scallions
1/4 cup very finely chopped lettuce
1/4 cup very finely chopped fresh parsley
4. oz. Zatarain’s Creole mustard or any brown mustard
Generous amount of paprika, for color
6 oz. olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 to 2 pounds boiled, chilled shrimp
Mix together onion, celery, scallions, lettuce and parsley. Add mustard and mix well. Add paprika, olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well again. Sauce can be made in advance and will keep for several days. Pour the sauce in a large bowl and toss to coat shrimp completely. Serve the shrimp on a bed of lettuce greens. This recipe will make about 16 ounces of remoulade.
Brees enters lofty postseason territory
Manning is fresh off a very impressive performance against the Jets and their top-rated pass defense. But he has offered some notable postseason meltdowns over the years. In fact, his team has produced just 13.4 PPG in the eight playoff losses under his leadership. His postseason passer rating of 87.5 is humble, and well below his regular-season mark of 95.2.
Brees, meanwhile, quietly is building a very impressive postseason resume. As noted above, he rarely is picked off in the playoffs. And he enters the Super Bowl with the third-best passer rating in postseason history (100.6). That’s one spot ahead of no less a legend than Joe Montana (95.6) on the all-time playoff list, and behind only the recently retired Kurt Warner (102.8) and the legendary Bart Starr (104.6).
It pays to remember that Starr is a signature player in the history of statistical analysis:
1) Starr boasted the lowest INT rate in playoff history (1.41 percent) before surpassed by Brees here in the 2009 postseason.
2) Starr still boasts the top postseason passer rating in history — the 104.6 he put up in 10 playoff games is truly phenomenal by today’s standards, let lone the era in which he played.
3) Starr, not so coincidentally, boasts the best winning percentage in playoff history (.900), winning nine of his 10 playoff games and usually playing brilliantly in each game.
In other words, Brees finds himself among some very elite company. Saints fans and outside observers should feel pretty good about his chances on Sunday.
Winning the passing battle on both sides of the ball
Finally, at Cold, Hard Football Facts, we introduced a new “Quality Stat” this year. We called it Passer Rating Differential. We wanted to know which team was best at winning the passing battles each week.
Basically, all we did is look at a team’s offensive passer rating and subtract from that number the team’s defensive passer rating — applying the formula for a quarterback’s passer rating to a team’s performance on defense.
We anticipated at the start of the year that it would be a great indicator of team-wide success. After all, if you win the passing battle, you usually win the game. The stat surpassed our expectations.
Ten of the top 11 teams this year in Passer Rating Differential reached the playoffs. The only interloper was last year’s champ, the Steelers (No. 7 overall). No stat in football this year was as likely to identify the NFL’s best teams.
And once again, the Saints came out on top. They were +37.4 in Passer Rating Differential, an incredible figure. The Colts performed quite well, too, No. 5 overall. But at +14.8, it was a very distant fifth place.
The final score
It’s been very hard to pick against the Colts this year. They’ve defied expectations in many games. They’ve gutted out memorable wins in a manner that might remind many football fans in New England of the 2003 or 2004 Patriots.
But at the end of the day, we’re going to roll the dice with the team that was consistently superior in all the passing stats that usually prove the difference between victory and defeat.
New Orleans 33, Indianapolis 28