|Manning is chasing a second Super Bowl title with the Colts [GALLO/GETTY]|
The romantics are backing the New Orleans Saints but experience and quality points to the Indianapolis Colts as favourites in Sunday’s NFL Super Bowl.
Peyton Manning, the undisputed number one quarterback in the game, is looking for his second Super Bowl ring after he, along with 24 other members of the current team, won in Miami against the Chicago Bears at the end of the 2006 season.
The Saints, in contrast, are in their first Super Bowl and with their run coming less then five years after New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, they have won the hearts of most neutrals.
Once mocked as ‘The Aints’, the story of the New Orleans club, 43 years old this year, has been one of miserable failure followed by mediocrity.
It took the team 20 lean years to get a winning record and a place in the playoffs, leading some fans to famously hide their faces behind paper bags.
New Orleans too have a masterful general in quarterback Drew Brees but if they are to produce an upset it is likely to come via their trio of running backs, who have dubbed themselves “The Three Headed Monster”, with the explosive pace of the unpredictable Reggie Bush a particular danger.
The expectation is, however, that Manning produces yet another display of his passing genius to cement his status as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
In a curious twist in the plot, Manning is playing against his hometown and a team where his father Archie was a favourite in the 1970s.
The Colts move with devastating speed and efficiency down the field with Manning operating a no-huddle attack, making quick decisions, changing plays before the snap and delivering the precise passes that this season produced his NFL record 10th, 4,000-yard passing campaign.
“I think he has pretty much established himself as really one of the finest that has every played this game and he keeps getting better each and every year,” said Colts head coach Jim Caldwell.
Caldwell was an assistant to Tony Dungy when the Colts won three years ago and the modest and unassuming coach has wisely chosen continuity in his first year in charge.
His counterpart Sean Payton is a strikingly different character, confident and chatty off the field and on the sidelines he is one of the most animated coaches in the NFL.
“When it gets to game day he feels like he is one of the players. He is fiery, yelling, shouting and ranting and you know his heart is really in the game,” said Saints defensive end Will Smith.
Since taking over in 2006, Payton has carefully improved the roster and transformed the mentality of the team.
The Saints defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams puts emphasis on “stripping the ball” to force a fumble and has also promised that Manning will receive some “remember-me hits”, prompting some to wonder whether New Orleans will overstep the mark in attacking the quarterback.
Certainly Manning will have watched the film of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre being repeatedly hit in the NFC Championship game but the way in which Manning quickly releases the ball so early should limit the chances of painfully inflicted sacks.
“I expect a tough defence,” said Manning.
“I expect it is going to be a challenge to try to move the ball against them.
“They have excellent players. They are very active.
“They know how to get their hands on the football. All those characteristics combined make it a tough defence, I think we are going to have our work cut out for us.”
An estimated 100 million people, a third of the US population, will tune in to watch the game while across the globe hardcore fans will stay up into the night or get up early to watch what should be a fascinating encounter.