Before the playoffs started, if you asked a group of people to pick the two quarterbacks that would play well enough to get their team to the Super Bowl, who do you think the majority would have picked? I’m sure the top choices would have included the likes of Tom Brady, Phillip Rivers, Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck, and Steve McNair. As fate would have it, the quarterbacks in Super Bowl XLI just happen to be “the quarterback who can’t win the big game” and “the most inconsistent quarterback in the NFL this year”. Peyton Manning and Rex Grossman both had some less than stellar games on their way to this week’s showdown but they did what the others couldn’t do; they did what it took to win games. Which quarterback has what it takes to win this one? I believe it will be Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
The hype all week long has been the showdown between the Colts dynamic offense and the Bears stifling defense, but I really think that there are other factors in this game that will end up making all the difference. Both the Bears’ defense and the Colts’ offense were playing lackluster football prior to last week’s conference championship games, but they both stepped it up in the big games. The Bears’ defense forced turnover after turnover from the Saints and completely shut them down in the 2nd half. The Colts offense started off slow, but turned it on in the 2nd half to complete the largest comeback in NFL Conference Championship history. So what factors will determine the course of this game? I think it will come down to the following: the Colts’ run defense, the Bears’ secondary, the Colts’ special teams, and the Bears’ passing offense.
Colts’ Run Defense
The Indianapolis run defense has been the surprise of the postseason. After allowing opponents 100 yards on the ground in each game of the regular season, they have allowed just 220 total rushing yards in the past three games (73.3 yards per game at 3.6 yards per carry). What may be even more impressive is that those games were against the ninth, twelfth, and twenty-fifth ranked rushing offenses in the NFL this year. They have the second lowest yards per game allowed in the postseason only to the San Diego Chargers.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears have had the most successful rushing offense so far this postseason. They are averaging 158 yards per game and have scored five rushing touchdowns in two games. The combination of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson has been difficult to stop for both the Seahawks and Saints, but you must also take into consideration that Seattle (22nd) and New Orleans (23rd) did not have the strongest run defenses. With the way the Colts have been stopping the run as of late, this will be the toughest game yet for the Bears run offense.
This could end up being the most important aspect in this game. If the Colts are unable to force the Bears to revert to the passing game, they will have a tough time pulling this game out. Allowing the Bears to run the ball would both keep Peyton Manning off the field and also keep the ball out of the hands of the inconsistent Rex Grossman. Something has to give here; either the rapidly improved Colts’ run defense or the best playoff run offense of the Bears. Whichever of the two folds could very well be the deciding factor in this game.
The Bears’ secondary has struggled with injuries and despite them winning games in the playoffs, they have given up 249 yards passing per game (3rd worst in the playoffs) and after starting off the season strong, they trailed off to finish eleventh in the NFL in pass defense. The play of the corners against wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne as well as the abilities of the safeties helping out in the middle of the field against tight end Dallas Clark will be a huge factor. If they struggle to contain the Indy pass offense, it will be difficult for Chicago to stay in this game without some offensive firepower of their own.
The Colts’ pass offense didn’t look fantastic against KC or Baltimore when you look at Peyton Manning’s stat line with just one touchdown and five interceptions in those first two games. But despite the poor TD/INT ratio, Manning still did manage to complete 66% of his passes those first two games, so he was efficient enough to pull them out. It looked like more of the same early on against New England, but after a slow first half, Manning was able to lead the charge to make an unlikely comeback to beat the playoff tough New England Patriots. If Manning is able to play this week like he did against the Patriots, he could end up leading his team to victory.
This is important, but with an offense like the Colts, Peyton will get his. The Bears secondary has to be thinking damage control this week as they need to hope that their front seven are able to get a lot of pressure on Manning and that they are able to just slow down this Indy pass offense and hopefully force some turnovers. A few turnovers in the passing game could spell doom for the Colts, but a big game from Peyton and Company could end this game in a hurry.
Colts’ Special Teams
The Colts can absolutely not afford to let Devin Hester beat them. Many a game this year was decided by the exceptional play of what has been the league’s best special teams return unit. Indianapolis struggled in this respect last week letting Ellis Hobbs get a huge return in the 2nd half that really helped the Patriots get some momentum back. Similar defense on a kickoff return against Hester will end in a touchdown.
Chicago had five returns for touchdowns this season, the second highest yards per punt return, and the eighth highest yards per kickoff return. The return game has been held in check for the most part in the post-season only averaging 5.8 yards per punt return (12.1 during the season), 16.0 yards per kickoff return (23.3 during the season), and no touchdowns. Hester has struggled with some fumbling and handling the ball on the big stage of the playoffs, but he will need to come through for them in a big way to help give them a boost this week.
Indianapolis would be foolish to kick the ball to Hester unless they have to. If they are able to keep it away from him on punts and control his kickoff returns, it could go a long way to winning this game. But if they allow the big play to happen, it could be catastrophic because this is a Bears team that feeds off of turnovers and big plays.
Bears’ Pass Offense
This is the question on everyone’s mouth: Which Rex will show? Chicago is hoping that it wont end up mattering with their defense, special teams, and running game playing like they are, but if Indy is able to put up some points, it could very well come down to the play of Rex Grossman and the Chicago pass offense.
In Rex Grossman’s defense, he has certainly earned this spot in the Super Bowl. When everyone continued to doubt that he could string together enough good games to get here, he played solid football and came up with big plays when they were most needed. He may not have played great football, but the fact that he was able to make those big plays despite not playing well is to be commended. Grossman has shown that he has the arm to get the ball down the field to Bernard Berrian if given the time to do so and could end up hurting the Colts big time if they fail to put some pressure on him.
The Colts’ defense has been great this year defending the pass. They had the second ranked pass defense in the NFL this year only giving up 159.2 yards per game through the air with 16 touchdowns allowed (6th fewest in NFL) to go along with 15 interceptions. They have had more of the same success in the post-season giving up just 156.3 yards per game through the air with two touchdowns allowed and five interceptions while sacking the opposing QB seven times.
If Indy is able to successfully take away the run or if the Indy offense is able to produce some points, the game could fall on the shoulders of Rex Grossman to do what the other three teams Indy has faced in the playoffs could not: beat the Colts through the air. If the game becomes a Manning/Grossman shootout, the odds begin to weigh heavily in Indy’s favor.
Here are 4 players, 2 per team, that I think will have the biggest impact on this game:
Thomas Jones (RB – Chi)
The Colts have shown that they are able to handle more physical running backs like Larry Johnson and Rudi Johnson, but a quick running back like Jones could present some problems. If he’s able to break out and have a big game like he did against New Orleans, the Bears’ chances of winning this game go up exponentially.
Tank Johnson (DT – Chi)
The Bears success against New Orleans started right here with the Chicago pass rush up the middle. If they are able to have similar success this week, it could mean some huge turnovers which could spark a Bears’ victory. If the Bears are unable to get to Manning, however, they will struggle to defend this potent Colts offense.
Dallas Clark (TE – Ind)
Just as he was last week, Clark is the key to this offense’s success because he forces teams to have to respect the middle of the field along with defending Harrison and Wayne along the outside. Clark continues to lead the playoffs with 281 receiving yards on 17 receptions in this postseason in 3 games. He has come up big for them in each game and will factor in significantly this week as well.
Dwight Freeney (DE – Ind)
This guy caused all kinds of problems all game against the Patriots and the Colts defense needs another big game from one of the best defensive ends in the game this week. Getting to the running backs and Grossman in the backfield will end up making all the difference this week if Freeney is able to have another big game.
This is a game that could really go any way imaginable because there are so many question marks on both sides of the ball for both teams. I personally believe there are more questions on the Bears offensive side of the ball and just the injuries inflicted upon their defense over the course of the season will finally take its toll this week and the Colts will take advantage. I think it will be close early on but the Colts pull away in the 2nd half and win this game by 10. Colts win 31-21.
Matt Blevins is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Matt in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of mattb47.
Questions or comments for Matt? Post them in the Cafe Forums!
Want to write for the Cafe? Check out the Cafe's Pencil & Paper section!