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AFC East may hold Super Bowl clues

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / February 2, 2010

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. - The last time the Colts and Saints met, Peyton Manning was coming off his first Super Bowl championship, Drew Brees and Sean Payton were entering their second season together, and the game was on the league’s season-opening Thursday night marquee.

Indianapolis bludgeoned New Orleans, 41-10. The Colts were on their way to 13-3 and another AFC South title, before suffering a divisional-round upset loss to the Chargers. The Saints were headed for an 0-4 start and 7-9 season.

So it’s hard to draw anything from Sept. 6, 2007.

But where you might be able to find something is in the four AFC East clubs both teams played during the 2009 season. The Saints went 4-0. The Colts were 2-2, with the losses being of the mail-in variety against the Jets and Bills, the former of which was avenged in the AFC title game.

Do these things mean much?

“I don’t know that it’s significant,’’ said Payton. “It’s fair to say having a full season of tape study and being able to reference formations, being able to reference how they played offense against certain teams, all that goes into a good game plan. But the common opponent aspect of it, I don’t know if it’s that important.’’

But it can provide some context to how the teams might match up.

For example, it’s clear that both are close to unstoppable offensively when their quarterbacks are on.

Brees threw for just 190 yards on 20 of 32 passing against the Jets’ top-ranked pass defense, but when the Saints needed it most, and New York had to have a stop, the quarterback was dealing. New Orleans got the ball at its own 26 with 12:56 left in the October showdown, up just 17-10 and struggling to gain rhythm offensively.

All Brees did from there was control the game, completing all six passes on that possession, good for 52 yards, to key an 11-play, 74-yard drive that took nearly seven minutes and found the end zone. Game over.

Similarly, in the AFC title game, Manning flashed, but was uncharacteristically inconsistent in the face of Darrelle Revis and Co. He was 8 of 14 for 138 yards, and took two sacks as the Colts fell behind, 17-6.

From there he was 18 of 25 for 239 yards and three touchdowns, without taking a sack, as the Colts scored 24 unanswered points to end the game.

But there are differences between these teams.

Start on defense. Both put pressure on the opposing offense, both bring speed, but they do it in different ways.

“The one thing that’s the difference between the two of them is the turnovers the Saints always seem to get,’’ said Jets guard Alan Faneca, referencing New Orleans’s 39 takeaways. “They always come up with the ball, and if they come up with one or two in the Super Bowl, that’s big.

“The Colts do a good job of rallying to the ball - they’re all to the ball. And they probably do that a little bit better than the Saints.’’

The Saints’ big-play mentality on defense is mirrored by its offense, and the swarming Colts defense has its brother in an offense that comes at the opposition from all angles.

“Brees throws more straight passes out of shotgun, they’ll sneak in the run,’’ Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis said.

“With Manning, you get a little bit of everything. You’ve got the run with Joseph Addai, you got [Dallas] Clark, [Pierre] Garcon, [Austin] Collie, they just have too many weapons, they can hit you with the run, and then make big plays. And he finds mismatches.

“With Brees, it’s just more taking chunk plays down the field. Peyton Manning really knows how to work the whole field and sustain drives and then hit you with the big plays.’’

Asked to pick between Brees and Manning, Revis responded, “Peyton Manning. The guy’s great. He operates and controls the entire game.’’

Ellis had an example to use.

“One play, he knew we were blitzing, and started calling guys out,’’ Ellis said. “No. 1, he called out the Mike [middle linebacker] correctly, so they could slide protection. And it was the safety he called out as the Mike, and then he called one of the linebackers out as a down lineman.

“He knew we were coming, [the offensive line] slid that way, and that’s when he hit 85 [Garcon] on the backside for that long pass. It’s just tough, man.’’

Ellis and Revis picked the Colts to win on Sunday. Faneca - who acknowledged he’s “biased’’ being a New Orleans native - picked the Saints.

So does that mean the Colts are better on offense, and the Saints are better on defense?

Could be, and some level of analysis can be drawn from players who’ve matched up with both teams, particularly a Jets squad which saw the Colts a couple Sundays ago, and the Saints as they were hitting their stride.

But the most important thing to take is probably that what these teams did well then is close to what they do well now, so there won’t be too many tricks in five days.

“Just because you’re at this stage or this portion of the season, the mistake sometimes is trying to change too much,’’ Payton said.

“There’s a reason you’ve had success and I think it’s important in this type of atmosphere that you give the players the things that they do well and things they’re able to draw on in a game like this.’’

For both teams, at this point, there’s plenty to draw on.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com

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