Sunday, February 28, 2010

Apathy Turns to Patriotism this Winter

As the winter Olympics began this year I found myself fairly apathetic to the experience. I felt like I had less patience for games that were judged subjectively or that I didn't fully understand. I figured I'd watch Shaun White make his run on the Super Pipe, but I would switch back to the food network when the French guy was ready to board.

Some sports make as much sense as having McDonald's as the leading sponsor of Olympic athletes. Have you seen those commercials? "Today we eat like Olympians!" Yeah, every finely tuned, world class athlete is sitting in the drive thru waiting for a double quarter pounder with cheese, a McChicken, super-sized fries, and a 64 oz. coke. Sports like ski jumping are weird. I watched ten guys land on the same distance, yet they all are scored differently.

Then there are the "sports" that make no sense at all. Why does the biathlon exist? Why would you ever pair skiing and shooting? The ski portion lasts half the day with competitors achieving speeds up to four miles an hour. Wouldn't the combination work better during the summer games? Water skiing and shooting, that would be cool. One hand on the rope the other blasting moving targets at 35 mph. What could go wrong?

What's up with ice dancing? It's not really figure skating, it's actually ice dancing. Can't you see NBC capitalizing on the popularity of the games by rolling out a new reality show, Celebrity Ice Dancing. I'm sure you could get people to tune in if you paired Serena Williams and Mini Me (Verne Troyer) in frilly, skin tight, silver outfits. Can you imagine how high Serena could throw Mini Me? Now that's American entertainment. That idea would be worth it just to see the Japanese rip offs.

Despite these preconceived notions, I once again found myself invested in the Olympics before I realized what was going on. When you slap a flag on the competitors, suddenly games that you wouldn't spend two minutes watching become intense and serious sporting experiences. I really didn't see myself getting excited about speed skating, but watching Apolo Anton Ohno breaking Olympic history was incredible. I watched everything from women's giant slalom to bobsledding.

One game I watched quite a bit was curling. For some reason, every time I tuned into MSNBC they had coverage. I can't say the "sport" interests me terribly, but it is worth watching just to listen to the commentary. Former Canadian curling champion Doug Duguid provided endless entertainment with his scathing criticism of almost every competitor. American men's and women's curling teams both finished dead last, but that didn't stop me from enjoying at least six full matches. My favorite moment came when Duguid denigrated the Americans by sarcastically remarking, "At least they're having fun, I guess that's all that matters to them..." after an errant throw led one of the competitors to smile sheepishly. At one point he remarked the entire American team should be replaced before the next competition. Ouch.

But the real story of the Olympics came from Men's hockey. Going into the games most analysts thought the young U.S. team had a chance to compete for a bronze medal and not much more. Today the men's team competes for gold against the home team and favored Canadians. The U.S. is undefeated going into this match having beaten Canada once already, but Canada is supremely talented and has much more on the line. Namely the pride of the entire country. If you told the Canadians they could win one gold medal during the games they would unanimously select men's hockey. You cannot underestimate the importance of this medal for Canada. Can you imagine the finest U.S. football players losing to Canada? It's a fair comparison.

Not only has the U.S. dominated the pre-medal rounds thanks largely in part to goaltender Ryan Miller, but the games have been extremely entertaining. I spent some time following the NHL, but I never got hooked (no pun intended). Professional hockey is the worst marketed "major" sport in this country. The NHL format alienates would be casual fans with the amount of player shuffling and lack of marketable American stars.

Just when I thought I didn't care about hockey, the Olympics came around and resurrected my interest. Comparing any hockey team to the 1980 miracle on ice group would be overblown and unfair, but this group has a similar flair. After being stagnant the last winter Olympics, the Americans decided to retool the lineup with younger, hungrier NHL players backed with only three Olympic veterans. The combination has worked, and this group exudes passion while they are skating. The Americans enter the gold medal game as the number one seed.

The NHL is not involved in any marketing efforts during the Olympics which means once the match is over, and players return to their professional teams, it will be business as usual. The reason why the Olympics is successful is the same reason the NHL is not. Watching the joy of a successful, unified hockey team is contagious, and something you don't see often in the NHL. Fans are created when you have a unit to believe in. A group that plays for something bigger than themselves. There is no trade deadline that will break up the team at the end of the Olympics.

Hockey is such a great sport, and one that hits on all the components Americans enjoy. It's fast, physical, skillful, and strategic. Once you learn the basics of the game, it's not hard to follow. I think some of the popularity issues in the U.S. can be attributed to accessibility. Not many kids grow up playing hockey, so many have trouble identifying how impressive these athletes actually are. Just the skating skill alone is unbelievable. But there is a marked difference in Olympic competition from the NHL. The players that compete in these games grew up dreaming of winning a gold for their country, not winning the Stanley Cup. It translates to the ice and the difference is staggering to the viewer.

I don't anticipate being a renewed hockey fan after these games are over. It has given me a greater appreciation of the American born players in the game since before the Olympics I could name more players on Russia's team than the U.S., but it will still be the NHL. A gold medal for the Americans might provide a boost in ratings, but the game will not be fully enjoyed until some serious changes are made in the professional ranks.

Right now none of my problems with NHL hockey matter. Whenever you introduce patriotism to any sport it instantly becomes exciting. Even when the sport is curling. When you take a great sport like hockey, add patriotism, throw in some overachieving Americans, match arch rivals in a gold medal game with the U.S. as underdogs, you got something sweeter than Yoohoo. I can honestly say I've never been so excited for a hockey game in my life.

The whole Olympic experience this year was pleasantly surprising. I really didn't expect to be swept up in the dramatics, but before I knew it I was completely consumed. I once argued that the Olympics were enjoyed by generations before mine and the youth of today would not grow up with any Olympic enthusiasm. After watching the coverage I realized I had underestimated the power of patriotism. No matter how silly the sport, we all love our country, and the human stories that pour out of these games is captivating. I couldn't be more proud of our competitors this year, and hope our boys have one more trick up their sleeve as they prepare to face the Canadians for the Olympic finale. Go USA!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chargers Lose a Legend

The city of San Diego said goodbye to one of its most prominent stars this week when the Chargers released future hall of fame RB Ladainian Tomlinson. While the release was predictable and even anticipated, I found myself feeling remorse for ever criticizing LT. For several seasons Tomlinson gave San Diegans hope for a successful football team. He never reached the Super Bowl and broke down physically during the playoffs, but he was the driving influence in the expectations of Chargers fans.

Tomlinson was a very rare example of humbleness, class, and talent in the NFL. His community involvement and charitable contributions demonstrated his tremendous heart and generosity. He will be remembered as one of the greatest players in NFL history, but he is also remembered as one of the best humans to wear a professional jersey. He never got in trouble off of the field, never uttered a bad word about teammates or management (even when it would have been justified), and never let money or ego change his core personality.

I have read over a dozen reactions by NFL players and not one has failed to mention that LT is a better person than a player. You can be sure every player in the NFL holds Tomlinson in the highest regard for his ability on the field and his contributions off of it. When you talk about pillars of the community, he is second only to Tony Gwynn, and that is phenomenal company. He deeply loved being a Charger, almost to a fault, because it was his positive outlook and great expectations that led San Diego to believe they would finally capture a Super Bowl ring the last six seasons.

In his time as a Charger, LT broke nearly every franchise rushing record. In 2003, he became the first player in NFL history to have 100 receptions and 1,000 yards rushing in the same season. In 2006, Tomlinson won the MVP after setting NFL records for TDs (31), rushing TDs (28), and points scored (186). He owns the NFL record for consecutive games with a rushing TD (18), most consecutive multi TD games (8), and most seasons with 10+ TDs. He is second to Emmit Smith for most TDs in NFL history.

LT's release shows how brutal the NFL really is. One year you are considered a top player in the league, the next you are searching for work as a backup. No position personifies this more than running back, where 30 might as well be 65. There aren't many RBs that leave the league on their own terms, no matter what their resumes look like. Even Walter Payton had to walk away with a bitter taste in his mouth. For those that criticized Barry Sanders for leaving the league early, take a look at the names that didn't see 32 as an NFL RB. Then there's Shaun Alexander who was forced to retire just two years removed from a league MVP. Tomlinson's finish mirrors Alexander's.

Tomlinson stated he will continue to live and be active in the San Diego community, but hopes to find work in the NFL for another three years. I am not sure this will be a possibility for Tomlinson, but there might be an argument that he still has something left. LT's last two years have been the least effective of his career. He only averaged 3.3 yards per carry last year and looked like he has lost the explosiveness that helped him burst through the line of scrimmage. Almost everyone that watched him play blamed age and diminishing speed.

But it was also two years ago that the Chargers fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer in favor of pass happy Norv Turner. Turner almost immediately turned the reigns over to QB Phillip Rivers. The Chargers all but abandoned the run to fling the ball all over the field to their host of talented pass catchers. Run blocking was clearly the weakness of the Chargers offensive line that hasn't opened a hole since they let FB Lorenzo Neal walk away. No one ever pays attention to the full back, but Neal blocked for 1,000 yard rushers his whole career and was recently named to the NFL's all decade team along with LT. That might not provide much comfort to Tomlinson since Neal is retired, and the full back position seems to be an NFL relic, but perhaps his last two seasons in San Diego set him up to fail. It's not like LT was bad and back up Darren Sproles was running wild. There was no run production from either player. Most of the positive plays for Sproles came from short passes.

The Chargers front office has a reputation for being cold blooded in their approach to players. There is no loyalty to stars, and at times general manager A.J. Smith has been openly critical of players, reminding them through the media that they are replaceable. Many thought Tomlinson would not be back last year after Smith took shots at him through the media before the season began. This thought process also helped usher out QB Drew Brees to make way for the 6'5" Rivers. Smith and the Chargers worried about Brees' arm after surgery, but more importantly they never liked having a 6'0" QB under center. Some of you may have seen Brees hoisting the Vince Lombardi trophy and announcing his plans to visit Disney World recently.

Football is a business where players are cast aside when their production diminishes. As much as players are vilified for being greedy with contracts, owners and GMs would throw them out on the street if they don't see returns on the investment. Even the best player in Chargers history is not immune. That being said, it did seem like the marriage was over for the Chargers and LT. Hopefully he will get signed by a team that needs some leadership and a positive locker room presence because it appears that is all Tomlinson has left to give. If the Saints are unable to re-sign Reggie Bush, perhaps LT can rejoin Brees in New Orleans and try to ride his right arm to the Super Bowl he never got to play in.

I wish Tomlinson the best of luck, and hope the Chargers repair their fractured running game. No matter how the landscape of the NFL tilts in favor of passing, you still need a running game that can bang out four yards on the ground. That was something that Tomlinson was successful doing most of his career. That is something the Chargers lost that cost them yet another chance to get to the Super Bowl. I would be much happier writing about the Chargers releasing K Nate Kaeding, but all things come to an end, especially in the NFL.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Where's the Motivation?

Now that football season is over, I began to wonder what story lines in the world of sports would inspire me to write. There were a couple of topics I wanted to cover before the football season went into hibernation, but I missed my window after my computer broke last week. I noticed the NBA All Star game was last weekend. I couldn't believe half a season was gone and I hadn't written about basketball once. I used to look forward to the All Star game. Now it sneaks up on me as much as the Olympics.

I have had some minor trepidation thinking about the tedious task of getting caught up on hoops. I used to really enjoy basketball, especially the NBA. It was a suitable way to soothe the football hangover. I never had a rightful claim to an NBA team while growing up, so I followed the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. I would watch just about any NBA game I could get in the 90s. Time marched on, and the superstars of the period retired. A void was left that couldn't be filled with the rising stars of the time. I lost interest in the NBA and found myself watching less each season.

These days I struggle to find the motivation to invest in basketball. Of course, I love my Sooners. Despite the struggles of the team this year, I have been thrilled to have Jeff Capel building the program. They are filled with young talent that can't stay on the floor long enough to find any consistency. They seem to be mirroring the football team with their Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde type play, getting big wins at home but getting smoked on the road.

Also like the football team, they lost the best player in the country when sophomore Blake Griffin was the first player selected in last year's NBA draft. Like his counterpart (Sam Bradford), Griffin will miss the entire season due to injury. Pretty spooky. Griffin was the most dominate player I ever saw play for the Sooners. I am old enough to recall the days of Stacey King and Mookie Blaylock, but Griffin was frightening athletically.

So it's understandable that the Sooners have struggled. They need to find an identity without Griffin, and they tend to look for leadership from sophomores and freshman. While I am still a loyal and rabid fan, I do not live and die by wins and losses during a season like this. I really enjoy watching the growth of players and the maturation process of the team, but I am not sweating my clothing choices for fear of jinxing a national championship. NCAA basketball will not be able to fill the void of passion this season.

I have searched to replace the Bulls as my NBA team of choice as I no longer have a rooting interest in that franchise. I thought I would become a Clippers fan and follow Griffin's career. But the Clippers curse continued as Griffin was lost for the season to injury before he ever played a game.

The Clips used to play in San Diego before defecting to Los Angeles. There are few true fans of San Diego sports, but for those of us that exist, rooting for the Clippers is a bitter pill to swallow. Not only are they one of the worst franchises in NBA history (par for the course in San Diego, not L.A.), but they left San Diego. It's hard to feel any loyalty to a franchise that moves away, especially when they only get three televised games a year. That book closed quickly once Griffin called it a season.

Then there's the Oklahoma City Thunder. Oklahoma has always been my second home, and I have true and serious ties to the area. More than being an OU alumnus, my father's side of the family is from Norman, so there is a sense of belonging. I was excited when OKC finally got a professional sports team. The city has embraced the NBA looking for something other than the Sooners (or Cowboys if you're a degenerate) to cheer for. I have been proud of my friends who live in OKC with the way they support Thunder basketball. It is good for the entire state and it helps OKC become a viable market nationally.

Unfortunately, even this has failed to stir the NBA fan within me. I have loosely followed the progression of the Thunder and they have some tremendous young talent. Many speculate they are headed to the playoffs behind Kevin Durant who has quickly become one of the best players in the league. He is a pure scorer, and sure to be a superstar many years to come. Management has made a serious effort to put a competitive team on the floor, and they have made some great personnel choices.

So why can't I buy in? Is it because Durant went to the University of Texas? That's got to be part of it. I would like to hear how Thunder fans get past that. Or perhaps it's the blue and orange uniforms. I realize the Thunder didn't want to alienate folks by slapping crimson and cream on their new NBA franchise, but Boise State colors? Anything with orange? A better choice would have been maroon and gold like Arizona State, but I suppose that's not too Thunderish.

I would argue that NBA stars are not what they used to be, but the current Kobe Bryant/LeBron James rivalry captures basketball fans all over the world. I have never been a Kobe guy (although I have softened my stance as he has matured), and LeBron is still a youngster who has no supporting cast. Shaquille O'Neal is good for a few headlines, but no longer the cornerstone to an NBA championship. I have a hard time convincing myself to root for Cleveland even with James running the floor as my favorite player.

The nation's economic state is reflected in NBA franchises around the league. Talks of an impending work stoppage due to labor and contract disputes do not help foster my desire to be an NBA fan. Owners are clamoring to save money this year to prepare for an off season where James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh will be on the market. The Miami Heat aren't far removed from an NBA championship, yet their financial struggle has left Wade as the only player to watch on a team with no future. Sounds familiar.

The NBA has always been a player driven league, and will continue to be after contracts become more polarized next season. The elite few will command more than the rest of their supporting cast combined as the term sports billionaire becomes relevant. With the unemployment levels skyrocketing and the nation facing a terrible recession, I am not sure how contracts over the $100 million mark will help grow popularity. If a labor dispute should arise from players who don't want to see their $15 million contracts turn to $12 million, fans will have a hard time sympathizing.

Currently, there is only a handful of competitive teams, and even less marketable stars still in their prime. There needs to be more choices when shopping for an NBA team. The lack of rivalries has left a stale smell in the arena. The NBA has allowed Nike to pigeonhole the league by only promoting Kobe and LeBron. A new class of stars like Durant must be promoted to restore the NBA to its 90s popularity.

So if there are any NBA fans out there that can help me regain my interest in professional basketball, please let me hear from you. I would like to know who to root for and why. Right now, I am coming up with dead ends. I guess if all else fails, I'll let the season float by and start watching when the playoffs start. That's what I have done the last five years. I don't really see a reason to change.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Super Bowl Shuffle

The end of the football season has come and gone, and I am left with that familiar feeling of incompleteness. The Super Bowl was fairly entertaining with a surprising outcome, but it wasn't enough to satisfy the experience. Despite being shocked by the bravado of Saints head coach Sean Payton calling an onside kick to start the second half, and being equally shocked Colts QB Peyton Manning threw an untimely interception that cost his team the game, I felt myself counting down the minutes until the close of the season.

The game was remarkably clean with regards to penalties and flow. Both teams sustained long possessions (especially in the first half) which kept the game clock moving. Unfortunately, for every minute of televised football there were 51 seconds of commercials.

There is always buzz from the general public about Super Bowl ads. Viewers compare and rate new ads with the same enthusiasm many compare and rate the teams playing in the game. It has become a game in itself. The Super Bowl would not be the spectacle it has become if not for this anticipation. For that reason, the commercials are a relevant topic every year, and should not be ignored as part of the Super Bowl experience.

Personally, there isn't much I like about ads during any football game, even the Super Bowl, but this year helped me change my opinion. What was once mild irritation has blossomed into full blown hatred after being subjected to the mind numbing garbage the ad wizards submitted this year. Add a massive quantity of breaks with an extended halftime and you get a grueling battle with time.

Have you ever seen a bigger collective whiff from companies spending millions to promote their product? The thought process seemed to be scrap originality and rely on sex, violence, animals, and gimmicks. I realize that works for beer companies, but the ideology spilled over to the majority of spots on the biggest promotional platform of the year.

Let me start the bashing with Go Daddy. Not only is the campaign juvenile and trashy, it is not original. It is the same crap they have been doing for years and they play out like low grade pornography. I originally thought the Danica Patrick campaign was supposed to be a spoof of the porn industry, but it appears they are mainly interested in having 14 year old boys log on to their website to see if a "Go Daddy Girl" takes her clothes off. Is Patrick really smart by cashing in with these ad abominations? If she continues to win one race every three years, she has a much better future as a shill than a driver. I can already see the late night Showtime feature called Driving Temptation where she has to drive her way out of a female prison.

While we're on the topic of sex in advertising, the Megan Fox in a bathtub commercial made me cringe. During the montage fallout from Fox posting her naked pic on the Internet, there is a moment where a mother yells for her son through a locked bathroom door. I was shocked at the suggestive nature of Timmy masturbating to sell phones, or whatever the ad was for. Unless the intended message was Fox is a fox, the point was lost on me. I can't believe I am saying this, but there are kids that watch the Super Bowl. Wouldn't it be fun to be the parent that gets to give the birds and bees talk at halftime?

Just as disturbing as the sexed up ads is the influence of violence during the Super Bowl. Every year I watch as the percentage of violent ads increase, and this year was no different. I realize football is a violent sport, and it is a testosterone driven experience, but the ads don't have to mirror this sentiment to sell me snacks. I'm sure there are several people that got a kick out of the Doritos assassin, but it felt too out of context to be humorous. That was just one of many that called upon violence to mask a lack of creativity. Why would Doritos revert to these tactics? In addition to the assassin, they provided a kid slapping his mother's suitor, a dog using a shock collar on his owner, and a man in a coffin full of Doritos.

The beer commercials had their usual 19 year old undertones and were mostly forgettable. There was a whale in the back of an SUV stemming from a bachelor party gone awry (never seen that theme before). Betty White got tackled in the mud. Several ads with "regular" people in their underwear. At least three different companies with the "retake your manhood" theme. People as dolphins. Longhorn Clydesdale (hideous creature). Troy Polamalu as a groundhog. Tebow. And more E Trade baby.

My Dad happens to love the E Trade baby, but I have had enough. The campaign was amusing when it first aired two years ago, but I'm sick of seeing talking babies, animals, and inanimate objects. Look Who's Talking came out in '89. I have seen the baby 10 thousand times. After sifting through the commercial manure for two hours, I wasn't ready for another. I wanted to see something new. It's not only football's Super Bowl, it's advertising's Super Bowl. That is the best they could come up with? Regurgitated gimmicks? Why do we as a society respond positively to such garbage?

Do ad directors have a social responsibility? Maybe not. The goal in their game is to make the most money. But with the crap they are feeding our society, and the crap our culture feeds on, they are about one step away from hiding in the bushes to get a snapshot of Lindsey Lohan in her bath robe. It takes individuals that realize their soul is not for sale to demand more from their creative team. I want to see someone break the mold, not re-filter the same crap.

It might be a harsh criticism of an average group of Super Bowl ads, but I expected more. With an industry that hires the best of the best, offering nothing other than sophomoric humor, sex, and violence is unacceptable. It might hit your target demographic, but it also highlights a problem with your product. Tell me why I should buy your product in a way that is original, entertaining, and informative. Tell me why you are good for me and better than your competitor without trying to shock me into remembering your name.

Obviously there were some winners this year. I thought the best ad was Google's study abroad spot. Clever, unique, sweet, and really highlighted how our existence has changed thanks to Google.

I thought the Oprah/Letterman/Leno ad was timely and humorous. I laughed at some of the scenes from the Green Police ad by Audi. I liked seeing the Super Bowl Shuffle brought back 25 years later (although it was a bit creepy). It was nice to see Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo back as the Griswold's. And that's about it. I'm sure there are several I don't recall, but isn't that the point?

For a game that had plenty of intrigue, and was played and coached at a high level, the frequent breaks and uninspired ads really put a damper on the event. As Polamalu showed us, we will have six more weeks of winter. Six winter weeks without football. Six winter weeks plus another 46 advertisers can critique and improve on their performance this year. I really hope they can get their game together and prove there is still some talent in advertising. Just like everyone's team other than the Saints, "Wait until next year..." Guess we have to.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Closing Time

As the words of Men At Work, "who can it be now?" run through my head, I ponder the same question for this year's Super Bowl champ. The NFL has increasingly become a quarterbacks league and Super Bowl XLIV features the best from each conference. The New Orleans Saints take on the Indianapolis Colts for a chance at football immortality Sunday, in Miami.

The Super Bowl setting should feel very familiar for most Colts players including QB Peyton Manning. It was three years ago that Manning held a wet Vince Lombardi trophy after beating the Chicago Bears in Miami. Indy's routine this year will be the same including a stay at the same hotel.

Manning won his fourth MVP this season and much of the Super Bowl talk is focused on what another win will do to his all time legacy. More impressive than statistics is how Manning leads his team. He is a coach on the field, and most forget his team is directed by a rookie head coach.

Indy won every game Manning finished, and his second half dissection of the vaunted Jets defense in the AFC championship game was seriously impressive. WR Pierre Garcon is emerging as a future star. Add that to Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and surprisingly talented Austin Collie, and you got a stew going, baby.

For as much familiarity and routine the Colts have going into this game, the Saints will be equally unfamiliar with their setting. This is the first time in franchise history they will appear in a Super Bowl with only a few players having any Super Bowl experience.

The Saints are credited with restoring pride to a city struck by disaster, and their success is viewed as a thrill New Orleans natives deserve after hurricane Katrina. Louisiana is clamoring with Saints fever, and most observers without a rooting interest in this game will be cheering for the Saints to pull off the upset.

Both teams had similar seasons taking undefeated records deep in the schedule. Both are led by pass heavy, high scoring offenses. Neither team was noted for their defense, but both are solid and have made big plays throughout the year to help win games. The Colts were dealt a blow when their best defensive player, Dwight Freeney, was hobbled with a serious ankle injury in the AFC championship game. Even if he plays, his effectiveness will suffer severely along with the Colts pass rush.

Saints QB Drew Brees has been unbelievable at times this year, and a Super Bowl appearance is a testament to his brilliance. New Orleans has the ability to score 40 points against anyone, and they lead the league in points per game. The Saints defense made most of their impact forcing opponents to turn the ball over, not in dominating the line of scrimmage. They were able to do both relatively well against the Vikings in the NFC championship game forcing five turnovers, and knocking around QB Brett Favre the whole game. The game plan should be similar in Miami.

The Saints lows have been lower than the Colts, but their highs have been higher. Brees has the ability to make every player eligible to catch passes a weapon. The Saints have found interesting ways to generate points with special teams and defensive scores padding already gaudy point productions.

New Orleans avoids bad voodoo since every analyst seems to be picking Indy. Strange things happen whenever a team becomes a popular favorite in big games. I seem to recall the unbeatable New England Patriots being shocked by the New York Giants a couple of years ago.

With all the hype going to Indy, I was surprised to find how favorably the Saints match up with the Colts on paper. Brees arguably had a better year than the MVP Manning. The real difference between these teams is big game experience. The Colts have it. The Saints don't. Pretty simple.

The rhythm of a Super Bowl normally starts choppy because of nervous energy. I have never been real impressed with Manning's big game production (although he did play well in his first Super Bowl appearance). He has a tendency to start slow before picking up his game. That is the only time the Saints will have an opportunity to take control. If they can put up a nice lead early, they may be able to bury the Colts. If that does not happen, Manning will find a way to win the game. It is almost a certainty the Colts will score more second half points than the Saints.

After originally believing the Colts would easily win, the hype around Manning makes me believe in the Saints. I believe Manning will get number two before he retires because I don't see him tied with brother Eli forever. The Saints will have to shrug off their pressure and turn in a good game as the underdog. If nerves are not a factor, I don't see the Colts D being able to stop Brees.

It feels like the pressure is squarely on Manning's shoulders. If Manning does direct his team to a second Super Bowl win, he deserves to be in the all time talks. Not really Joe Montana level, but certainly Tom Brady level.

It is hard to pick against a team as hot as the Colts, but you're only hot until you lose. If New Orleans doesn't have a 14 point lead at the end of the first quarter, the Colts will win. This may be more heart than head, but I think the Saints will strike early, and hold off the Manning comeback to win a thrilling Super Bowl.

Saints: 34 Colts: 31


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