January means a lot of things to a lot of different people. It’s the post gluttony reality check of the holidays, a time to make and break the vast and quickly falling good intentions of your resolutions from the time of drunken revelry. But, it’s also a time for football. For the bone crunching, end zone seeking desperation of 12 teams in the NFL trying to make it to the big game, the biggest night in professional sports, the Super Bowl, January is heaven. But not as much heaven as that first Sunday in February when all that fluff flakes aside, the wannabes and could have beens lying in the dirt, licking their wounds.
The two teams still standing take two weeks off and prepare for that biggest of all big games to duke it out for the Lombardi trophy. This year, for the first time in a few years two long time absentees will make it back to the big game, and fulfill the promise and wonder of more than one big name.
On the NFC side, the underdog Bears come in after one of the most surprising seasons in the NFL, a team that learned how to be great again, and then almost forgot under the leadership of their young quarterback Rex Grossman. They barely escaped a surging Seattle Seahawks team under similar strains and veritably crushed the Saints this weekend, showing once and for all the strength of the Bears of September and October.
It’s been 21 years since the Bears were in the Superbowl, the last time in 1985 after the oft poked fun at Super Bowl shuffle crew. The years have not been kind to the Bears, but finally after nearly 2 decades, they’re back to form and promise and the Chicago faithful are feeling the tickle of what might be. This isn’t the powerhouse Ditka helmed juggernaut that took apart the Patriots in ’85 though. This is a weaker defense, an untested and unpredictable quarterback, and no expectations of glory. This is an underdog team in every sense of the word.
In Indianapolis, the feelings are similar, except this Colts team is a great team. In fact this Colts team has been great for years. Under the leadership of Peyton Manning, they’ve reached the playoffs every year for the last five years, and every year they’ve suffered something of a collapse, a last minute breakdown of their quarterback. Against the Patriots in the playoffs, Peyton Manning before Sunday was 0-3 on 25 drives with 1 touchdown and 9 turnovers. That won’t win games. Not even a little bit. And it wasn’t looking any better this weekend, or last weekend for that matter. Vinatieri has kicked 10 field goals in the playoffs so far, a new NFL record. They still have a game to play. And the first half of Sunday’s game against the Patriots was more of Peyton’s woes, and the Patriots inescapable playoff dominance of the Colts. At one point, down 21-3, the Indianapolis home crowd was stunned, disbelief roiling through the stadium in the form of awed silence as the Colt’s defense folded repeatedly against Tom Brady and his offensive line.
But something happened in the second half. Manning woke up, his team woke up and they came back. In one of the most exciting games of the playoffs this year, the Colts came back to tie it at 21, while New England repeatedly went back ahead only to be tied again. With 2 minutes left, Manning lead a masterful drive down field and on a running play, a testament to the Colt’s ability to diversify the playing field under the strength of their quarterback, took the lead with one minute left. And with an interception on the last play of the game, secured Manning’s rightful place in the big game with his NFL forerunners.
He’s been mocked, belittled and declared a failure at getting his team to the big game for years now. But, don’t forget John Elway or Brett Favre, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game who took years to lead their team into the limelight, playing beautifully every year only to fail under the pressure of that big game. Well, now Manning can join them in the ranks of those that overcame the stigma of their playoff records.
Of course, there’s one more game to play. If he can’t win the big one, the Super Bowl, what difference does it make if he finally made it there? And buried in the morass of subplots is the little tidbit about each team’s head coach – Lovie Smith was the first black head coach to reach the Super Bowl, and only a few hours later, Tony Dungy followed suit. The two men, old friends and colleagues will be one of the many spotlights in the coming two weeks of Super Bowl hype, along with Peyton Manning’s shortcomings and accomplishments, the Bear’s underdog status, and the viability of their young quarterback to finish the job. But, what about the game itself?
Who, of these two gridiron giants, stands the best chance of winning in February? The big money’s on Indianapolis. But, barely. The odds are in the Colts’ favor, with a seven point spread going into February 4th in Miami. The variables are numerous and the questions even more so, but here are a few things that can’t be forgotten.
The Bears defense is mediocre at best. They’ve been in the middle of the pack all year, and barely pulled out the win against Seattle, a team whose offensive output has been abysmal this year. However, their display against New Orleans on Sunday was impressive. If the same unit can show up in Miami, they’ll stand a decent chance of doing something against Peyton Manning’s potent offense. As one of the most prolific quarterbacks of this decade, Manning has the immediate edge against any defense with a history of problems. He showed that he can break his playoff curse, and now with the honus of Brady’s crew behind him, he can set his sights on Chicago’s secondary. Indianapolis has the edge here, but everyone doesn’t show up to play, it’s anybody’s game.
And what about Rex Grossman? His late season breakdown is infamous now, a testament to his youth and the frailty of this Bears team. But, when he plays well, he plays extremely well. And when a team is hot, they can score on the Colts quickly and mercilessly, as the Indianapolis fans know all to well from Sunday’s first half. Peyton Manning will assuredly be ready to play, and play to win. He’s waited to long not to. I’d like to say the defense will win this game, but that’s entirely dependent on which Grossman shows up to play. If it’s the Grossman of this weekend against the Saints, this could be quite a game. If not, Tony Dungy’s boys will be hoisting that trophy high and mightily over their heads in Miami.