Manning blinks, Brees captures title

MIAMI – It was the same simple slant play Peyton Manning(notes) had long ago perfected. Only this time, the worst time, Tracy Porter(notes) jumped it.

In an instant, one pass had turned into one pick and suddenly everything was about to change.

Manning, the iconic Indianapolis Colts quarterback, would be thrown into the dirt while trying to tackle Porter as the New Orleans Saints cornerback raced 74 yards for the championship-clinching touchdown.

Drew Brees celebrates with his son Baylen after Super Bowl XLIV.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Manning’s budding star counterpart, Drew Brees(notes), would soon be holding his son in one arm and the Lombardi Trophy in the other (“It wasn’t as heavy as I thought,” Brees said. “But man, it was shiny.”)

And from the blocks of Bourbon to the black and gold crowded rows here, the “Who Dat?” party for a long-dysfunctional franchise went into full force. No telling when it will end. If ever.

New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV 31-17, and the biggest play of the biggest game was as improbable as the Saints ever getting here.

In what will go down as a legendary duel, it was Manning – fresh off his second consecutive and record fourth MVP, fresh off a week of discussion about whether he was the greatest quarterback in NFL history – that blinked first, forced to jog off the field without shaking a single hand.

It was Brees who would bask in a confetti shower, be named the game’s MVP and celebrate a 32-for-39, 288-yard and two-touchdown bit of brilliance.

Back and forth these two had gone, Manning and Brees, Brees and Manning. One lengthy, near-perfect drive after the next. For a stretch it seemed like Brees couldn’t throw an incompletion and Manning couldn’t stop darting passes into the smallest of spaces, completing 31 of 45 for 333 yards and a TD.

Then, on one of his patented late-game, hurry-up drives that had broken so many hearts through the years, Manning saw his shattered with a pick-six that will go down as one of the most memorable moments in NFL history.

“He made a great play,” Manning said. “That’s all I can say about it. Porter made a great play.”

It was a play based on aggressiveness, which was all the Saints were trying to be. It’s the philosophy of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who begs his players that “you have to believe in what you see and go jump it.”

Peyton Manning threw a costly interception in the fourth quarter.
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

You represent a team making its first Super Bowl appearance in 43 years, in a city that was mostly destroyed by a hurricane in 2005, and you don’t sit back and wait for something good to happen. It was that mentality that caused coach Sean Payton to shell out $250,000 of his own money to boost Williams’ salary – for which he’s been reimbursed – and bring him to town. One bit of aggressiveness begetting another.

It’s why the Saints went for it on fourth down. Why they kept sending Brees back to pass and pass and pass, shoving their game plan in the face of the favored Colts. It’s why they began the second half with a gutsy onside kick that swung momentum and gave Manning one less chance to beat them.

“We felt not just good [we’d recover it], we felt real good,” said Payton. “We thought it was a 60-70 percent chance.”

It’s why the stadium here was stuffed with Saints fans, turning what’s supposed to be a neutral-site into a partisan party. “It felt like we just took the lid off the Superdome,” Payton said.

Aggressiveness was everything for the Saints. And no one displayed it more than their quarterback, who forced the action all over the field (throwing to eight different receivers). He never feared failure, never played nervous. The only way the Saints were going to win was if Brees could outplay Manning, getting the better of a guy many were anointing the best ever.

No one knew that more, yet was troubled by it less, than Brees. That didn’t change even when he completed just three of his first seven passes as Manning methodically built a 10-0 lead. Brees just took a deep breath on the sideline and decided it was now or never. He promptly went 29-of-32 the rest of the way, an unheard of run of accuracy that included an intentional spike and a dropped pass.

Drew Brees, center, prepares the Saints in the huddle.
(Doug Benc/Getty Images)

“He’s the MVP tonight,” Payton said, a not-so-subtle reminder that he thought Brees, not Manning, should’ve won the regular-season award.

It was better that way; Brees keeping that little chip on his shoulder that so many of his teammates have. The roster is filled with free-agent pickups and castaways, guys who wound up in New Orleans when there was no certainty that the Saints would even remain there post-Katrina.

This entire Saints deal had turned into more than just a hot season or a playoff charge. This was a movement. No, the Saints winning the Super Bowl doesn’t rebuild a home or settle an insurance claim or repopulate some little gulf town. This is just football and nothing else.

Yet there was no denying that something small had become big, a game had become a stake in the ground for a region, a rallying point, a reminder. It was a distraction about what had happened and a reminder of what still could.

It is how one single team could mean so much, to so many.

“Four years ago whoever thought this would’ve happened?” Brees said. “Eighty-five percent of the city was under water; all its residents were evacuated across the country. Not only does the organization come back, the city comes back. We all looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to rebuild it together.’ ”

So together they went right at the mighty Colts, Brees right at the famed Manning. Drive after drive, pass after pass, genius play after genius play. In the end, someone was going to stumble first, someone was going to make the mistake that changed everything.

That’s when Peyton Manning threw his favorite pass and wound up on his back. That’s when he was forced to watch Tracy Porter, Drew Brees and the Super Bowl itself run away right from him.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Feb 8, 2010