NFL: The gridiron march straight to Miami

Michael Zipf

Heading into the ’06-’07 NFL season, 32 teams competed for a chance to reach football immortality in what is arguably America’s grandest sporting spectacle, the Super Bowl. Now, two teams, the Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts, remain, and both seem poised to deliver epic Super Bowl performances. For many Bears fans, the ’06-’07 team is eerily reminiscent of the notorious 1985 Bears team, which was built upon a tenacious defense and smash mouth football. Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy and the rest of the Indianapolis Colts finally proved critics wrong by winning the “big game” that had eluded them for the past five years.

This year’s Super Bowl showdown marks the first time in NFL history that two black coaches will be competing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Although the teams have this in common, in many respects the Colts and the Bears are two vastly different teams who traveled separate paths to reach the pinnacle of the football season.

The NFC Championship game was on a blustery, windy and snowy day, causing adverse playing conditions. However, the weather was only deleterious to the visiting New Orleans Saints, who were unaccustomed to such conditions, while proving advantageous for the Bears. Jumping out to an early 16-0 lead, the Bears remained in command for most of the game. However, an inconsistent performance by the sometimes-inept Rex Grossman hurt the Bears toward the end of the first half and early moments of the third quarter as the offense continually stalled. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees eventually capitalized on some opportunities after earning zero points on an ineffective first drive and fumbling the ensuing kickoff.

Brees connected with All-Pro rookie Marques Colston for a touchdown, capping off a nine-play, 73-yard drive to end the second half and cut the deficit to 16-7. Then electrifying rookie sensation Reggie Bush razzled and dazzled Saints fans, taking an 88-yard swing pass for a touchdown, leaving defenders in the dust. Bush enraged Chicago’s All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher, taunting him while heading into the end zone. However, this marked the last good play and scoring opportunity for the Saints, as the Bears erupted for 23 unanswered points to earn a convincing 39-14 victory. Ironically, it was the performances of the often-criticized Grossman and the unheralded Thomas Jones that reenergized the Bears during the fourth quarter.

However, as it had done all season, the Chicago Bears defense provided the spark and made the difference. After Bush’s touchdown, the Bears defense created relentless pressure, forcing Brees into a safety. A few possessions later, Grossman led a five-play, 85-yard drive, connecting on all of his passes for 70 yards, with his final pass finding wide receiver Bernard Berrian for a 33-yard touchdown. Chicago running backs Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson combined for three touchdowns and over 180 rushing yards to help Chicago earn its first Super Bowl appearance since 1985.

Having to face an archnemesis who has dominated you for most of your career and overcoming criticisms are normally daunting tasks. However, Manning and Dungy finally accomplished their goals in the AFC championship. Their dream of reaching the Super Bowl came to fruition on Sunday night as the Colts narrowly surpassed the New England Patriots 38-34.

The early stages of the game were reminiscent of previous playoff encounters between the two teams, as the Patriots dominated in all aspects of the game, continually pressuring Manning and marching past the porous Colts defense. The Patriots appeared to deliver a knockout blow early in the second half. With the Patriots up 21-3, the ball on the Colts’ 35-yard line and 4 minutes left in the first half the Pats appeared ready to strike again. However, three consecutive penalties forced the Patriots out of field goal position, resulting in a punt. Manning, the master of the no-huddle offense, then led the Colts on a 15-play, 80-yard drive. However, a questionable non-pass interference call in the end zone on a third down would force the Colts to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, cutting the deficit to 21-6.

Building upon the momentum they generated toward the end of the first half, the Colts opened the second half with an impressive drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Manning. The Colts evened the score at 21 on their ensuing possession, as Manning connected with defensive tackle Dan Klecko for a 1-yard touchdown pass and found Marvin Harrison in the back of the end zone for the 2-point conversion. However, a few miscues by the Colts special teams would allow the Patriots to take a 34-31 lead with 2.17 left in the game

With a chance to prove his critics wrong, Manning led the Colts on an 80-yard drive that possessed glimpses of John Elway’s famous 98-yard drive against the Cleveland Browns. Manning completed three passes on the drive for 60 yards, leading the Colts to the Patriots’ 13-yard line. Ironically, it wasn’t a touchdown pass that sent the Colts to the Super Bowl; rather, unheralded rookie running back Joseph Addai was the cause of the Patriots’ defeat, as he marched into the end zone after three consecutive carries from inside the goal line. In this game, Tom Brady failed to deliver another miracle game-saving drive, as Marlin Jackson intercepted his pass at the Colts’ 30-yard line to preserve the Colts’ victory. The 18-point comeback marked the largest come-from-behind victory during a championship game in NFL history.