Wrapping up the game, and the Hall of Fame weekend:
I thought Indianapolis lost this game as much as the Saints won it.
In the past couple of playoff games, the Colts have struggled a bit early, then went on to dominate the Ravens and Jets. I thought midway through the second quarter, with a 10-3 lead, the Colts were set up to do exactly the same things.
But they got timid. And they made uncharacteristic mistakes that ultimately cost them the game, the kind of mistakes a technically sound team like Indianapolis so rarely makes in bunches.
First, the drop by Pierre Garcon. GM Bill Polian told me outside the stadium after the game you can't blame Garcon because he got "jacked'' at the line of scrimmage. Maybe, but I watched the replay a couple of times early this morning, and he was well away from the jacking when the Manning pass clanked off his hands. With 8:23 left in the second quarter, and third-and-four at the Colts 28, the Colts were in great position to add to their lead. They were having no trouble moving the ball. Garcon did a 10-yard in cut, beating Jabari Greer with linebacker Scott Fujita over the top, and he was wide open. Manning didn't throw the ball the rest of the half. The Colts had the ball for three offensive snaps the rest of the half.
Two: I hated the decision by the Colts, on third-and-one in the final minute of the first half with two timeouts left by the Saints, to run into the middle of the line. Manning's got 10 conversion throws that he can get one yard with in his saddlebag, and the call is Mike Hart burrowing between a couple of sub-300-pound blockers -- Jeff Saturday and Ryan Lilja. Hart got stoned for nothing. I immediately thought of what Lilja told me during the week: "Sometimes we'll be standing there during the Anthem, and we'll look across the field at the size of the other team, and it's like they're the varsity and we're the junior varsity.'' Well, the varsity steamrolled the JV on that play. And the Saints got the ball back and scored a field goal to make it 10-6 at the half.
Asked Manning about it afterward, and he said the Colts would have gone into their two-minute offense with about 45 seconds left if they'd converted the first down. I don't like how they would have left themselves 89 yards to go in 45 seconds with one timeout to get a touchdown. Why not give Manning a chance to do what he does -- throw the ball in a two-minute drill aggressively? I thought this was inexcusable. I know the logic is, Make sure you don't give the other team a possession before the end of the half. Run the clock. Well, they didn't convert. And the Saints got a possession. And the Saints scored.
Third: the onside kick. Not to beat a dead Colt, but you simply can't make that mistake in a game of this magnitude.
"That was the difference in the game,'' Polian said. "The onside kick was the turning point, and along with that, not being able to get a yard on third-and-one is what really cost us. Those were two plays in our control, and we didn't make them. Today, they were the better team. They deserved to win.''
Just as the Colts deserved to lose.
Drew Brees was brilliant. He had a true MVP performance.
Brees missed three receivers early, and I feared he'd have a game something like his six-missed-targets game against the Vikes in the NFC title game. But he finished 32-of-39, which was special enough. What made it more special was finishing his game with 29 completions in his final 32 attempts, all the more notable considering one of the incompletions was a drop and another a spike by Brees to stop the clock. That is in the 1986 Simms stratosphere; you may recall Phil Simms completing 22 of 25 throws for a Super Bowl accuracy record. It figures that Brees, who completed 82 percent on this perfect night for football, would challenge the Simms mark; Brees completed an NFL-single-season-record 70.6 percent this year.
On the Saints' final offensive touchdown drive, Brees completed seven passes in seven attempts to seven receivers. On the two-point conversion pass, he threw to an eighth receiver, Lance Moore. You know a coach means what he says about playing everyone on the roster and if you get open the ball's coming to you when on the biggest touchdown drive of the season eight receivers get their hands on Brees passes.
Brees has the best number of any quarterback, including Manning, in football over the past four seasons. This game puts him in a league with Manning and Tom Brady at the top of the league's quarterback pecking order. It's a trifecta now, not a daily double.
Now for the Hall of Fame section.
Answering the questions I've heard most often since the seven-man class (Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little, John Randle, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Rickey Jackson, Russ Grimm) was elected Saturday afternoon:
On the news of the selections: We considered 10 all-decade players among the 14 players nominated. This was the best group of candidates I've had to consider in 18 years on the committee. You might wonder why Cris Carter and Shannon Sharpe (or whoever else didn't make it) fell short. In Carter's case, I was surprised that Andre Reed passed him and made the cutdown from 15 to 10 while Carter didn't. The difference there might be that Reed's team won bigger games, but that's just a guess. I'm firmly in Carter's corner; I think he's the best boundary receiver I've seen.
Sharpe's a mystery to me too, with his ridiculous numbers (his numbers dwarf those of the seven current Hall tight ends. A mystery, except that so many of these guys are good. I fear it's so difficult to compute these crazy numbers that wideouts and tight ends are putting up. Sharpe's 815 catches and 13 straight playoff wins, and Carter's 1,100 catches and 130 touchdowns, probably should get both men in someday.
On Little's election: I did not support the Denver running back because I felt his numbers and impact were shy (3.9 yards per carry, one 1,000-yard rushing season, 54 rush yards per game), but as I've said on many occasions, I'm one voter, with an equal vote to the other 43 voters, and the will of the voters spoke loudly. Senior Committee nominees need 80 percent of the vote to be inducted, and both Little and LeBeau got at least the requisite 36 votes to get in.
There's no doubt in my mind that the exhaustive work of Denver Post writer Jeff Legwold either got Little in or was a major factor in his election. The way the system works is that each candidate has his case for election presented by a member of the media from where he played. Then there's free-flowing debate about the candidate. Little's speaker was Legwold. Our bylaws prevent me from discussing freely what Legwold said in the meeting, but with permission of Hall of Fame VP Joe Horrigan, I can say that one factor in Legwold's argument was that Legwold personally viewed about 1,200 of 1,641 carries in Little's nine NFL seasons.
Though I can't tell you what Legwold said in his presentation, I can tell you I discussed this with him after the presentation and Legwold said he kept records of each carry and where Little was first contacted by a defender behind a subpar Denver offensive line. Legwold said about 30 percent of the time Little was first hit behind the line. That's an amazing number. "I saw a runner who had to struggle to get to the line of scrimmage often,'' Legwold said afterward. "He had no time to be a patient runner, because he was in a bad offense with no other options.''
I called Little Saturday night, and he was unaware of the lengths to which Legwold had gone. "Wow,'' Little said. "If he swayed more than one person, I am so deeply indebted.'' Legwold's legwork will be the kind that, to me, future presenters will strive to match.
On Randle's election: This was an easy one for me. There's a subset position in the NFL at defensive tackle, the three-technique, that's come into prominence in the game over the last 15 or 20 years. Over the last two decades, the best three-technique player is Randle, whose 137.5 sacks for someone who played inside is remarkable. I consider him the best three-technique since the position became prominent. I've heard Brett Favre say it a couple of times: He's the best defensive player he played against.
On Rickey Jackson making it over other top front-seven players like Charles Haley and Richard Dent: I'm surprised about Dent. I really thought this was his year. I don't recall many negatives about him. I thought it would be Dent this year, with Haley next in line in the next two or three years. Jackson was a pleasant surprise to me, but I'm thrilled he got in. I've made this point about Jackson, which Joe Montana has echoed: He's one of the two or three best all-around linebackers from 1980 to 2000, behind Lawrence Taylor and maybe no one else. If you'd consider four categories being important for linebacker impact (sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries), consider Taylor's number for the Giants from 1981 to 1993, and Jackson's numbers with the Saints over the same period: Taylor a total of 183.5, Jackson 187. And he played the strong side in the Saints' 3-4 Dome Patrol linebacker group. I thought this was an excellent choice.
On Grimm making it. I always thought a Hog should be in the Hall because Washington's offensive line is the best over time of the last 30 years. Grimm's resume isn't as deep as some of the offensive linemen we've elected, obviously, but injuries cut short two of his 11 seasons, and in the other nine, he missed only eight games. Played four positions, made the all-decade team of the eighties, and was the one guy on the Redskins I always remember Bill Parcells saying of, "If we let this guy have a good day, we'll lose.''
The Hall is always a hot-button topic, and I'll run a bunch of your e-mail with -- I assume -- your protests over our selections on Tuesday.
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