Roman Harper could only shake his head in wonderment. The Saints safety had witnessed Peyton Manning's lethal accuracy over the years, but the throw late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIV was one he will never forget. "Peyton hit him dead in the chest with it," Harper said outside the jubilant New Orleans locker room at Sun Life Stadium on Sunday night. "I mean, it was right between the numbers!"
Unfortunately for Manning and Indianapolis, it was Saints cornerback Tracy Porter on the receiving end of that strike. The second-year pro stepped underneath wideout Reggie Wayne on a quick route and returned the ball 74 yards for a touchdown that locked up the first NFL championship in the franchise's 43-year history. To the Colts and their fans the takeaway was a shock; trailing 24--17 with 3:24 to play, Manning seemingly was putting together another one of his patented fourth-quarter comebacks, driving his team 44 yards in six plays to the New Orleans 31-yard line. But, to the knowing Saints, the interception was nearly two weeks in the making.
During film study leading up to the game, they had discovered that Indianapolis liked to go to a three-receiver, one-back set whenever Manning was expecting a blitz in third-and-short passing situations. The Colts would split two receivers to one side and almost always throw that way if an opponent showed blitz on the opposite side of the formation.
The primary route combination called for the outside receiver (usually rookie Austin Collie) to go in motion toward the ball and stack behind the point man (typically Wayne) before the snap. Wayne would then run for six yards before turning back to the quarterback; Collie would release underneath him to the inside. Manning would throw to whichever receiver created separation.
The play worked successfully several times earlier in the game, so when Indy showed the same formation on third-and-five—Collie and Wayne split left, Manning in the shotgun, blitz showing to his right—the Saints surmised that the pass would go away from Harper and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who were coming on the blitz.
They were right. The Colts, on the other hand, appeared to be mixed up. Manning threw the ball inside, as if expecting Wayne to break to the middle of the field, but Wayne ran what appeared to be a comeback. Whatever it was, the route was not crisp. (Neither Manning nor Wayne would discuss the play in detail afterward, other than to acknowledge that it was a game-changer.) Said Porter, "I just trusted my eyes and jumped the route."
It was a fitting way for New Orleans to end Indy's chances. The Saints' defense had fed off turnovers all season; their 39 takeaways were one behind league-leading Green Bay, and their eight touchdown returns were tops in the NFL. In the postseason they had eight takeaways and one score. "Our coaches do a great job of preparing us," said safety Darren Sharper, who tied for the league lead with nine picks. "They see things that we can try to attack to make game-changing plays. We don't prepare to just knock the ball down; we prepare to make a break on the ball and get an interception and score on the play."
As Porter raced down the field with his second clutch interception in as many postseason games—his pick against the Vikings' Brett Favre near the end of regulation forced overtime in the Saints' 31--28 NFC Championship Game victory—Harper followed for about 10 steps before dropping to a knee to say, "Thank you."
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should have said the same thing to linebackers Vilma, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle. A few plays before Porter's pick they had reminded Williams about the offensive set that Manning likes to run in third-and-short passing situations. "I've talked about the chess game, and anytime you play Peyton, you've got to be two, three, four, five plays down the road," Williams said. "That series of plays, trying to set up the route and hopefully the formation that they would call, it kind of fell into place right there."