American Football: A local boy out to end New Orleans' dream run

Rupert Cornwell on Peyton Manning, the Colts quarterback hoping to upset the folks back home in Sunday's Super Bowl
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The Independent Online

Four and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, the entire United States (residents of the state of Indiana apart) surely wants the New Orleans Saints to defeat the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday. But fate has placed an exquisitely cruel obstacle in their way. To prevail, New Orleans must beat the finest football player the city ever produced.

The Manning family is New Orleans royalty. Father Archie, drafted as the Saints' quarterback in 1971, and who played for 10 years without a single winning season, still lives there, in a handsome Greek revival-style mansion in the opulent Garden District. There his second son Peyton grew up too, a Saints fan to the core – until he left to build his own four-time Most Valuable Player career that has seen him recognised as one of the greatest quarterbacks in history.

On Sunday in Miami the wheel comes full circle. Peyton Manning will lead the Colts, as the Saints seek to win the most glamorous prize in American sport for the first time in the 43-year history of the franchise. For Archie Manning, blood is the tie which finally resolves a horrendously divided loyalty. "I appreciate the Saints," he says, "but I can't cheer against my own son."

This Super Bowl match-up is one for the ages – and not just because of the emotional chord it strikes, and the prospect of a miraculously happy ending after the August 2005 storm that turned the Saints' home, the Louisiana Superdome in downtown New Orleans, into a fetid, leaking refugee centre, and forced the team to play the entire season on the road.

The game too promises to be special, pitting against each other two of the best offenses in the league. In the NFC divisional play-offs, the Saints defeated the Arizona Cardinals 51-45 in the highest-scoring post-season game ever. For this weekend's climax to the season, odds-makers have set the "over-under" of combined points scored at 57, and some believe this could even be the highest-scoring Super Bowl ever.

Statistics released this week suggest the Super Bowl was supplanted last year by the Champions League final as the most watched annual event on the global sporting calendar. But in 2010, just possibly, the old pecking order might be restored, if only temporarily, thanks to the magnetism of the Saints.

The story is far from complete, though. The sympathy of most Americans and NFL devotees world-wide may lie with the Saints. But for the unsentimental bookies of Las Vegas they are the underdogs, and the reason is Peyton Manning. If New Orleans are to win, they must first somehow stop the city's native son. For weeks it has been plotting precisely that.

The NFC championship game gave a clue as the Saints' defense went after Minnesota's Brett Favre, hitting the Vikings' veteran early and often. Whether the tactic worked is debatable; although Minnesota ultimately lost 31-28 to an overtime field goal, the defeat could not be blamed on Favre, despite his throwing an interception on what might have been a game-winning drive.

Manning will take even more stopping than Favre, but Gregg Williams, the Saints' defensive co-ordinator, leaves no doubt of his determination to do so, even in an era when the NFL, intent on making the on-field product as attractive as possible, is protecting quarterbacks as never before.

"We want a guy to bounce twice when we put him down," is a favourite Williams dictum, and this week he caused a flurry by suggesting that Saints would try to give the Colts quarterback "some remember-me shots". In reality, he was merely stating the obvious. For the Saints to win, they must force Manning into errors, breaking his rhythm and making him release the football earlier than he wants.

Alas for New Orleans, this is easier said than done. Manning used to be criticised as coming up short in the really big games, but those complaints stopped when he led the Colts to glory in Super Bowl XLI over the Chicago Bears in 2007. Not only is his ability to size up a position as fast as his arm; he has one of the NFL's most formidable offensive lines to protect him. As the Colts' 6ft 6in, 23st tackle Ryan Diem put it this week, "We're going to take care of Peyton the same way we always do, and give him plenty of time to get rid of the ball."

The same is true in reverse. The Saints rely on their quarterback Drew Brees at least as much as the Colts depend on Peyton Manning. If the Saints have a weakness it is in defence. In the regular season, Brees was well enough protected by his offensive line to rack up his fourth 4,000-yard passing season, in the process setting an all time NFL completion record of 70.6 per cent.

So the stage is perfectly set for a quarterback duel to remember. Indeed, the only jarring note in the last fortnight has been off the field. Long-suffering Saints fans have a catchphrase that is part of New Orleans folklore: "Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" On T-shirts and signs it is usually shortened to "Who Dat" and as the Super Bowl drew closer, sales of these items soared.

At which point, the NFL clumsily stepped in, sending cease-and-desist orders to souvenir shops selling such merchandise, claiming they were infringing the League's trademark. But after Louisiana's governor and representatives in Congress threatened to sue, and locals pointed out that the the phrase "Who Dat" had been long been part of Bayou City vernacular, the League itself backed down. The only vendors it was after, it said, were those selling merchandise that purported to be officially sanctioned by the Saints and the NFL.

So the National Football League isn't only about money after all. With that small matter resolved, America's biggest sporting jamboree is about to unfold. The head says the Colts but the heart, more than ever, says the Saints.