American Football: Emotion and heart drive the Saints on

Super Bowl underdogs seek fairy-tale ending

It has the makings of an American fairytale. The Saints are not the best team, but they have risen from the ruins of New Orleans – laid waste by the biblical-scale catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina five years ago, when their stadium was used as an emergency relief centre – to tonight's Super Bowl. They have risen on emotion, heart and their opponents' mistakes – only scraping through when they took the Minnesota Vikings to a draw in the dying seconds of their play-off game, and then won in overtime, a form of sudden-death extra time. The Saints have never been in a Super Bowl before. And the bookmakers have the Indianapolis Colts, who won three years ago, as the favourites.

But American football is such a preposterous game that anything can happen. It is preposterous because the rules are so complex, having been continually tweaked since the invention of the forward pass in 1905 – introduced to open up the game and reduce the death toll of 19 that season. The rule book – and the game – is now so adapted to TV that, the moment a play is over, the players will be looking up at the giant screens that surround the field to watch the replay. Quite often now, a player on his way to score will be looking up to watch himself run into the end zone, as if what is on the screen is more real than the physical experience. It is, indeed, a wonderful game to watch on TV and you often need two replays to appreciate the subplots, feints and skill that made a play successful, or that foiled it. Yet it is a compelling enough spectacle on the simpler level of what George Will called "violence punctuated by committee meetings".

You do not need to know much to follow it. A team has four attempts to advance the ball 10 yards – if it doesn't make it in three, it usually uses the fourth to kick the ball away and push its opponents down the field. If it is close enough to the opponents' end, the fourth attempt can be used to kick a field goal, a 45-yard kick being the limit of likely success. That's three points, and a touchdown – breaking the plane of the goal line – is six points, plus a one-point conversion, kicked from point-blank range.

If followers of the John Terry saga are puzzled by what a team captain does, there is no such uncertainty about the role of the quarterback in the NFL. He is the leader of the offence, who takes the ball and then hands it to a running back or throws to a receiver. The quality of that throw is the single most important factor in a team's game. Tonight pitches Drew Brees for the Saints against Peyton Manning for the Colts. Brees is a hero in New Orleans, personally identified with the reconstruction of the city since he joined the year after Katrina. Manning, born in New Orleans, also helped out with relief work after the hurricane, but is more lofty, part of the sport's aristocracy, son of one quarterback and brother of another, Eli, who plays for the New York Giants.

American football has become a game in which possession is nine-tenths of the war. Giving up the ball to the other side through a fumble or an interception has to be avoided at all costs, and the Saints have the second-best record in the NFL for benefiting from turnovers.

Even so, the statistics favour the Colts. Which is why it would be such a good story if the Saints win.

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