If the outcome of Super Bowl XLI here tonight is to be determined by the respective merits of the two quarterbacks involved, then it is tempting to assume that the Indianapolis Colts are going to win by a cricket score.
Since coming into the professional game nine years ago, Peyton Manning of the Colts has compiled some gaudy statistics. Since his first appearance in 1998, he has thrown for 37,586 yards and 275 touchdowns. No one has ever thrown so far, with so many scores, in their first nine seasons. The only thing the 30-year-old Louisiana native needs to validate him as one of the all-time greats is a Super Bowl ring.
In contrast, Rex Grossman of the Chicago Bears has just about staggered through his first full season, having spent much of the previous three on the injured list.
His campaign has been a strange one. Sometimes he has demonstrated flair and panache. Sometimes he looks as if he has no idea what on earth he is doing. The position of quarter-back demands consistency above all else; Grossman is erratic and unpredictable. In Chicago, hard-boiled Bears fans have been yelling for weeks that Grossman should be replaced by the veteran Brian Griese, but their head coach, Lovie Smith, has been deaf to such demands.
The clamour has followed him to Miami, where last week, under the scrutiny of some 3,000 media representatives from around the world, Smith has been asked on a daily basis when, rather than if, he will pull Grossman from tonight's game. The normally unflappable Smith finally tired of it. "I shouldn't even have to answer that question," he snapped. "Rex is our quarterback, I shouldn't even have to answer that."
Even his counterpart, Manning, has some sympathy for Grossman's situation. "If you are a quarterback, and you take your team to the Super Bowl, you are doing a good job," he said. "Rex has done an outstanding job this year. He's been a great leader for his team."
Scratch beneath the surface of this quarterback controversy, though, and a different picture emerges. Manning, brilliant as he is, has a history of winning plenty of little games, only to come up short when it really matters. Even in the Colts' three play-off games this season, his side has prevailed despite him: Manning's two touchdowns against six interceptions during that spell are hardly the statistics of a man on top of his game.
Grossman, on the other hand, has done what the Bears have asked of him. He has thrown one interception, which was not his fault, and come up with big plays at crucial times, none bigger than a perfectly executed 37-yard pass to Rashied Davis at a critical point which helped the Bears defeat the Seattle Seahawks .
"I had 12 games, including the playoffs, that I'm real proud of, and five or six I'm not proud of at all," he said. "They were bad. Overall, I'm happy where I am. I feel I've had a good season."
Much of this is a result of Smith's shrewd tutelage. Under-standing his player's limitations, Smith has scaled down what he has asked him to do. Chicago prioritise running the football instead, and ask Grossman to make the occasional big play while avoiding the needless mistake.
As for the Colts, Manning has been subjected to a similar level of scrutiny as his Bears counter-part. The difference is not whether the Colts man can play, but whether he is capable of winning a championship, something which eluded him during his high school and college careers. Tony Dungy, the Indianapolis head coach, is every bit as contemptuous of the suggestion as Smith is about Grossman's ability. "If we win, it will validate him in the eyes of the public," he said. "But if anyone thinks he isn't already a great quarterback, they don't know anything about football."
Interestingly, however, the Colts have copied their rivals' formula since qualifying for the playoffs. Once, Manning set their tempo. With their quarterback off his game, the Colts too, have turned to the run.
Nevertheless, the Bears still have not-so-fond memories of the last time they faced Manning, when he led his team to a 41-10 rout of the Bears in 2004. "His placement was perfect every time," recalled the Bears' Lance Briggs. "He made some throws which were amazing. He is as advertised."
Tonight, two teams on the cusp of greatness will entertain some anxious thoughts about their respective quarterbacks. Will the good one or the erratic one show up? Will Grossman have another howler? Will Manning collapse under the pressure of being on the ultimate stage?
It is a subplot that makes this Super Bowl compelling viewing and difficult to predict. The better quarterback may well lead his team to victory. But neither the Bears nor the Colts are entirely certain whether it will be Manning or Grossman who delivers on the night.
SUPER BOWL: TALE OF THE TAPE
This is the first time two African-American coaches, the Bears' Lovie Smith and the Colts' Tony Dungy, have faced each other in the Super Bowl, though there are now seven in the NFL. Chicago are underdogs to add to their 1986 victory in their only previous final, but rookie Devin Hester could tip the balance; very quick (4.27sec over 40 yards), he set a regular-season record of six returns for a touchdown. Huge lineman Tank Johnson would win any bad-boy contest; the police have raided his home over 30 times, recently arresting him after discovering three rifles, three handguns and three pitbulls.
The Colts have been to the Super Bowl twice before, losing III and winning V. Then, though, they were the Baltimore Colts; in an episode infamous in NFL history, the franchise literally did a moonlight flit one snowy night in March 1984, as a fleet of trucks transported everything that wasn't bolted down at 2am to their new home after a row with Baltimore's city council. Doing a runner is thought to be their best chance of victory - they had the best offensive record in the AFC this season - but they are up against the best defense in the NFC. Still, the Las Vegas odds-makers make them seven-point favourites.
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