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Monday, Feb. 5, 2007

Bears, Colts ready for Super battle


Staff writer

No one will argue that Peyton Manning is already one of the best NFL quarterbacks of all time.

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning
Colts Quarterback Peyton Manning will try to win his first Super Bowl ring and shed his run of postseason failure for good Sunday against the Chicago Bears. AP PHOTO

But there's one thing he lacks to match the class of legendary NFL quarterbacks such as Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and John Elway -- a Super Bowl ring.

Manning finally grabbed a chance to earn it when his Indianapolis Colts take on the Chicago Bears on Sunday in Miami in Super Bowl XLI.

Will Manning and Colts head coach Tony Dungy wipe away their negative image of "can't win the big game"? Or will the Bears again reign over football with their dominating defense? Here are some hints.

Reasons to watch

As has been documented many times already, this is the first-ever Super Bowl contested between two black head coaches -- Dungy of the Colts and Lovie Smith of the Bears, two close friends. No black head coach has guided his team to the Super Bowl before this year.

This game will be a matchup of the Colts' offense vs. the Bears' defense, though both head coaches are deeply defensive-minded. The Colts' offense ranked No. 3 in the league this season, and the Bears' defense ranked fifth.

The Colts defeated the Ravens' top-ranked defense with five field goals by Adam Vinatieri in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, while the Bears destroyed the Saints' No. 1 offense by forcing four turnovers in the NFC Championship Game. Now they play face-to-face to decide the world championship.

Both teams, however, have lost some edge to their strong points recently.

During the playoffs, Manning has been struggling. If it's too much to say "struggling," he's been unimpressive -- at least by the normal Peyton Manning standard. Manning threw two touchdown passes against six interceptions in three playoff games, which were very unusual for the stable passer that Manning is.

But don't forget this. Manning still completed more than 60 percent of his passes and managed a fourth-quarter comeback in a 38-34 AFC Championship win over his archrival Patriots. The thing is an "unimpressive Manning" is better than the average NFL quarterback.

Manning improved his clock management and had better knowledge of how to use his unsung supporting cast other than Pro Bowl receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, such as rookie running back Joseph Addai and tight end Dallas Clark. That made up for Manning's struggling performance during the playoffs enough to reach the Super Bowl.

For the Bears, their defense dominated the league in the first 10 games of the regular season. They gave up only 298 yards during that span and were ranked first.

But they lost safety Mike Brown and defensive tackle Tommie Harris, both key players to their defense, to injuries in the latter half of the season, causing the defense to stumble. The Bears gave up 327 yards per game in their last six games and their defense dropped to No. 5.

The aggressiveness of the Bears' defense, however, is always a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. The front four provides much-needed pressure, and the secondary has ball-hawking players.

Of its league-leading 40 quarterback sacks, rookie defensive end Mark Anderson had a team-high 12 and fellow end Adewale Ogunleye made 6 1/2. The defense added six more sacks during the postseason. Meanwhile, cornerbacks Ricky Manning Jr. and Charles Tillman both had five interceptions this season.

And then there's the defense's heart and soul, Brian Urlacher, who led the team with 185 tackles, at the middle. The star linebacker plays physical against the run and has decent speed to drop back into pass coverage.

For the Bears to win

Run the football and keep Manning off the field.

Though struggling a little bit during the playoffs, Manning is the most dangerous guy on the Colts' roster. The Bears should run the ball with the running back tandem of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson to control the ball. That is something the Jaguars and Titans managed to do to pick up late-season victories over Indianapolis.

The Colts had the league's worst rush defense, though it has dramatically improved in the playoffs. The Colts' speedy but small defensive linemen and linebackers are vulnerable against the run. That is an advantage the Bears should try to exploit.

For the Colts to win

Keep good field position.

One of the weaknesses the Colts have is kick coverage, and the Bears have a reliable kick return specialist in rookie Devin Hester, who set the new NFL record with six touchdown returns. And strength in the field-position battle is one of the reasons the Bears are in Miami now.

Bears quarterback Rex Grossman has had many ups and downs this season. You never know whether on Sunday you'll see "Good Rex," who scored league-leading passer rating in some games, or "Bad Rex," who marked a 0.0 rating against the Packers in the regular-season finale, though he only played few snaps in the game. But even "Bad Rex" can lead some scoring drives when he gets good field position against the Colts. Key matchups

Colts tight end Clark vs. Bears linebacker Urlacher.

Clark led the Colts with 17 catches for 281 yards in the playoffs while Harrison and Wayne were kept in check. Unlike the prototypical tight end, Clark can run deep routes. And one of Manning's favorite and most effective plays during the playoffs has been the intermediate pass to Clark.

That's where Urlacher comes in. Urlacher covers the deep middle as well as the underneath routes. Don't forget that Urlacher had three interceptions this season. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis vs. the Bears' offensive line.

The Colts' defense provides the pass rush from the outside. Mathis had a team-high 9 1/2 sacks while Freeney had 5 1/2. Freeney's numbers dropped from last season's league-leading 12, but he still is one of the most dangerous pass rushers.

The Bears' offensive line has decent talent. They have solid pass blockers in John Tait and Ruben Brown to protect Grossman's blind side. Center Olin Kreutz is undersized but is strong at the point of attack and picks up the blitz well. Protecting Grossman is the key to prevent "Bad Rex" from coming out.



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