New Orleans Saints First-and-10: Super Bowl will be a battle of small market teams

First (take) …

This will be a Super Bowl of big arms and big-play offenses. It’s also one of small cities.

Super Bowl XLIV will feature the first meeting between two teams from the league’s 10 smallest markets, since the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1970.

Indianapolis ranks as the 10th smallest of the league’s 30 markets.

medical1.jpgThe city of New Orleans is near the bottom of the league in terms of market size.New Orleans is larger only than Green Bay-Appleton.

You could combine their 1.6 million television households and still be smaller than the league’s top 15 markets.

“You have national teams in small markets,” ESPN play-by-play commentator Mike Tirico said. “You have not heard the word small-market once regarding Indianapolis, New Orleans, or Minnesota and they’ve driven unbelievable ratings.”

Aside from Super Bowl broadcasts, the NFC championship game between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints was television’s most-watched program since the 1998 finale of “Seinfeld,” that drew 76.3 million viewers.

This is what the league’s forefathers, Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle, had in mind when they created the concept of revenue sharing. It’s a big reason why the league has become the goliath of professional sports across the globe.

The Colts and Saints boast two of the league’s brightest stars. Peyton Manning and Drew Brees finished 1-2 in the MVP voting. Both are national pitchmen. Unlike LeBron or C.C., you don’t hear either player flirting with the New York market.

This isn’t the NBA, where the mighty Los Angeles Lakers are reigning world champions for the fourth time in the past decade.

Or Major League Baseball, where the New York Yankees just won their 27th World Series title.

On Feb. 7, one of two things will happen:

Either tiny, conservative Midwest-to-the-core Indianapolis will win its second Super Bowl in the past four seasons or;

Or New Orleans, the plucky Gulf Coast Bacchanalia less than five years removed from Hurricane Katrina, will win its first.

This is the way sports should be in a democratic society. The NFL gets it and should be commended for its business model.

Here’s to the little guys.

… And 10 (more observations)

1. Casual locker-room observation of the week: Tracy Porter was one of the stars of the NFC championship game. His haircut no doubt will be a star attraction at the Super Bowl. The Saints cornerback has four Pac-Man ghosts — Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde – cut into his coif. Porter’s a quiet guy by nature. But his haircuts have been loud. He started the season with a fro-hawk. More recently, his hair was cut into a spider web design. Now this.

2. Tweets of the week: “Shout out to the Who Dat Nation for winning the NFC Championship on Sunday. The Dome was out of control on Sunday. I am still recovering.” – Drew Brees, 9:22 p.m., Jan. 26.

“Still shocked that we are going to the super bowl.” — Pierre Thomas, 4:51 p.m., Jan. 27.

3. Quotes of the week: “It was just a little colder than Hell.” – left guard Carl Nicks describing training camp conditions at Millsaps College to Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger columnist Rick Cleveland.

“The last two games you’ve seen me play, it wasn’t really me. It felt like I was on a damn pogo stick. This week I’ll have two pogo sticks instead of one.” — tight end Jeremy Shockey on his knee injury.

4. Didya notice of the week: The Saints used tackle-eligible Zach Strief on a season-high 14 snaps last week at tight end against the Vikings as he helped fill in for the hobbled Jeremy Shockey on certain downs. The Saints even brought Strief in motion a few times. The massing 6-7, 320-pound Strief moving down the line of scrimmage was quite a sight and no doubt caught the attention of the stunner Vikings defenders. “I’m a major decoy in the offense,” Streif joked on Thursday.

5. Fact of the week: The only active players to play for both the Saints and Colts are Courtney Roby and Jeff Charleston. Roby played one game for the Colts in 2008. Charleston played 13 games for the Colts in 2007. Forty-nine players in history have played for both franchises. Among them: Dave Rowe; Ashley Ambrose; Craig Heyward; Steve Stonebreaker; Jerome Pathon; Steve Walsh; Joe Don Looney; Doug Brien; and the inimitable pair of Gary Cuozzo and Jason David.

6. Encouraging stat of the week: In four years with the Saints, Drew Brees has had only 11 games in which he failed to pass for at least 200 yards. He’s coming off No. 11, a 197-yard effort against the Vikings. The good news for Saints fans is he usually rebounds with a monster game. In the ensuing games after Brees’ sub-200-yard performances, he’s passed for an average of 312 yards and the Saints have won eight times. Brees has been held to 200 yards passing yards or less in consecutive games just once in his Saints career. It happened earlier this season and the Saints won both games. Brees passed for 172 yard in a 27-7 win at Buffalo and 190 yards in a 24-10 win against the New York Jets.

7. Disturbing stat of the week: No team has ever won the Super Bowl with a defense ranked lower than 21st in the NFL. The Saints defense ranked – gulp! — No. 25 this year. Of course, they’re a different unit with starting defenders Jabari Greer, Sedrick Ellis and Tracy Porter back in the fold. The situation is similar to the 2006 season when the Colts won the Super Bowl with the 21st-ranked defense which played much of the year without Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders. He returned for the postseason and the Colts defense was a different animal. Still, history is against the Saints. Then again, it has been all year and the Saints have routinely defied it during this season of “firsts” in New Orleans.

8. Something I liked from the NFC championship game: The Saints special teams were superb. Sean Payton said the execution of his team’s kicking game was overlooked in the 31-28 win and he was right. The Saints don’t win Sunday without the work of Thomas Morstead, Courtney Roby, Pierre Thomas, and of course, Garrett Hartley. Morstead rendered Vikings return ace Percy Harvin a non-factor with his booming punts and kickoffs. And Roby and Thomas each had big kickoff returns to set up short fields for the Saints offense. Both returns led to scores. All in all, it was a terrific and timely effort.

9. Something I didn’t like from the NFC championship game: The lack of big-play production from the Saints wide receivers. The Saints’ big four – Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore – combined to make just nine receptions for 85 yards. They didn’t have a catch longer than 17 yards. The Saints will need bigger plays from their receiving corps if they expect to beat the Colts.

10. Fearless prediction for Super Bowl XLIV: I’m going to wait to deliver my game prediction. I need to see how things play out next week in Miami. If you’re a Saints fan, you have to like that the Colts have been installed as favorites. The Saints play best in the underdog role. Until then, here are my fearless predictions for the most overwrought, overdone storylines of next week: the battle of arms between Manning and Brees; the chess match between Manning and Gregg Williams; the chess match between Manning and Darren Sharper; the chess match – notice a theme here? — between Manning and Jon Vilma; the battle between Saints tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jon Stinchcomb and Colts pass-rushing ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis; the symbiosis between the Saints and city of New Orleans and Katrina. Get used to it. You’re going to hear a lot about these things over the next week.


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