BREES TOPS MANNING IN A BATTLE OF THE FLAWLESS

MIAMI – All game long they clanked swords from opposite sides, the stakes getting higher, the ground rising, from sand to rocks to mountains to a narrow cliff. One mistake. That’s all it would take. You knew that by the fourth quarter Sunday night, because to that point, the quarterbacks had been flawless. No picks. No fumbles. No bad decisions. Precision accuracy. Peyton Manning was doing what he does better than anyone, and Drew Brees, after a sputter start, was matching him, maybe (gasp) surpassing him. Both were spreading the ball. Both were evading the blitz. The score bounced back and forth, a Colts lead, a Saints lead, a Colts lead, a Saints lead.

One mistake, the first mistake, would end it. You just knew it.

And finally, in the 56th minute of this razor’s edge game, here it came. Manning dropped back on a third-and-five. A blitz came. He saw his long-time receiver Reggie Wayne. He fired.

And Super Bowl XLIV was decided.

Cornerback Tracy Porter, who dashed Brett Favre’s dreams with a pick in the NFC championship game, did it again, this time slipping under Wayne, snagging the pass, and racing 74 yards to put the Saints up by two touchdowns.

Manning chased after him, but it was no use. He was knocked to the turf.

And Brees was rocketed to the stratosphere. The toast of New Orleans

Make room on the stage. Drew Brees has a podium now. He must be spoken about with Tom Brady, Favre and, yes, Manning, as a brilliant executioner who can get the big job done. His performance Sunday night, 32-for-39 passing, 288 yards, two touchdowns, will stand as one of the most clinically perfect quarterback displays in Super Bowl history.

He also won the best story award in the 31-17 victory.

“We played for so much more than just ourselves,” said Brees, who, remember, was questioning his career when he signed four years ago with the Saints as an injured quarterback with unrealized potential. “We played for our city. … We played for the whole Who Dat? Nation that was behind us. … We were blessed.”

Who could argue that? But it was more than blessing that tilted this night. It was guts. Moxie. Playing the game without fear. That speaks to the players, including Brees, but it speaks largely to the coach, Sean Payton, who took the chances more conservative coaches shun.

Payton ignored conventional wisdom over and over. He went for it on a fourth-and-goal. He failed. Never mind. He began the second half with an onside kick. It worked – and changed the mood of the game. He milked his possessions, keeping Manning on the bench for so long, barnacles were forming. And late in the game, he blitzed Manning when you’re not supposed to blitz Manning.

It turned into the pick that iced it.

“We were going to be aggressive,” Payton said. And that’s how you win a Super Bowl. Several times, Payton’s counterpart, Jim Caldwell, played the safer odds, ran a running play on short yardage, punted the ball away, used safer defenses. It wasn’t much. But with Payton rolling the dice, it was enough to make a difference. What next for Manning?

And so Brees, 31, stands triumphant, and the Saints became the latest franchise to shed the longtime-loser label and score an upset title. No more bags over their heads. No more ‘Aints. They may be hoisting the trophy to soothe their hurricane-ravaged city, but they didn’t win because of pathos: They won because they’re good and talented and aggressive.

And their quarterback was a laser beam.

“Mardi Gras may never end,” Brees joked.

Not for him or his city.

Manning (31-for-45, 333 yards, one TD, one pick) was virtually canonized in the hype leading to this game. So many were calling him the best ever, saying all he needed was one more ring to make it indisputable. But as with Favre two weeks ago, Kurt Warner last year, Brady in his last Super Bowl, Manning learned that reputation and awards are no guarantee. He ran into a more aggressive coach, a mistake-free counterpart, and one pass he wishes he had back.

And the talk now goes to how hard it will be to get his second ring, instead of how easy.

“It felt like every possession was precious out there,” Manning said.

That’s because it was. One mistake. And a lifetime to think about it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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