In this age of temperamental wideouts who have no qualms about publicly demanding the football, Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne was a picture of contentment on Sunday after making just three catches for 55 yards in Indy's 30--17 victory over the Jets. He stood in the Lucas Oil Stadium locker room and gazed at the nearby dressing stalls, where crowds had formed around Pierre Gar√ßon and Austin Collie, the young wideouts he had taken under his wing after Marvin Harrison, the franchise's alltime leading receiver, was cut last February and Anthony Gonzalez, Harrison's replacement, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1. Wayne then nodded approvingly.
Gar√ßon, a second-year pro who opened the season with only 23 career receiving yards, had just hauled in an AFC Championship Game--record 11 receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown. Collie, a rookie fourth-round pick from BYU, added seven catches for 123 yards and a score. "I feel like a proud father," Wayne, 31, said. "The most important thing I ever said to those guys was, 'Stay patient.' The one thing you can't do in this offense is pout, because your turn will come. Their patience paid off."
On Feb. 7, Indianapolis will meet New Orleans in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami. The story lines will focus on football history and favorite sons. For the first time in their 43 years—and four years after Hurricane Katrina struck their home city, forcing them to spend a season on the road—the Saints will be playing in the Super Bowl. And to win, they'll have to stop Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, a New Orleans native facing his father's former team. It will also be the first Super Bowl between No. 1 seeds since 1993, and it features the MVP (Manning) and runner-up (Saints quarterback Drew Brees).
Ultimately, the outcome is likely to be decided by how well Indy's young receivers handle the biggest stage. Three years ago, when the Colts defeated the Bears 29--17 to win Super Bowl XLI on a rainy night in South Florida, their top three wideouts (Harrison, Wayne and Brandon Stokley) had 270 career starts among them. This year's group has only 158, with 128 belonging to Wayne—not that you would know that by the youngsters' play on Sunday.
In their 31--28 overtime defeat of the Vikings for the NFC championship, the Saints relentlessly blitzed Brett Favre. They failed to sack him, but they knocked him down six times and forced two interceptions. The flip side? New Orleans surrendered 310 passing yards. Repeating that strategy against the Colts is a risk, but a necessary one: Manning is among the best at reading (and beating) the blitz, but if he isn't pressured he's unstoppable. So no matter what the Saints do defensively, Indy will have opportunities to make plays in the passing game. The question is, Who will make them?
"Every game has its own personality," says Gar√ßon, who played at Division III Mount Union. "We never know how it's going to happen. Any one of us could have a big game. It could be [tight end] Dallas [Clark], Reggie, Austin or me. Whatever teams show us, we feel we can exploit it. We just have to find the matchup."
After beating the Jets, Manning side-stepped questions about the significance of Super Bowl XLIV. With a victory he can cement his legacy as one of the alltime greats, joining multiple winners such as Joe Montana, John Elway and Tom Brady. A loss would drop his postseason record to 9--9.
The pick here? Manning finds a way to outgun Brees.
Colts 31, Saints 27
JOHN BIEVER (COLLIE)
HANDS OF FATE If the Colts want to outgun Brees (opposite), they will need another big game from Collie.
BOB ROSATO (BREES)
[See caption above]