FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - How's this for an ominous message from Colts coach Jim Caldwell at his first Super Bowl news conference Monday:

When asked about the status of defensive end Dwight Freeney, who suffered a sprained ankle late in the AFC Championship Game against the Jets, Caldwell replied: "We're preparing as if he's not going to play. If we get an opportunity to get him in there, we'll do so."

Whoa.

Freeney, the Colts' best defensive player and one of the best pass rushers in NFL history, hasn't practiced since suffering the injury. He has what is being called a grade 3 low ankle sprain and has had intensive therapy in an effort to get him ready for the Super Bowl.

There's a good chance he won't practice this week, and the Colts are crossing their fingers that he'll make a quick recovery.

Or is it possible that they are deliberately exaggerating the extent of the injury, perhaps in an effort to lull the Saints into thinking Freeney won't play, only to see him create havoc Sunday?

We'll soon find out.

But the Saints are taking no chances in their preparation for Freeney. As far as they're concerned, he'll be ready to go.

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"The fact is, it's the Super Bowl, and I know any player would do as much as they could to get on the field," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "He is a competitor and we are expecting him to play. Certainly I feel like they are coming into this game with all their ammo."

If Freeney can't play, Raheem Brock will replace him.

"Freeney is one of the best pass rushers, if not the best, in the league," Brees said. "We're expecting him to be out there."

The Saints already have experience with thinking a great pass rusher wouldn't play, only to see him suit up. In a Dec. 19 game in New Orleans, Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware returned from a neck injury he suffered the week before and played a key role in handing the Saints their first loss.

"I'm hopeful he'll play," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said. "He has special characteristics about him and I'm counting on those this week."

Some scouts considered Freeney a one-dimensional player with limited upside when the Colts made him the 11th overall pick in 2002. But he had 13 sacks as a rookie and became the first Colt to lead the league in sacks when he recorded 16 in 2004. Freeney has had at least 10 sacks in six of his eight NFL seasons. He had 13½ sacks during the 2009 regular season.

"Dwight is playing and he will be 100 percent by the game," Colts linebacker Gary Brackett quipped.

There is reason for hope. Freeney suffered a quadriceps injury in the preseason, and speculation persisted that he'd miss more than two months. But he was back for the season opener.

"Honestly, I have no clue,'' Brackett said of Freeney's availability. "But if anyone can come back from an injury like this, it's Dwight. He's had weird things all season. People said he would miss 10 weeks and he came back in seven days."

Now the Colts hope those healing powers will kick in again.