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Super Bowl shapes up as a gem: A Manning-Brees shootout

MIAMI - If you like your football with a lot of points - and who doesn't? - then Super Bowl XLIV is everything you want.

On one side, a quarterback for the ages in Peyton Manning. On the other, a guy who isn't all that far behind in Drew Brees. And a bunch of skill-position players set to take the ball from their brilliant passers, carve up the opposing defense and produce what figures to be one of the highest-scoring games in Super Bowl history.

The operative phrase for viewers: Don't blink. (And make sure bathroom breaks are brief!)

With Manning at the top of his game after a record fourth MVP selection, and with Brees completing a whopping 70.6 percent of his passes this season, the offenses figure to dominate. Especially with both defenses showing vulnerability against high-profile passing attacks.

But Manning is taking nothing for granted when it comes to putting points on the board. In fact, if you didn't know any better, he'd appear to expect a case of smash-mouth football out of the Saints' defense.

"I expect a tough defense, and I expect it is going to be a challenge to try to move the ball against them," Manning said. "They have excellent players. They are very active. They know how to get their hands on the football. All those characteristics combined make it a tough defense. I think we are going to have our work cut out for us."

OK, so Manning has been as adept at not providing bulletin-board material as he has been at throwing touchdown passes. Why not give the Saints props while awaiting the biggest game of the year, one of the biggest of Manning's entire career? He has an opportunity to win the Super Bowl for the second time in the last four seasons and cement his own legacy while putting the Colts into the conversation about the best teams in NFL history.

"You still look at teams like New England, because they have three Super Bowl rings and how they're remembered for this decade," Colts linebacker Gary Brackett said. "And Pittsburgh has two [this decade]. So to get a second Super Bowl ring and having the most wins in the decade would definitely go down in history."

The Saints, meanwhile, are attempting to make their own history. Never before in the 43-year history of the franchise have the Saints gotten this far.

Winning the Super Bowl after a nearly flawless regular season would be a monumental accomplishment by one of the most downtrodden franchises in NFL history. It also would offer yet another important milestone in the continuing recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005 and produced scars that remain apparent.

A win by the Saints, and it will be Mardi Gras for a month.

"This is a city that really has been very close to this team through a lot of hard times," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "After Katrina, I think playing good football and giving them something to be proud of is important. With as visible as many of our players are in the community - and many of them are, just because of the logistics of where they live - I think all of those things make it positive and make it pretty special."

Try monumental.

But the only way the Saints get there is by thinking X's and O's, not storybook ending.

"I think the one thing we've been able to do well is focus," said Brees, who has raised more than $2 million through his foundation to assist the Gulf Coast. "Of course we want to win this game for all our fans and we know how significant that would be. But we've got to concentrate on the task at hand, and that means sticking to what has gotten us here in the first place."

Brees has gotten them there with a series of brilliant performances. And he likely will need another one to keep up with Manning, who at 33 is at the top of his game. But for both quarterbacks, it is not a matter of outplaying the other.

"I'm not thinking of playing Peyton Manning, I'm thinking of playing the Indianapolis Colts' defense," Brees said. "I can't get caught up in that."

Same for Manning.

"That makes for interesting conversation, but my main focus isn't Drew Brees,'' he said. "It's trying to be successful against a very good defense."

Can't ask for two better quarterbacks on the biggest stage of all. The outcome of Super Bowl XLIV will come down to which guy puts more points on the board. And who knows? It could come down to whoever has the ball last.

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