Fearsome Foursome Left in Super Bowl Chase

Four teams are set to fight for two berths in the Super Bowl. In the AFC, it's a quarterback duel between the Patriots' Tom Brady and the Colts' Peyton Manning. In the NFC, it's the surprising Saints and the erratic Bears.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The road to the Super Bowl continues today. The New Orleans Saints take on the Bears in chilly Chicago. In the other conference championship game, the New England Patriots travel to Indianapolis to take on the Colts. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us to talk about the match-ups. Hi, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN: Good morning, John.

YDSTIE: So the Saints and the Bears are the first game today. The Saints have the NFL's number one offense. The Bears had the NFC's best defense during the year. Which will rise to the occasion?

GOLDMAN: Oh, you want a prediction right off the bat?

YDSTIE: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: I'm not sure if I can do that. The Bears are pretty tough, fired up by their home field advantage at, as you said, chilly Soldier Field. You got to like them. But then on the other hand we've got New Orleans's offense.

YDSTIE: Big offense.

GOLDMAN: Big, multi-faceted offense. I mean Drew Brees has really been the only consistent quarterback in the playoffs. And he's got a bevy of young, big, strong, fast wide receivers to throw to.

YDSTIE: And a great running back to throw to.

GOLDMAN: Absolutely.

YDSTIE: Reggie Bush.

GOLDMAN: You must be talking about Reggie Bush.

YDSTIE: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: Last year's Heisman Trophy winner. He catches passes as well as he runs the ball. And then, if they get tired of him, they've got this big bull of a running back, Deuce McAllister, who can just give them the strong pounding running game. So a very versatile offense and a real challenge for the Chicago defense.

YDSTIE: Yeah. I read that Chicago wants to keep their offense on the field as much as possible, to keep that potent Saints offense from the ball.

GOLDMAN: Yes, good point. But an interesting point about that. They want to keep their offense on the field, largely with their running backs. They want to establish, as they have in recent days, establish the good strong running games with running backs Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. The big reason is Rex Grossman, the wild card here, because Rex Grossman started out the season just fabulously. I mean he was throwing for...

YDSTIE: The Chicago quarterback.

GOLDMAN: Chicago quarterback, throwing for all kinds of touchdown passes early in the season, and then suddenly he, like, well, he didn't forget how to do things, but he just ran into some real problems. And he ended up having, like, five games with three or more interceptions. And Chicago was 2-3 in those games. So he suddenly became not so dependable. And that's the reason why Chicago wants to establish the running game, so then they don't have to rely on Rex Grossman to make the big plays.

YDSTIE: And the second game today is New England at Indianapolis. Some people say this is the real Super Bowl game, that whoever wins this game is a big favorite to win the Super Bowl on February 4th. Is that fair?

GOLDMAN: This is the marquee game, the Patriots and the Colts. The Patriots are the dynasty, of course, winners of three of the last five Super Bowls. The hard luck Colts are supremely talented, but they seem to always have their hearts broken in the playoffs, and always seemingly broken by the Patriots. In reality that's only happened twice. But these two teams have faced off nine times since 2001. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the respective quarterbacks for New England and Indianapolis, have gone against each other that much. Brady holds a 6-2 advantage, so he, you know, seems to perform best in these games.

YDSTIE: You know, Peyton Manning's had this money on his back that he couldn't win the big one up to now. Is that a fair label for him?

GOLDMAN: You know, I guess on paper it is. He hasn't won the big one. But he's such a great quarterback. He is considered the best student among quarterbacks. He is a great technician. And Peyton Manning is so good at reading opposing defenses and then, you know, kind of re-jiggering his team. He's a great quarterback, and to hang that label on him, he can't win the big one, well, until he does that label will be on him. But he's so much more that. He's a very talented guy.

YDSTIE: One very interesting point, Tom, is that if either the Colts or the Bears win their game today, we will have an African-American coach in the Super Bowl for the very first time.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, and a lot of people say it's about time, considering roughly two-thirds of the players in the NFL are minority members. And the league has done better. The NFL had a record seven African-American head coaches this last season, 2006 - a record 197 coaches, including seven assistant head coaches. So the numbers are up. It will be symbolic. It will be important. And both guys are highly respected - Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith - well respected, well liked. And it'll be a positive note, certainly.

YDSTIE: NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, John.

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