- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith met in the same stadium and ate dinner together the night before Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts faced the Kansas City Chiefs in an AFC wild-card game earlier this month.

The two friends again will be in the same stadium when the Colts play Smith’s Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI in Miami on Feb. 4. This time dinner likely will not precede the game.

“Lovie called and asked for a ticket,” Dungy said Sunday night after the Colts rallied to defeat the New England Patriots 38-34 in the AFC Championship game. “We had a chance to visit for about two hours and talk about how we really got started in ‘96 in Tampa.”

Dungy had just been named the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ coach. Smith was his linebackers coach.

In Miami, they’ll face each other for the second time as head coaches and as the first black head coaches to reach pro football’s biggest game.

But as both men no doubt will say in South Florida, the game is about the players. Fair enough. There are plenty of other fascinating aspects to this Super Bowl:

1. Will AFC run continue?

The AFC has won eight of the last 10 Super Bowls, and the Colts already have been installed as a seven-point favorite over the Bears.

The pick makes sense. The AFC was the superior conference this season. The Colts, Patriots, Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers were more impressive than any NFC team, the three-loss Bears included.

The Colts conquered their longtime postseason nemesis, the Patriots, in the AFC Championship game by rallying from an 18-point first-half deficit.

The Colts also are better than the Bears at several key positions, but the Super Bowl can be a weird game. Strange things happen. Still, if things go as they should, the AFC will win again.

2. Bad Rex vs. Great Peyton

The last time there was such a disparity between Super Bowl quarterbacks was in 1999, when John Elway and the Denver Broncos bested Chris Chandler and the Atlanta Falcons. Super Bowl XLI pits perhaps the game’s best quarterback, Peyton Manning, against Rex Grossman, who struggled badly for much of the season.

In the biggest game of his career, Manning threw for 349 yards and engineered a game-winning, 80-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter Sunday night against the Patriots.

“Peyton has brought us back a lot of times, and we haven’t had this opportunity and chance to do it on this stage before,” Dungy said. “There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that we were going to take that football and score.”

Then there’s Grossman. In the biggest game of his career, he misfired on nine of his first 12 passes against the Saints and produced only one solid drive.

The ideal scenario for the Colts is to put the game in Manning’s hands. The best-case for the Bears is to make sure Grossman doesn’t have his team’s hopes in his hands.

“We know what Rex is capable of,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “When he has to throw it, he does. I don’t care what his stats are, he’s a winner.”

3. Coaching breakthrough

For Dungy, reaching the Super Bowl is a breakthrough that has nothing to do with race.

Dungy lost both previous appearances in conference title games, with the Buccaneers and Colts. A victory in Miami would cement his status as one of the top coaches in the league.

“I think I want to concentrate on this team, the Colts and our city,” Dungy said. “I’m very, very proud as an African-American. It’s going to be special, but I want to really just let us savor this and make this about the Colts.”

For Smith, reaching the Super Bowl in only his third season as a head coach is equally impressive.

In January 2005, Smith took over a sad franchise that hadn’t won a playoff game in a decade. He set three immediate goals: beat the Green Bay Packers (he’s 4-2 against them), win the NFC North (the Bears have taken two straight division titles) and win the Super Bowl. Smith is one win away from completing all three.

“It means a lot for me because Coach Smith has worked really hard to get this point,” running back Thomas Jones said. “Any time you’re the first person to do anything, regardless of your race, it’s special. I’m definitely happy for him.”

4. Chess matches galore

Each team has a respected coordinator. Colts offensive guru Tom Moore has been with Manning since No. 18 became a pro. Their challenge is a tough Bears defense run by Ron Rivera, likely a future head coach.

Rivera used some unexpected tactics against Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday, showing several eight-man fronts that resulted in two first-quarter sacks and a game-turning safety in the third quarter.

Against the Colts, Rivera faces the daunting task of figuring out how to pressure Manning without putting his corners in one-on-one situations against receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Moore and Manning must devise ways to throw quickly and effectively against the Bears’ pass rush.

When the Bears have the ball, the key matchup is Ron Turner versus Ron Meeks. Turner has nursed Grossman along during the playoffs, calling plays the quarterback feels most comfortable with. Meeks, aided by the return of safety Bob Sanders, has revamped the Colts’ run defense. Indianapolis gave up 5.3 yards a carry during the regular season but only 3.6 during the playoffs.

5. Rookie sensations

Rookies have been making plays all over the field for the Colts and Bears this season.

Devin Hester (six touchdowns off returns) has been a sensation for Chicago’s special teams, while Danieal Manning starts at safety and Mark Anderson is in the rotation at defensive end.

Hester always is a threat to break a long return and will force the Colts to consider their options on punts. The Colts gave up 270 return yards to the Patriots.

With Indianapolis, two rookies have made an impact, running back Joseph Addai and safety Antoine Bethea.

Addai has made fans forget about losing Edgerrin James to the Arizona Cardinals. Addai rushed 14 times for 56 yards against the Patriots, including the game-winning 3-yard touchdown run with a minute remaining. In three playoff games, Addai has 217 yards.

“Joseph has been an awesome force for us all year,” tackle Tarik Glenn said. “He’s just been clutch for us.”

Bethea, a sixth-round draft choice from Howard University, started for two injured players, Sanders early in the season and Mike Doss since midseason. Bethea recorded 90 tackles during the regular season and intercepted passes against the Chiefs and Ravens in the playoffs. He also made six tackles against the Patriots on Sunday.

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