Now that Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have laid waste to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in full view on “Monday Night Football,” let’s get it out in the open. As far-fetched, odds-defying and just plain dumb as it seems, lots of NFL fans already are thinking about the unbeaten Saints playing the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
Be still their naive, misguided hearts. Because it’s early. Way, way early. Each team has five games left. Then come the playoffs. And everyone knows anything can happen on any given Sunday, not to mention Monday, Thursday and even Saturday.
For the rest of the regular season, the Saints and Colts will take the best shots from opponents trying to reach the postseason themselves or seeking a golden moment of triumph in a dismal year. In the latter category fall the injury-plagued, karma-riddled, 3-8 Washington Redskins, who play the Saints on Sunday at FedEx Field.
Then again, the Patriots, presumably one of the league’s elite, gave it their best shot the other night. The Saints were completely unfazed. Stripped by injury of two cornerbacks, running back Reggie Bush and their leading receiver from last year, New Orleans outgained the Patriots 480 yards to 366 despite running 20 fewer plays in their 38-17 victory.
The Saints looked nearly invincible. Brees was 18-for-23 for 371 yards with five touchdown passes and no interceptions. Most quarterbacks can’t do that in practice. And the defense, even with cornerbacks Mike McKenzie and Chris McAlister seeing a lot of time, did reasonably well containing Brady and Co.
Meanwhile, looking a bit more vincible are Peyton Manning and the Colts, who have squeaked out five straight victories after trailing in the fourth quarter. No NFL team has ever done that. One of the teams Indianapolis beat during that stretch was New England, and it took Belichick’s roundly criticized, failed fourth-down attempt to make Indianapolis’ 35-34 victory happen. The Patriots made two of three fourth-down conversions against the Saints, but it barely mattered.
And yet the Colts remain unbeaten, just like the Saints. For the first time, the NFL has two 11-0 teams. Not only that, they compete in different conferences, meaning they can meet Feb. 7 in Miami’s Dolphin Stadium before potentially the largest Super Bowl audience in history. The buildup would short-circuit the hype machine, the anticipation surpassing anything for a sporting event in recent times: a true Game of the Century (aided by the fact the century is only 10 years old).
“To put two undefeated teams in play against one another, the ramifications would be massive,” said Rick Burton, the David Falk distinguished professor of sports management at Syracuse University.
“There are not a lot of firsts in sports anymore. This would be a first,” said Lance Barrow, who will produce the game for CBS. “It would be amazing to be part of it. … It would generate all kinds of storylines that have never been written before. But there’s a lot of work to be done before that happens.”
Burton, the former chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the timing would be perfect because February represents “a perfect storm of sports activity” with the Super Bowl, Winter Olympics, NBA All-Star Game and Daytona 500.
“Sports properties are gonna be competing with one another, and they’re gonna be pumping out a lot of stuff,” he said.
Although it’s difficult to project television ratings, a battle of unbeaten teams in most senses “would be the biggest Super Bowl ever,” said Mike Seba, a senior oddsmaker at Las Vegas Sports Consultants. “If both are unbeaten, you’ve got something special there.”
The true measure of such a matchup is difficult to gauge because it’s unprecedented, at least in the NFL. College football occasionally has provided two unbeaten teams playing for the so-called, presumed or mythical national championship, and it might happen again in a few weeks. For two NFL teams to make it through 16 games and the postseason without a loss defies logic, if not sheer probability. Only Miami in 1972 and New England in 2007 reached the Super Bowl unblemished. What are the chances of two in the same year?
Very, very poor. According to RJ Bell, president of Pregame.com, a sports betting information Web site, the chances of the Saints and Colts both going 16-0 are 6 percent based on their remaining schedules. And the chances of both clubs staying unbeaten and getting to the Super Bowl? One percent, he projects.
“Much lower odds than people would expect,” Bell said in an e-mail.
Said Burton: “If he’s right, that’s what we love to see: the impossible.”
There are so many variables, including injuries and whether a coach would play his regulars extensively once his team clinched homefield advantage. CBS analyst Charley Casserly, for one, doesn’t need to look at the odds to know how difficult staying unbeaten would be.
“Right now, San Diego might be playing better than the Colts, and it’s hard to dismiss the Vikings,” said the former Redskins and Houston Texans general manager. “You’ve got a long way to go. You have a better chance of one of those teams not being in the Super Bowl.”
But Casserly certainly wouldn’t mind seeing two unbeatens make it.
“No kidding,” he said. “We’ve got the game.”