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Super Bowl XLI - What We've Learned...By Nelson Lardner

Given that all the teasers came in, no one's opinion was THAT far out of line. That said . . .following Devin Hester's game-opening kickoff return for the first touchdown, the tempo, circumstances, and broad conduct of the game clearly favored the Colts - a most-deserving winner. Gamewise, football season's ALMOST over (save the Pro Bowl, an inside-information delight) but a student's work is never done, and a few things need to be said . . .

PEYTON MANNING: MVP? No way. Bob Sanders (my pick)? One of the Colt running backs? The Colt offensive line? They all work for me. Manning's first interception was Peyton at his worst . . . trying for something that wasn't there.

But following that initial pick, Manning settled down, quickly grasping the situation. Manning's greatest value in this game was his sheer, intimidating presence. After the bomb to Reggie Wayne for Indianapolis' first touch (thanks to a blown Bear Cover 2 coverage), sheer Bear apprehension (no other word applies) provoked the Chicago secondary to play the pass oh, so softly . . . keeping the play in front of them . . . demonstrating a sustained willingness to give up the short and intermediate pass, so long as they could keep their eyes on what was happening. This posture dictated the tempo of the final three quarters. Using this rope-a-dope technique, the good news for the Bears was that they were able to maintain contact with their antagonists headed into the fourth quarter. The bad news was, while down by only five, early in the fourth quarter, the Bears offensive brain trust suddenly felt compelled to play a different game . . . and the curtains swiftly rang down.

REX GROSSMAN: In these Songs of Innocence (Grossman) and Experience (Manning), Sexy Rexy came off second-best. That hasty, ill-advised, premature right-sideline pass that found Kevin Hayden's hands and turned a five-point deficit into a dozen was essentially the coup de grace. Given that Lovie Smith wasn't going to take the wraps off Grossman until he felt he had to, the running game HAD to work consistently, to take the pressure off. Cedric Benson's injury (and fumble!) didn't help, but it probably didn't make the critical difference. Thomas Jones had a good day, but he needed a great one to provide Grossman some sustained opportunities, and that wasn't happening. Entering his contract year, Grossman presents a dilemma to the Bears - especially since Lovie Smith's and Lance Briggs' pockets also need to be padded, and they enjoyed better Januarys than Grossman did.

THE WEATHER: Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the sustained rain aided the Colts cause a good deal. Grossman's fumbled snaps from center were the result of a combination of the conditions, distractions, and nerves. Manning didn't have the same troubles, and it was raining on both quarterbacks. The fourth-quarter pick by Hayden was the result of a force under time pressure - a chess player, feeling the heat. The final crushing blow - the Sanders pick of a deep Grossman toss intended for Bernard Barrian - might have had a different ending under better conditions, considering just how open Barrian was. But given the wind and rain, it was a throw of the dice - and all Bears pass line bets were raked away for good when Sanders secured the ball.

THE COACHING: Regarding the vacant Cowboy head-coaching position, Jerry Jones' fascination with defensive personnel from the '85 Bears continues apace, with talk of Mike Singletary -- and current Bears DC Ron Rivera, though hard-pressed to envision Rivera's stock having gone up off Sunday's activities (aware that Charger DC Wade Phillips is now the morning-line favorite, as someone unlikely to provide Jerry Jones with much resistance on pivotal decisions). It was obvious Brian Urlacher wanted to play it no-holds-barred, with guns blazing and sustained blitzing, but Rivera was having none of it, given his utterly-passive air-defense postures which provided Manning easy route underneath all the livelong day. If Lovie Smith's master plan was to maintain some semblance of contention going into the fourth quarter, it worked - but Grossman's inability to rise to the occasion sank the ship. If you're behind, you have to make big plays under pressure - and Grossman couldn't.

THE OFFICIATING: Off the one-sided Supe XL failures in this area, this was a bright spot. Didn't like who they picked from a Bears perspective, given the man's proclivity for throwing roughing-the-passer flags at the least provocation. But Tony Corrente came in off a strong effort in Pats/Chargers, and he and the all-star crew lived up to the billing. Ten sustained calls, for 75 yards, total - all handled, most-importantly, in an unobtrusive way. No look-at-me clips on runbacks, minimal offensive holding . . . let 'em play, boys, so long as neither side is getting away with murder. From a Seahawks perspective, Corrente's assignment was a year late - Corrente's 13-1 Seattle, lifetime, in matchups involving the 'Hawks.

The games that matter may be done . . . but the NFL season never really ends anymore. Now, draft prospects fascinate . . . and the formal release of the '07 schedule . . . and so forth. And we can't get enough of it.

Nelson Lardner

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