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Super showdown: NFL gets rare dream matchup

It may not be the matchup of unbeaten teams that NFL fans hoped for a couple of months ago, but football followers couldn't have asked for a better pairing of opponents in Super Bowl XLIV.

When the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints play today, it's a game that will capture the interest of diehard fans, casual fans and people who won't watch another football game all year.

Let's look at why the NFL hit the jackpot in finding a super matchup for Super Bowl Sunday:

Who doesn't like an old-fashioned shootout?

Throughout the season, the NFL celebrated the 50th anniversary of the American Football League, the once rival organization that eventually merged with the NFL. In a possible final act of tribute, what greater honor would there be than to cap the season with an AFL-style shootout?

The Saints were the NFL's highest scoring team during the 2009 season, and the Colts have league MVP Peyton Manning playing quarterback. New Orleans topped 30 points 11 times and scored more than 40 points five times this season. Indianapolis scored 30 or more points seven times and topped 40 once.

Everyone loves an underdog – except for maybe Colts fans.

The Saints have been an inspiring story, and they're a franchise that's played a vital role in the rebuilding of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

The images of a nearly deserted Bourbon Street while the Saints were battling the Vikings in the NFC Championship game, followed by images of sheer joy and celebration in the streets of New Orleans when the city's team defeated Minnesota, were unforgettable. No franchise means as much to its city as the Saints do to New Orleans, and nearly the entire nation will be in the Saints' corner today.

The Saints are a franchise that's enjoyed little success. New Orleans has only won four playoff games in its history and is playing in the Super Bowl for the first time.

"It's a great source of strength for us and our team, just knowing that we are playing for much more than another 'W' or a Super Bowl for our organization," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees. "It's a Super Bowl for our city and our fans and everything they've been through the last few years. There is no organization or city that deserves a champion more than New Orleans."

It's a chance to see perhaps the best quarterback of all time playing at the peak of his career.

Manning became the first player in NFL history to win four NFL MVP awards this season, and it was well-deserved. Statistically, it was only his second-best season. But he hasn't lost a game in which he played the entire contest and he's beaten opposing defenses with surgeon-like precision.

"He's done it over time," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "His staying power, and his consistency, and his approach is unique. That's why it is talked about so much. We've got a lot of respect for his abilities and what they've done offensively there, and coaches, and preparation. It will be a tremendous challenge for us. We're going to have our work cut out for us with the way he's playing."

The other half of the quarterback matchup isn't bad either.

Great quarterback matchups in the Super Bowl rarely happen. For every Joe Montana-Dan Marino, Joe Montana-John Elway, John Elway-Brett Favre pairing, there's a Trent Dilfer-Kerry Collins, Peyton Manning-Rex Grossman, Troy Aikman-Neil O'Donnell matchup.

Thankfully, there's a Montana-Marino type of matchup in Manning-Brees in this Super Bowl. Both Manning and Brees threw for more than 4,000 yards during the regular season. Brees led the NFL in touchdown passes with 34 and Manning was right behind him at 33.

These are the two best teams in the NFL.

It's the first time since the 1993 season that the two No. 1 seeds in each conference have reached the Super Bowl. The Saints started the season 13-0 before losing to Dallas on Dec. 19. That defeat started a three-game losing streak for New Orleans. The Colts were 14-0 before deciding to rest their starters while leading the Jets in the second half of a Week 16 game. Indianapolis lost that game and its season finale to the Bills.

Still, the two teams had the top two records in the NFL and have seemingly been on a collision course to play in today's game for several months.

"I think this game is about two great teams, that have had two outstanding seasons, really from the get go," Manning said. "Both teams have persevered through some tough circumstances and found themselves in the championship game. So I think it is going to be a wonderful football game."

Unfortunately, having two No. 1 seeds playing in the Super Bowl doesn't guarantee a classic. The last time it happened, the Cowboys defeated the Bills, 30-13.

There are local players to root for or against, depending on your allegiance.

The Colts feature two former BYU players in receiver Austin Collie and safety Aaron Francisco. Collie has been a key part of Indianapolis' offense, and Francisco has contributed on defense and special teams this season.

e-mail: aaragon@desnews.com