Super Bowl Stumble

Bears fans waited 21 years to get back to the Super Bowl. The Monsters of the Midway finally granted their wish with a spectacular 2006 season, but this is not the ending they had in mind. Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts took control after an early Bears lead by running the ball at will and dominating time of possession. Indy is the Super Bowl champion after a 29-17 victory.

It was wet and windy and altogether wild weather for Super Bowl XLI, but Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts overcame the elements on Super Sunday.

A team built for indoors found its footing on a rain-soaked track and outplayed the Chicago Bears to win the NFL title 29-17 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. The Colts were far less sloppy, particularly their star quarterback, who proved he can indeed win the big game despite coming up short so many times before.

That's what it was, too, for Tony Dungy, who became the first black coach to win the championship. He defeated his good friend and protege Lovie Smith in a game that featured the first two black coaches in the Super Bowl.

"It's hard to put into words," said Manning, the game's MVP after hitting 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards with one touchdown and one interception. "I'm proud to be part of this team. We stuck together [and] won this game for our leader, Tony Dungy."

There were many first on this evening. It was the first rainy Super Bowl as Mother Nature greeted the South Florida crowd of 74,512 with precipitation from start to finish. It was also the first time an opening kickoff was run back for a touchdown when sensational Bears rookie Devin Hester electrified everyone with a 92-yard score.

And not since the Buffalo Bills self-destructed with nine turnovers in losing to Dallas 14 years ago had there been so much messiness. The first half was marred by six turnovers, three for each team. Even football's most clutch kicker, Adam Vinatieri, missed a chip-shot field goal. An extra point attempt was botched, too.

The second half wasn't quite so ugly, but when much-maligned Bears quarterback Rex Grossman's wounded-duck pass was intercepted and returned 56 yards for a touchdown by Kelvin Hayden with 11:44 remaining, the game was pretty much over.

"I'm so proud of our guys," Dungy said. "We took the hit early with Devin Hester. We talked about it. It's going to be a storm. Sometimes you have to work for it. Our guys played so hard, and I can't tell you how proud I am of our group, our organization and our city."

Chicago, which led the league in takeaways this season, finished with five turnovers, including two interceptions and a lost fumble by Grossman.

The Colts will take it. It's their first title since the 1970 season, when they played in Baltimore.

It was confirmation of Manning's brilliance, even if he didn't necessarily light up the scoreboard. The son of a quarterback who never got to the playoffs, Manning has been a star throughout his college career at Tennessee and in nine pro seasons with the Colts.

For the first time ever, he is a champion.

"Peyton is a tremendous player, a great leader," Dungy said. "He prepares, he works, does everything you can do to win games and lead your team. If people think he needed to win a Super Bowl, that is just wrong. This guy is a Hall-of-Fame player and one of the greatest ever to play."

It also was a validation of Dungy's leadership. He helped build Tampa Bay, one of the NFL's worst franchises, into a contender before being fired after the 2001 season. The next year, the Bucs won the Super Bowl with his replacement, Jon Gruden.

Sunday was Dungy's turn. As his players hoisted their coach on their shoulders, he switched his blue Colts cap for a white one that read "NFL Champions." Dungy was carried from the sideline, then was lowered so he could share a long embrace and a handshake with Smith.

"I'm proud to be representing the African-American coaches and the first African-American coach to win this," Dungy said.

Then he made his way through the postgame mosh pit to find his Manning and shared a big hug.

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

The Colts reached the pinnacle by winning four postseason games with a defense that made a complete turnaround in the playoffs.

The running game also came up big on Sunday, as rookie Joseph Addai and veteran Dominic Rhodes combined for 190 yards on 40 carries. Addai also caught 10 passes out of the backfield.

Chicago was denied its first Super Bowl title since the legendary 1985 team. These Bears could have used the leadership of Mike Ditka and the running of Walter Payton on this day.

It rained from start to finish, which made Prince's halftime rendition of "Purple Rain" that much more appropriate. And though Vinatieri twice was a victim of the slop, he still kicked three field goals.

"We knew handling the ball would be tough," Dungy said. "We showed we could win many ways."

Hester's spectacular return provided a stunning beginning and a severe jolt to the Colts. The local product and only rookie All-Pro this season pumped his arms to excite the crowd before the kickoff, then lifted the fans from their seats with an electrifying run on which he never was touched.

He barely touched the ball again as Indy learned its lesson and went to squibbing kickoffs.

Leading 16-14 at halftime, the Colts spent half the third quarter with a march to Vinatieri's 24-yard field goal. Twice on the drive, Manning fell to the ground while throwing. But he managed to complete them both.

Grossman had it even worse on Chicago's initial possession of the second half, twice in a row slipping and getting sacked. The Bears looked quite at home in snowy conditions in the NFC championship game back in Chicago, but they struggled with the wetness on Sunday.

Thomas Jones, forced to carry the Bears' entire rushing load when Cedric Benson was hurt in the first half, was Chicago's one offensive star. But with Grossman ineffective for much of the game, all the Bears could muster in the second half was Robbie Gould's 44-yard field goal late in the third period.

After Hester's opening dagger, Manning tried to force a pass to Marvin Harrison in double coverage and was picked off by Chris Harris to spoil Indy's first possession. But the Colts struck back on their next series, converting three third-downs. The final one was the killer as Manning got everything on a long pass to an uncovered Reggie Wayne even though Tank Johnson was poised for the sack. Wayne trotted into the end zone for a 53-yard score.

Then the rain really started to become a factor.

Holder Hunter Smith dropped the snap on the extra point, and Vinatieri couldn't get off a kick. Then Vinatieri, well aware of who was lurking deep, squibbed the kickoff to tight end Gabe Reid, who fumbled at his 35, with Tyjuan Hagler recovering for the Colts.

But Manning and Addai botched the handoff on the ensuing snap and Chicago's Mark Anderson recovered, the third turnover in the first 8 1/2 minutes.

Couldn't anybody play this game?

Jones certainly could. He used a sharp cutback to break a 52-yard run, the longest of his career, to the Colts' 5, and Grossman found Muhammad in the front of the end zone for a 14-6 lead.

Jones finished with 112 yards rushing.

A fourth giveaway in the opening quarter, by Benson on his first carry before injuring his knee, didn't damage Chicago.

Vinatieri, who made two Super Bowl-winning kicks for New England, nailed a 29-yard field goal early in the second period but was wide left from 32 yards at the end of the half.

Vinatieri still set an all-time record with 49 postseason points.

JC


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