Earlier this week, EA Sports ran its annual Madden Super Bowl simulation, predicting New Orleans to be tomorrow's winner. But there are plenty of contingencies and scenarios - some less plausible than others - that they didn't take into account.
Here then is Stick Jockey's inaugural Super Sim Spectacular, in which we start with a Super Bowl XLIV matchup of Indianapolis and New Orleans at full strength, and gradually devolve into madness, in hopes that it might tell us something beyond what the touts and pundits say will happen tomorrow.
Note: The following is for amusement purposes only. None of it constitutes a forward-looking statement. Past performance is no indicator of future success. If you are somehow stupid enough to bet on professional sports using a console video game as a mathematical model, seek professional help immediately.
Also, for purposes of these simulations, all games were played with 10-minute quarters on All-Pro difficulty with the Colts as the home team at the Super Bowl XLIV site. Accelerated clock runoff was enabled and set to 15 seconds. Weather, except where specified, was set to clear and gametime start was 8.15pm.
So let's get on with it:
Saints vs. Colts, Super Bowl XLIV
Two Peyton Manning touchdown passes, to Reggie Wayne and reserve tight end Tom Santi, get the Colts on top 14-3 at the half. Manning also has 202 yards passing midway through the game, while Saints quarterback Drew Brees is just 8-of-17 for 89 yards.
The Saints score on their first possession of the second half, but a failed two-point conversion sets off a chain of three of them by both teams. Brees recovers from his lacklustre first half to answer Colts touchdowns with passing touchdown drives of 4-for-5, 59 yards and 5-for-6, 67 yards, respectively, and the score is 27-24 late in the fourth quarter.
Then the unimaginable happens, on seemingly every other play. Colts punter Pat McAffee falls on a ball snapped over his head, giving the Saints the ball on Indianapolis' 36 with 3:24 to go. The very next play, Saints halfback Reggie Bush fumbles and 6-2, 245-lb. defensive lineman Robert Mathis picks it up and returns it 75 yards for a touchdown.
When all seems lost, Bush - with kick returners Courtney Roby and Pierre Thomas both out with injuries - redeems himself with a miracle 94-yard kickoff return touchdown, bringing New Orleans back to 34-31 with 1:56 left. But Indianapolis finally finishes business when Joseph Addai sheds four tackles and charges 69 yards through the left side of a tired Saints defence - three, including starter Sedrick Ellis and his backup at left defensive tackle, left the game with injuries - for a touchdown, and the 41-31 victory.
For those keeping score, those are three plays that, by themselves, would go down in Super Bowl lore, all taking place in the final 3:30. And despite losing seven players altogether, the battered Saints still make it a fight and one of the most memorable title games ever. Brees recovers from the disastrous first half to log 285 yards passing and three TDs. Manning is 22-of-38 for 342 yards and three TDs. Wayne's 194 yards receiving is second only to Jerry Rice's 215 a decade earlier. But Addai's 183 yards rushing and two touchdowns, especially the backbreaker, earn him the Super Bowl MVP.
Colts, without Dwight Freeney, versus the Saints
Although Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell insists Freeney is on track to play tomorrow, the Colts' all-world defensive end has been a question mark all week with an ankle injury sustained against New York in the AFC Championship. So in this simulation, he sits out the entire game. Raheem Brock steps in for him instead. The score is 14-14 after one quarter and 21-14, New Orleans at the half. The Saints extend their lead to 31-21 after three quarters and ultimately win 49-28. Forced to throw often from behind, Manning is just 16 of 38 for 224 yards and two interceptions. Brees is a respectable 17 of 34 with 252 yards. But Bush gets 177 yards on 24 carries, three touchdowns, and the Super Bowl MVP.
Colts, without Reggie Wayne, versus the Saints
Four-time Pro Bowl wideout Reggie Wayne pulled up short on a pass route and left practice on Friday. Although the Colts' No. 1 receiver has a tender knee head coach Jim Caldwell insists he will play. What if he doesn't? Pierre Garçon and Hank Baskett fill the void in this sim, with 87 and 84 yards each, while Dallas Clark collects three huge third down conversions and a touchdown. The Colts win 30-27, largely as they were able to with Wayne taken out of the AFC title game by the Jets' Darrelle Revis.
Colts versus the Saints without Darren Sharper
New Orleans' injury situation isn't as dramatic as Indianapolis' is with Freeney or Wayne. But safety Darren Sharper is their highest-rated player still listed as questionable (knee). So for the sake of argument, out he goes. Indy wins 41-16 and Manning has three TDs - but also three picks. The story of the day is Brees' pedestrian 14-of-27, 185 yard, no touchdown performance.
Colts, without Manning, versus the Saints
Let's say Peyton goes on a Double-Stuf Racing League binge the night before and wakes up with a colossal tummyache. That puts rookie Curtis Painter in the driver's seat. Surprisingly, it's not so bad, but it is 21-14 Saints after one quarter, and they pull away for a 58-34 romp. Painter throws for 324 yards and three touchdowns - but also four interceptions, one of which Sharper returns for a touchdown.
Colts versus the Saints without Brees
Flipside of the previous proposition, how would New Orleans do without its record-setting saviour? The stakes are a lot higher, because behind Brees is only Mark Brunell, while Painter at least had Jim Sorgi backing him up in case of injury. And the results are a lot worse. Brunell is intercepted five times and Indianapolis wins 68-27.
Colts, without Manning, versus the Saints without Brees
OK, let's pit Painter and Brunell against each other for the tiebreak of which team needs their starting quarterback more. And while this game is a wild 24-23 at the half, featuring a safety, eventually New Orleans pulls away with another high-scoring triumph, 44-29. Brunell is 11 of 32 for 180 yards, two TDs and a pick; Painter is 13 of 29 for 139 yards, two TDs and pick. The game is instead won on the ground, where Reggie Bush has a Super Bowl record 229 yards and two touchdowns.
Colts, with Brees, versus the Saints with Manning
A blockbuster QB swap scenario sends Peyton Manning to his hometown team, and his father's franchise. Believe me, this was hard to pull off given cap and roster restrictions, and quickly put an end to my other plan, which was to make each team face its own defence. Interestingly, the trade improves the Colts from an 81 overall to an 89, while the Saints hold steady at 87. In the end, Brees and the Colts prevail 33-28. Brees is 22 of 33 with 325 yards passing, one touchdown and two interceptions. Manning is 23 of 37 for 249 yards, two touchdowns and two picks, insinuating that as great as Manning is, his supporting cast in Indianapolis is better than his counterpart's on the Saints.
Colts versus Saints, coaches swapped
A great coach can take his and beat yours, then take yours and beat his. While you can't literally trade coaches in Madden, I swapped the playbooks and strategies of Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell and New Orleans' Sean Payton. The result was the first overtime game in the history of the Super Bowl. The Caldwell-led Saints prevail 41-38 although, to be fair, somehow this game generated a 97-yard touchdown run for Drew Brees with 1:43 left in regulation to tie the game, so the result is hardly conclusive. Manning does worse against his own defensive scheme, throwing three interceptions while Brees tosses three touchdowns and 322 yards.
Colts versus Saints, in a downpour
Since both teams play in a dome, I figured, why not drop them into some extreme weather? After all, the Colts won Super Bowl XLI in a monsoon, the first time the game was played in the rain. In my game, nobody important gets hurt and turnovers don't get out of hand, but passing offence takes a dent - Manning completes 25 passes for 227 yards, Brees 18 for 202, both intercepted once with one touchdown pass. The game is instead won on special teams, with an 88-yard punt return by Reggie Bush in the second quarter, and a 96 yard kickoff return by Courtney Roby in the third to deliver New Orleans a 35-21 victory.
Colts versus Saints, in a blizzard
Sure, this year's game is being played in Miami. But have you seen that nasty-ass weather that just moved through the mid-Atlantic this weekend? Lets say it took a hard right turn and parked over Florida, with some apocalyptically low temperatures to boot. In this affair, again the Saints win, and again the difference is special teams. Roby returns a kickoff 96 yards as time expires in the first half to make it 28-21 Colts, and then Lance Moore houses a punt return in quarter three to get the Saints on top 30-28. He then catches the game winning score with 2:01 left for the 37-34 win.
Colts' second team versus Saints' first team
Everyone knows this will be a disaster for Indianapolis, but how bad? Try 48-7 bad, with the closest the Colts getting is 14-7 midway through the second quarter. New Orleans churns out 259 yards rushing, nearly all of that coming from Reggie Bush (234 yards, a Super Bowl record.) Having such an easy time at the line of scrimmage, the Saints reduce their passing game, with Brees completing just 18 passes for 207 yards. Curtis Painter is sacked five times and intercepted four times. Donald Brown as the lead rusher gets 69 yards on 16 attempts. Austin Collie leads all receivers with four catches for 38 yards and Indianapolis' lone touchdown.
Colts' first team versus Saints' second team
Another blowout, this one 44-13 highlighted by Indianapolis' 13 (!!!) sacks against Mark Brunell and the Saints' second-team offensive line. Manning barely breaks a sweat, tossing 290 yards and three touchdowns. The Saints' defence surrenders 639 yards altogether.
Colts' second team versus Saints' second team
One thing I noticed in doing this is the Saints' depth at skill positions and along the offensive line, the previous result notwithstanding. And with that, the Saints in fact romp in this matchup, 40-26, with 259 return yards and enough passing protection to give Mark Brunell 320 yards passing, a figure he hasn't reached since Oct. 1, 2006.
Colts versus Saints, centres and quarterbacks swapped
I don't mean Jeff Saturday goes to New Orleans; I mean Manning snaps the ball to Saturday, and Jonathan Goodwin has his hands up under Brees' butt. What's the over/under on completions? Which golden boy do you think gets ploughed first? All four players instantly become the worst on their teams. Saturday is a 12-rated quarterback; Manning's a 22-rated centre. Goodwin is likewise a 12 at QB, but Brees is a 21-rated centre, probably because he's 6-0 to Manning's 6-5.
You should have seen the pregame animations. My screen went blank for at least five seconds while the game chugged along, clearly wondering why it was rendering Saturday in a passing animation. He did have pretty nice form. Looked like a fatter Dan Fouts actually.
The first play is a four yard rush by Saturday. Then he throws an interception. Goodwin likewise rushes on his first play, for three yards. Goodwin is then sacked but the Saints get a field goal on their first drive. And then on first and 10 from Indy's 46, Goodwin tosses a 46-yard touchdown pass to Moore for the 10-0 lead.
The Colts manage to tie it at 17-17 in the fourth quarter, but New Orleans pulls away to win 27-17. The damage report: Saturday is 6-for-29, 59 yards and three interceptions. Goodwin is an insane 8-for-36 for 142 yards and two TDs, but four interceptions. The Saints are 3-for-16 on third downs to the Colts' 3-for-17, but incredibly, both teams are 100 percent in the red zone. Saturday is sacked eight times to Goodwin's six. Three Saints starters are knocked out of the game, but not Brees. Manning likewise survives, likely owing to high durability ratings for both.
• • • So what did we learn? Well, broadly speaking, for game expected to be a shootout, Indianapolis has stronger game management but New Orleans has a deeper offensive talent pool and better special teams threats. And where the Colts have been coldly efficient with the time given on offence, skill players like Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Courtney Roby give the Saints plenty of ways to climb back into a game.
That's no small consideration given the questions about Freeney's ankle and the new concern over Wayne. But It's hard for me to say how realistic the simulation is at presenting the kind of matchup advantages created by Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Greg Robinson's game plan
Maybe EA Sports' sim has it right - they've only been wrong once - and the Saints do in fact win tomorrow. Maybe my sim is right and the Colts fend off an explosive and inspired team. Maybe it all lies somewhere in the middle. Just so long as Peyton Manning isn't playing centre.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears every Saturday.