It’s been nearly two years since a soaking-wet Sean Payton was carried off the field following his New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
After a collision last week injured his knee and left leg, Payton won’t be on the sidelines for Sunday night’s rematch, while Manning won’t be on the field once again for the winless Colts.
Payton was hurt during New Orleans’ 26-20 loss at Tampa Bay when tight end Jimmy Graham was tackled into him. The coach had surgery Monday to repair a torn meniscus and a broken tibia.
Payton will likely be confined to the press box during his recovery, which is expected to take three to six months, meaning the Saints (4-2) will have to adjust quickly.
“He’s just got a kind of presence and moxie that when you’re on the sideline you look for,” guard Carl Nicks said. “He’s yelling and he’s calling the plays. He’s getting everybody situated. You can take it for granted. He’s our leader, you know? So it’s kind of weird.”
If any team knows the uneasiness of losing a leader, it’s the Colts (0-6). They haven’t been the same since losing Manning indefinitely following his third neck surgery in 19 months.
After being confined to the press box earlier this season, he was on the sidelines for yet another close loss for his team last Sunday, a 27-17 defeat in Cincinnati.
Curtis Painter’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Clark cut Indianapolis’ deficit to three points in the fourth quarter, but the Bengals blocked Adam Vinatieri’s 52-yard field goal attempt and returned a late fumble 35 yards for a score, one of three turnovers for the Colts.
“We’re hurting ourselves,” center Jeff Saturday said. “We’re doing things that, we talk about week in and week out, we can’t do. Lose the turnover battle. Make mistakes at critical times in the game. It’s little things here and there.”
Indianapolis has dropped each of its past five games by 10 points or fewer and is off its worst start since beginning the 1997 season 0-10. The Colts’ streak of nine seasons with 10 or more wins could officially end this week.
“We’ve been to the mountaintop,” defensive end Robert Mathis said. “We’re in the valley low right now. Got to keep fighting.”
The Saints, meanwhile, will try to bounce back from their first loss in five games. Drew Brees set an NFL record by topping 350 yards passing for the fourth consecutive contest last Sunday, but he also threw three interceptions – including one in the end zone with 3:16 remaining.
Pierre Thomas’ fumble in the first quarter was converted into a field goal, and New Orleans was held to a season-low 70 yards on the ground.
“They took the ball away four times, which if you do that you’re going to win a lot of games,” Brees said. “We gave it away four times. The fact of the matter is that will get you beat.”
Brian de la Puente was snapping the ball to Brees the past two weeks with veteran Olin Kreutz out, and it seems Brees will have to get used to that connection for much longer. Kreutz, signed in the offseason after spending his first 13 NFL seasons with Chicago, abruptly left the team on Friday, saying he’d lost his passion for football.
Perhaps the bigger concern for Brees, though, is the potential that his favorite target might not be at full strength. Graham, who’s third in the league in receiving yards (620) and tied for second in targets (59), didn’t practice Thursday because of a sore right ankle but returned on a limited basis Friday.
Graham is listed as probable, while backup David Thomas (concussion) will miss a fourth straight game.
The Saints forced the only turnover in their Super Bowl victory with Tracy Porter’s 74-yard interception return for a touchdown that all but put the game away. Payton also made the bold decision to call for an onside kick to begin the second half, which New Orleans recovered.
That led to one of Brees’ two touchdown passes during his Super Bowl MVP performance, but he was intercepted twice during his last regular-season matchup with the Colts, a 41-10 Indianapolis rout Sept. 6, 2007.
Manning had 288 yards passing and three TDs in that game, and Joseph Addai rushed for 118 yards and a score. Addai, however, missed last week’s game because of an injured right hamstring, and his status for Sunday is unclear.
Rookie left tackle Anthony Castonzo, the team’s first-round draft pick, is dealing with a sprained ankle ahead of Indianapolis’ first visit to the Superdome since 2003.
The Colts claimed a 55-21 victory that year as Manning had a career-high six touchdown passes, a mark he tied the next season.
The teams have split their 10 regular-season meetings.
Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed the Saints as 13 1/2-point home favorites, with the total set at 48.