MIAMI — When the subject of the Colts and Saints offenses is broached, the attention turns immediately to the teams' respective quarterbacks.
Considering they are Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, that certainly is justifiable.
But take a close look at two players who serve in unheralded capacities for these clubs, and you will have discovered two major reasons why they are set to meet today in Super Bowl XLIV.
Kickers Matt Stover (Colts) and Garrett Hartley (Saints) helped propel these teams to the brink of a championship. But that's where the similarities end.
At 42 and in his 20th season, Stover is the NFL's oldest player and has excelled after being signed to fill in for the injured Adam Vinatieri. Even when Vinatieri returned from knee surgery, Colts president Bill Polian kept Stover on the roster, and the move is paying off now that Stover is 5-for-5 in the postseason.
Just as important are his performances in regular-season games such as the 18-14 win over San Francisco in November, in which Stover's four field goals represented the lion's share of the Colts' offense.
Stover is one of the league's most accomplished kickers, having converted 471 regular-season field goals. His 83.7 percentage ranks second all time. As a rookie with the Giants in 1990, Stover counted Phil Simms, Joe Morris, Lawrence Taylor and Ottis Anderson as teammates, though he spent the year on injured reserve. Some of his current teammates were toddlers during that Super Bowl campaign.
"When you look at when you first start your career, you really don't know what you're in for," Stover said. "You have no idea. When you've been in the league five years, okay, you've got a good piece of it. Ten years, it's like, 'Wow, I'm still in.' Every year after that, it's just a blessing."
Hartley, meanwhile, is 23 and anonymous even for a kicker. The second-year player missed the first four games of this season with a league suspension (for taking a banned stimulant) and has attempted just 24 kicks as a pro.
Yet it was Hartley's 40-yard field goal in overtime of the NFC title game that made this Super Bowl berth possible. He has shown fortitude at just the right time, rebounding from a Week 16 miss that led to a loss to the Bucs. He's 3-for-3 since with conversions from 35, 43 and 40 yards.
The historic kick against the Vikings makes that miss against the Bucs feel like eons ago.
"I missed a kick vs. Tampa, which I kind of rushed myself on," he said. "I didn't get to follow through. So I was just going to kind of relax a little bit more and really just make sure I'm getting through the ball, and things worked out (against the Vikings). When it came off my foot, there was no question in my mind that that ball was going exactly where I wanted it to go."
Undoubtedly, the quarterbacks will loom large in today's game. But it's these kickers who could be called upon to actually win it.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.