Brees, Payton outduel Manning

Naturally, Peyton Manning is taking criticism for not winning Super Bowl XLIV. That's unfair.

The Saints' victory can be credited to how Drew Brees and Sean Payton out-maneuvered the Colts and -- to a certain degree -- beat the Colts at their own game. At first, I thought the Saints' coach was crazy for going for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal at the Colts' 1-yard line with 1:55 left in the first half.

In retrospect, the strategy was brilliant. The league knows Manning takes control of games in the final two minutes of the first half, and, if the Colts receive the second-half kickoff as they were set to do on Sunday, they get a 10- to 14-point swing to their favor in those types of games. Heading into the Super Bowl, Manning and Brees led the league with 79 points scored in the final two minutes of their 18 games (including playoffs).

Payton's decision to roll the dice with the fourth-and-goal run was the right call because he sensed Manning would have to be conservative with the play calls near his goal line. The Colts ran the ball three times and gained only 9 yards. The punt gave Brees 35 seconds to move the ball 26 yards for a field goal that cut the Colts' lead to 10-6.

The brilliance of the onside kick to open the second half was it gave the Saints an extra possession and a quick touchdown drive that gave the Saints the 10-point swing Manning is accustomed to having.

Super Bowl XLIV was just an example of how this league continues to evolve more to passing than running and how great the games can be. Manning brought the Colts back with a touchdown drive to take a 17-13 lead, but Brees answered with two drives that produced 11 points total to put the Saints ahead for good. Manning's interception was no different than the one thrown by Brett Favre in the final minutes of the NFC Championship Game.

This wasn't a game that Manning lost. This was a game Payton and Brees won.

Q: John, I'm not a Packers or Broncos fan, but every time I see a best of Super Bowl list, Super Bowl XXXII Broncos vs. Packers never makes the cut. Am I the only one who thinks this was one of the better Super Bowls played?

Pat in Chicago

A: I know I had the John Elway helicopter play in my top-10 Super Bowl plays and clearly that game is one of the 10 greatest Super Bowls. You had the Elway element. You had Favre going against Elway. You had Mike Holmgren going against Mike Shanahan. You had the decision of Holmgren to give up a touchdown to the Broncos to give Favre one chance at a comeback. I'm in your corner on that game.

Q: I know with all the CBA talks that a new deal won't be in place until after the March 5 deadline, but couldn't they put in a structure before that to have a salary cap? The cap seems to be pivotal in preventing a lockout, and I don't see why they can't just continue negotiations for a CBA while instituting the previous cap policy. It's probably more complicated than I'm making it, but is it possible?

John in Winston-Salem, N.C.

A: The scary part is that there is a group of owners who would like to try a season without the cap. Clearly, the players have to have an acceptable deal in place to keep the salary cap. The NFL owners can't have the best of both worlds by shorting the players in 2010 and then thinking the players are going to jump at a chance to return to the salary cap. Players, agents and unions like having no salary cap, but the NFLPA is willing to continue with a cap because it knows it has a great value for the game. There is still time to get a deal, but you get the feeling the owners are willing to gamble that they can get a better deal from the union later rather than get a deal done before March 5. I don't get their logic.

Q: All the talk is about an uncapped year in 2010, but from what I understand, there are many new restrictions coming into play in March -- almost more restrictive than a salary cap would be. Is that a fair description? And why was the last CBA bargained this way, to have an "uncapped" year?

Jay in Rockdale, Texas

A: The big handicap to the players is they have to have six years of experience to become a free agent. Those drafted after 2004 can be only restricted free agents and it's rare for a restricted free agent to go anywhere. The top eight teams from the playoffs can't sign players until they lose players. The reason the uncapped year and the six-year requirement for free agency was placed in the deal was that it was supposed to be such a bad option that it kept both sides at the bargaining table to get a deal done before that could happen. Maybe the union underestimated what the owners would think about six-year requirement for free agency. We'll see.

Q: With the development of Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon this season, how much will the return of Anthony Gonzalez next season add to the Colts' passing game? I don't suppose we will see Collie, Garcon, Gonzalez, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark all on the field at the same time very often, so will Gonzalez's return help anything beyond injury insurance?

Ben in Chicago

A: Interesting question. A healthy Gonzalez would give the Colts four receivers, and they are mostly a three-receiver offense. My guess is that they will let Gonzalez compete against Collie for the slot job or have him compete against Garcon for the outside job. They will let the best man win, but it will give the Colts a little breathing room and maybe create a rotation in which all three get significant playing time. Gonzalez seems better suited for the slot, and Garcon looks like a budding star on the outside.

Q: Do you think the Jets will re-sign Leon Washington next year? I've heard a lot of people say he won't be back because of Shonn Greene's success but it seems more important to keep Washington -- the young and speedy RB -- than Thomas Jones -- the fading power back.

James in Bronxville, N.Y.

A: I think Washington will re-sign as long as he is healthy and isn't greedy. From what I heard, he turned down abound $4.5 million a year. If the Jets make that offer again, he should consider it. After all, Washington is a great complementary back -- he's not an every-down back. Greene is. I think his success at the end of the season will lead to the release of Jones, who faded in the playoffs. Was it the knee injury or was it age? I think there will be a Greene-Washington backfield next season.

Q: As I read your "10 Greatest Quarterbacks" article and many other similar lists and arguments made by fans and reporters alike, I often wondered why so much importance is placed on winning records and championships won. Football is the ultimate team sport, and the quarterback is only one of 11 players on the field when they control the ball; the quarterback also has no control over the other team's ability to score, as that task is set to the defensive unit. I believe a quarterback's legacy should be judged by their ability to handle their offense and the things within their own control such as catchable throws, minimizing turnovers and managing the clock. So why are the win-loss records and championships won statistics so important to whether or not a quarterback is considered "great?"

Geoff in Chicago

A: I know Wade Phillips isn't the first to say this, but he makes a great point: He says wins and losses are attached to the coaches and the quarterbacks. Sure, it's a team game, but football has evolved more into a quarterback league. The better the quarterback, the better the team's record. While you can look at the stats, quarterbacks have to be judged with the wins because stats are meaningless unless the team gets the victory. These are different times now -- the days of just having average quarterbacks, great defenses and running the ball are no more. Look at the Super Bowl: Brees completed 32 passes, and Manning completed 31. The quarterback's legacy always will be judged in wins and losses, ultimately. Football is still a team game, but the quarterback has the most importance in that team concept.

Q: Do you think the Vikings might try to make a trade for Randy Moss and bring him back to Minnesota as bait to get [Brett] Favre to return? I think it makes sense. Moss has always idolized Favre and Favre has never really had a guy like Moss. Why not try to trade Bernard Berrian and a second-round pick for Moss? Favre, Moss, Rice, Harvin, Shianco, and Peterson all on one offense. How great would that be!?

Corey in Augusta, Ga.

A: The Vikings are loaded at wide receiver and tight end. That would be incentive enough for Favre to want to come back. He likes this group of receivers. You could see that in the way he worked with Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice. In Green Bay, he was upset the Packers didn't make the Moss trade and let him go to New England. The only reason Favre wouldn't come back is if he wonders if he can't do enough to get this team to the Super Bowl. He's not playing for the money. He's playing for the ring. Adding Moss to the process wouldn't change anything.

Q: Can you explain why anyone should be sympathetic to the owners' position in the current labor negotiations? And do you see them disclosing audited financial statements for their teams? My impression is that ownership of an NFL team is akin to a license to print money for life. The players, on the other hand, make much smaller money (relatively speaking), for a much shorter period of time, and sacrifice their health and physical well-being for the game. So I don't see how the owners can claim they're getting paid too much.

Billy in Miami

A: If the owners let the 2010 season go into an uncapped year and eventually are forced to have a lockout, they deserve no sympathy. There is enough money in this sport to make everyone happy and get a satisfactory deal. I don't see the owners opening the books to the players and there really isn't any reason for that to happen. The players receive audited statements on every dollar of revenue and the players are given every contract, so they see almost 60 percent of the costs. How the owners spend their 40 percent of the money is their business. The smart thing to do is get a deal done. I don't know if the owners will get it done, though. That would be a shame.

Q: If Wes Welker is not back next year, or even if he is not 100 percent (think Marvin Harrison injury), who can New England find to fix an offense that operated around him? Could this injury allow the Jets or Dolphins to grab hold of the division?

Matt in Lowell, Ind.

A: I think the Patriots should consider making a pitch to acquire Brandon Marshall. He's perfect for the Patriots' offense and would add excitement to the division. Julian Edelman should develop into a nice slot receiver. I don't know if he will be as good as Welker, but he can be very effective. The Patriots left themselves short of receiving talent last year after Moss and Welker. Adding a great receiver such as Marshall would be intriguing. They hit the jackpot in trades for Welker and Moss. Why not roll the dice a third time?

Q: As a huge Packers fan, I'd love to get your opinion on how you thought the first year of the Packers' transition to the 3-4 defense went? Also, what direction do you think the Pack should go in first round of the draft? I know they need help in the secondary, but they need some pass protection for Rodgers and the draft seems deeper at the OT position in the first round than at cornerback. Thanks.

Justin from East Rutherford, N.J.

A: To me, the Packers made the best 3-4 transition since the Chargers went to the 3-4 with Wade Phillips years ago. The Packers had enough big defensive linemen to make it work. Ryan Pickett was great at nose tackle, B.J. Raji did well at nose tackle and defensive end and the linebackers came on quicker than anyone expected. Sure, there were breakdowns in the secondary, but the key to any 3-4 is the ability to stop the run first and the pass second. Most 3-4s fail because of the lack of a good nose tackle or not having a pass-rushing linebacker. Give the Packers a lot of credit for being bold with this move and knowing their personnel.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.