MIAMI — In the end Sunday, after sheets of rain had transformed the world's biggest football game into the Souper Bowl, there was one turnover -- the ninth of the night -- that didn't make the stat sheet.
Interception, Bob Sanders.
The Indianapolis safety somehow snagged the Lombardi Trophy from teammate Peyton Manning, who was named most valuable player of Super Bowl XLI.
While Manning stood on the platform, straining to hear questions shouted at him by a mosh pit of journalists, Sanders sat in a small booth, before a far smaller group, clutching the trophy with a titanium grip.
The Colts' 29-17 triumph over the Chicago Bears was, after all, the truest of \o7team\f7 victories.
"Regardless of what happened in the regular season, how bad our defense did, how bad everyone talked about us, I mean everybody's looking at us now and look what I'm holding up," Sanders said, handling the hardware the way the Colts throttled Rex Grossman. "We go through trials and tribulations to be rewarded in the end. And we did."
The Indianapolis defense, which during the regular season ranked among the worst in NFL history at stopping the run, spearheaded the improbable march through the playoffs. Down went Kansas City's Larry Johnson, who was supposed to trample all over the Colts. Down went Baltimore, which had a big emotional edge. Down went New England, after the mighty Patriots built an 18-point lead, no less.
And down went the Bears, who became the first Super Bowl team to open with a kickoff return for a touchdown, then saw everything fall apart after that.
In a game so wet that many people left after the halftime show, even though some paid more than $3,000 per ticket, the Colts cleansed themselves of their stains. The biggest: Manning proved he can win the NFL's most important game, something Hall of Fame quarterbacks Dan Marino and Jim Kelly were unable to do in a combined 28 seasons and five Super Bowl appearances.
Asked whether the victory was a personal validation, Manning shook his head.
"I don't play that card," he said. "I don't play that game. It sure is nice to be on this championship team. I put a lot of hard work into it, but I know our team has put a lot of hard work into it. We truly got here as a team, and I'm proud to be a part of them."
This breakthrough victory didn't require needle-threading throws or constant checking in and out of plays by Manning, but a balanced, relentless, grinding attack that kept the Bears defense on the field for more than 38 minutes. The Colts had 81 snaps on offense -- compared with Chicago's 48 -- and nearly redefined "Indy 500" with 430 yards against a franchise known for its ability to embarrass the best of offensive machines.
"The defense and I didn't make plays," said Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, part of a unit that surrendered 191 yards on the ground. "All season long, we've prided ourselves on our defense and making plays, and we didn't come out and do that."
What the Bears did do, however, was make history from the start. Returner Devin Hester ran back the opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown, becoming the first player to begin a Super Bowl that way.
But the Colts responded on their second offensive possession by taking advantage of a blown coverage on third down and scoring on a 53-yard pass from Manning to Reggie Wayne.
By the end of the first quarter, the rain was pouring, and each team had two turnovers, the most ever for an opening quarter of a Super Bowl. Whereas the Colts settled down and got into an offensive groove, the Bears never could. Chicago's last 11 possessions ended fumble, punt, punt, punt, fumble, punt, field goal, interception, interception, turnover on downs, end of game.
In a word, gruesome.
"It's extremely disappointing when you get this close to a world championship and you come up short," said Grossman, who was composed but spoke barely above a whisper. "You know, there's nothing else to say."
Grossman, who had more dramatic swings in his play this season than any other NFL quarterback, finished with one touchdown pass, two interceptions, and ostensibly shaky status as Chicago's answer at quarterback. On the other side of the interview tent, Manning was soaked to the skin but, at least in his answers, as dry as he could be.
"We put a lot of hard work and effort into this," he pleasantly repeated time and again.
A persistent story line over the last two weeks concerned the fact that Indianapolis' Tony Dungy and Chicago's Lovie Smith were the first African American head coaches to reach the Super Bowl. So Dungy is the first to win, of course, but also the sixth person to both play on and coach Super Bowl-winning teams. He was a reserve safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late 1970s. His Colts also became the first team that plays its home games in a dome to win a Super Bowl outdoors.
And not only outdoors, but in miserable conditions far more befitting the Bears.
"They were talking about a 40% chance of rain before the game," Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "It was more like 99% chance of rain."
Make that 100%.
But when the clock expired and their dream was officially realized, the Colts were as comfy as could be. They captured the moment with tiny video cameras, pulled on fresh championship T-shirts and hats, and let the confetti shower wash over them.
As for everybody who doubted them?
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
*--* Indianapolis 6 10 6 7 -- 29 Chicago 14 0 3 0 -- 17
* Indianapolis' Peyton Manning completes 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown, a 53-yarder to Reggie Wayne.
* Kelvin Hayden returns an interception 56 yards in the fourth quarter to put the Colts ahead by two scores.
*--* Colts Bears First downs 24 11 Yards 430 265 Plays 81 48 Possession time 38:04 21:56