Freeney faces stiff challenge

MIAMI -- Somehow, the Indianapolis Colts knew Dwight Freeney would play. A man doesn't spend 17 hours a day rehabbing a swollen right ankle for nothing. Freeney didn't even take a cortisone shot Sunday before he took the field against the New Orleans Saints. Didn't talk to his teammates about the pain. And when he spun around in his trademark whirling-dervish move, it appeared as if everything would go right for the Colts.

Three hours and three Saints touchdowns later, Freeney braced himself against the shoulder of a PR guy in a suit and limped off into the night. He defied sports medicine and all the early reports that said there was little chance he'd play in Super Bowl XLIV with an ankle that at times last week looked as if it had a doughnut wrapped around it. Freeney played all four quarters Sunday with a low ankle sprain, but clearly wasn't himself as the clock wound down in the Colts' 31-17 loss to New Orleans.

Blame it on The Who -- or long Super Bowl halftimes, in general. Freeney showed shades of his Pro Bowl self early in the second quarter, when he bull-rushed Saints quarterback Drew Brees, snagged the shoulder of his jersey and dropped the eventual game MVP with one arm. The Saints -- who knew immediately that Freeney wasn't a decoy -- had already started double-teaming the defensive end by the second possession of the game.

But then came halftime, all 30 minutes of it, and Freeney's ankle began to stiffen.

"I don't know if you saw me on the sidelines," Freeney said of warm-up attempts early in the second half. "I kept on running back and forth to get it going again. I re-taped, and tried to figure out ways to keep it warm. The problem is, once it gets stiff, it's tough to bring it back."

Next to the whole "Peyton Manning playing his hometown New Orleans" storyline, Freeney's ankle was the biggest story of Super Bowl week. While the pundits speculated, Freeney went to work. He arrived in town on Jan. 29, three days before the team. He did it so he could undergo an intense rehabilitation program on the ankle he injured in the final minutes of the AFC Championship Game against the New York Jets.

Freeney said late Sunday that he put in 17 to 18 hours of therapy in each of the days leading up to the game, but said that the fact that it was the Super Bowl didn't necessarily provide any extra motivation. Freeney said he would have played if Sunday were a regular-season game, too.

He applied ice repeatedly. He laid in a hyperbaric chamber, in the hopes that the increased air pressure would help speed his recovery. Freeney was already known as a fast healer. He battled back from injuries to his quadriceps and abdomen to finish third in the league with 13.5 sacks. At the start of the week, the Colts said Freeney was 50-50. At the time, even that seemed optimistic.

At the end of the game, it was clear his teammates were inspired.

"He worked is tail off, three, four times a day," Colts safety Melvin Bullitt said. "I knew he was going to play. There was no doubt in my mind he wouldn't. That's just the type of person Dwight is. It's hard we couldn't get the win for him with him coming back so soon off an injury like that. It's very disappointing. He came up with a big play at a crucial time for us."

The Colts appeared in control for roughly the first 20 minutes of the game. They had a 10-0 lead with just more than 10 minutes to go in the first half when Freeney dropped Brees for a 7-yard loss on third-and-3 at the Indianapolis 22-yard line. It forced Saints coach Sean Payton to summon the kicking team, and Garrett Hartley hit a 46-yard field goal to cut the Colts' lead to seven.

What followed was another Hartley field goal as the clock ran down to halftime, a 30-minute wait for Freeney, and a smart game plan drawn up by Payton for the second half. The Saints dumped off short passes, and Brees connected on 88 percent of his throws of less than 10 yards.

"They were very effective on the quick pass in getting rid of the ball," Freeney said, "trying to keep Drew from being sacked. They had great execution in the second half. We just couldn't make the stops that we needed to."

Freeney spent the first part of the third quarter with a trainer hovering over him, re-taping his ankle. He said the ankle was sore, but downplayed any effect it may have had on his performance.

He woke up Sunday morning optimistic about his chances of playing, confident his nine days of rehab would make his ankle serviceable. Once he got on the field early Sunday afternoon and started running, "I knew I was going to be fine," he said.

Freeney said he doesn't expect to require any offseason surgery for the ankle.

Coach Jim Caldwell called Freeney's night -- and his journey back on the field -- a "gallant effort," but that didn't ease Freeney's pain as he made the slow walk out of the interview tent.

"He played through a lot of pain all day," Colts defensive tackle Daniel Muir said. "A lot of pain. You could tell he was hurting. One thing I'll say about Dwight is that he's a warrior."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com. ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.