Complete analysis of Sunday’s big game along with Athlon editors’ picks to win
It’s a classic, yet unique matchup on tap for Super Bowl XLVIII this Sunday at MetLife Stadium when the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos kick things off at 6:25 p.m. ET on FOX. For the first time since 1991, the battle for the Lombardi Trophy features the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense (Denver) against the No. 1 scoring defense (Seattle).
There is certainly no lack of storylines when it comes to this game, one of the biggest being the on-field conditions at the first-ever outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather city. NFL Commissioner Roger Gooddell and many others have been waiting for this moment – hosting the biggest game of the year in the New York metropolitan area – for some time. And while it may be a little on the cold side (projected day-time high of 46 degrees on Sunday, low of 26 according to weather.com), it does appear that otherwise (slight chance of precipitation, minimal wind) Mother Nature will cooperate.
On the field, Pete Carroll is hoping to lead Seattle to its first Super Bowl victory in two tries, while John Fox and Denver are aiming for the franchise’s third world championship in seven appearances. Besides the No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense aspect, this is the first Super Bowl that pits the top seeds from each conference since New Orleans defeated Peyton Manning and Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV and just the second such matchup in the past 20 seasons.
This also is a pairing of former division rivals, as the Seahawks and Broncos were both in the AFC West from 1977-2001. For what it’s worth, Denver holds a 35-18 edge in the all-time series, which includes one previous postseason encounter. Seattle won that game, defeating the Broncos 31-7 in a wild card game during the 1983 playoffs. The last time these two teams faced each other was during the 2010 season, a 31-14 Broncos victory at home.
Super Bowl XLVIII Breakdown
When the Seattle Seahawks run:
During the regular season, Seattle averaged 136.8 yards rushing per game, good for fourth in the NFL in that category. In two playoff games, that number has increased to 144.5 per game thanks to a heavy dose of Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks’ powerful, punishing workhorse, Lynch has 249 yards rushing on 50 carries in wins over New Orleans and San Francisco. That 5.0 yards per carry average is right in line with his career postseason mark of 5.1 in six playoff games.
Seattle’s offense is built around running the ball, so Denver’s defense can expect to see a heavy dose of Lynch. Besides being productive, Lynch’s presence forces the defense to load up in the box, which then opens up things in the passing game for Russell Wilson, especially in play-action situations. While Lynch is the main cog of the Seahawks’ ground game, he’s not the only effective ball carrier. Wilson is second on the team with 555 yards rushing (5.4 ypc), and uses his athleticism and mobility to frustrate pass rushers and often turn what appears to be a big loss on a play into a positive gain.
Understandably overshadowed by the exploits of the offense, Denver’s defense has done a solid job against the run all season. The Broncos were just as effective as Seattle’s mighty defense in defending the run (101.6 ypg) during the regular season and has taken that performance to another level during the playoffs.
In their wins over the Chargers and Patriots, the Broncos’ defense yielded a total of 129 yards rushing on 34 carries (3.8 ypc). Even more impressive, this unit is missing All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, starting defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and starting cornerback Chris Harris. Tackle Terrance Knighton (6-3, 335) has been an immovable object in the middle of the line for Denver and the man affectionately known as “Pot Roast” needs to make his presence felt if the Broncos want to keep Lynch from reaching “Beast Mode” Sunday night.
The linebackers, sans Miller, also will be key as Danny Trevathan, Wesley Woodyard and Nate Irving will be responsible for making sure Lynch doesn’t break through the second level. Lynch was second in the league with 574 yards rushing after contact (YAC) during the regular season and he’s added another 107 in the playoffs. The Broncos allowed just 1.4 YAC per rush in the regular season, the fifth-best mark in the NFL, according to ESPN’s Stats & Info.
Seattle finished 26th during the regular season in passing offense at 202.3 yards per game. This ranking is the lowest of any team to ever reach the Super Bowl. While it may not be anywhere near as prolific as Denver’s, Seattle’s passing attack has certainly been effective.
Despite ranking 16th in the league in yards passing (3,357), Russell Wilson tossed 26 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions. The end result was a 101.2 passer rating, which was seventh overall. For his career, including playoffs, Wilson has produced a 56:20 TD:INT ratio in 36 career games. Only 25 years old, Wilson plays with the poise and maturity of a 10-year veteran, so don’t expect him to be rattled on the game’s biggest stage.
Wilson doesn’t possess the weapons in the passing game that Peyton Manning does, but he could get a big boost with the expected return of Percy Harvin. One of Seattle’s key acquisitions during the offseason, Harvin has played in just two games because of hip surgery and a concussion. His on-field impact to this point has been limited, but Harvin possesses the speed, explosiveness and big-play ability that could make him a difference-maker in this game.
In Harvin’s absence, Wilson has relied on wide receivers Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin to do the heavy lifting. Tate leads the team in receptions and yards, and he and Baldwin are both capable of breaking off a long play once the ball is in their hands. Tight ends aren’t completely ignored in the Seahawks’ passing game, but they aren’t a focal point either. Zach Miller is the primary tight end and he could become an option for Wilson, especially in play-action situations.
Denver’s pass defense has been busy this season, if anything because of the numbers and points the offense has put up. Large leads established by Manning and company have forced the opposition to throw, which is part of the reason why the Broncos’ defense gave up so many yards and touchdowns through the air.
Denver finished the regular season 27th in passing defense at 254.4 yards per game, but has really tightened things up recently. Over the past six games, including the two playoff wins, the Broncos have given up just 185.3 yards passing per game. Things figure to be a little tougher against the Seahawks without Harris, but the secondary features plenty of experience in cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and some decent size in strong safety Duke Ihenacho (6-1, 207). The main priority for the defensive backs in this game will be limit the big plays through the air to force Seattle to convert on third down and sustain drives.
Von Miller’s presence as a pass rusher will certainly be missed, but Denver has other options in ends Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers and rookie tackle Sylvester Williams. Even with all of his mobility, Wilson was sacked 44 times during the regular season (tied for the third most), but the key for the Broncos will be making sure they bring down the athletic, mobile quarterback should the pressure get to him.
When the Denver Broncos run:
While Peyton Manning’s assault on the record books was the talk revolving around Denver’s offense this season, it’s not like the Broncos weren’t getting the job done on the ground exactly. Led by a career year from Knowshon Moreno, Denver averaged 117.1 yards rushing per game during the regular season, which placed the Broncos 15th in the league.
For comparison’s sake Denver’s yards per carry average (4.1) and rushing touchdowns (16) in the regular season are more than comparable to Seattle’s numbers (4.3, 14) and the Broncos had 48 fewer carries than the Seahawks over their first 16 games. Moreno posted his first 1,000-yard season with 10 rushing touchdowns and he didn’t lose a single fumble in 301 total touches (241 rushing).
Rookie Montee Ball, who was expected by many to be Denver’s lead back, has gotten better as the season has progressed. He’s averaged 4.8 yards per carry over his past eight contests and has gotten double-digit carries in five of those, including both playoff wins. Ball also has done a better job holding onto the ball with just one fumble in his last 92 touches (74 rushes).
If there is any chink in the armor of the NFL’s No. 1 defense it may be on the ground. The Seahawks finished tied with the Broncos for seventh in rushing defense during the regular season at 101.6 yards per game. This includes back-to-back games against the Rams and Buccaneers in which the defense gave up more than 200 yards rushing. In the playoffs, Seattle has yielded an average of 135 yards on the ground to New Orleans and San Francisco.
While it may give up some yards, one thing the Seahawks’ defense does really well is prevent teams from getting into the end zone. Seattle surrendered just four touchdowns on the ground during the regular season, which tied Carolina for the fewest. The Seahawks have one of the deepest defensive lines in football with the likes of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril coming off of the bench in support of Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons.
The linebackers are led by tackling machine Bobby Wagner with Bruce Irvin bringing pressure and making big plays, very similar to what Miller brings to Denver’s defense when healthy. And of course, everyone knows about Seattle’s secondary, which is just as good against the run as they are the pass thanks to their collective size, athleticism and physicality.
While the numbers may suggest otherwise, Denver does run the ball and uses it to set up the pass and vice versa. As effective as this game plan has been this season, doing so against Seattle’s defense will be no easy task. One of the keys for the Broncos will be can the offensive line open up some holes for Moreno and Ball to get through in hopes of forcing the Seahawks to adjust their alignment and get them out of their comfort zone?
When the Denver Broncos pass:
The most prolific passing offense in the history of the game versus the No. 1 passing defense and a secondary known as the “Legion of Boom.” What more could a football fan want? Peyton Manning’s record-breaking season has been well documented, but he has yet to face a defense like Seattle’s.
Less than three years removed from multiple neck surgeries that threatened to end his quarterbacking days, Manning is playing arguably the best football of his career. Besides his ridiculous regular-season totals, Manning has been on point during the playoffs too. In wins over San Diego and New England, he has completed 57 of 79 passes (72.2 percent) for 630 yards, four touchdowns and just one pick, good for a passer rating of 107.0. The experience gleaned from his two previous Super Bowl appearances should also aid Manning in his quest for a second Lombardi Trophy.
Manning can’t beat the Seahawks alone, however, which is where his impressive stable of pass-catchers comes in. Seattle may have the NFL’s best secondary, but a strong case could be made that Denver has the best weapons. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker combined to average nearly 14 yards per catch and 35 touchdowns during the regular season while tight end Julius Thomas exploded from virtually nowhere to catch 65 passes and 12 touchdowns.
There’s also running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, who combined for 80 receptions for 693 yards and three scores, as well as role players like wideout Andrew Caldwell and tight ends Jacob Tamme and Virgil Green who are all capable of making a play when called on. With the exception of Welker, the Broncos’ pass-catchers feature decent size, which makes them a better match against the Seahawks’ big defensive backs.
One of the keys to Denver’s passing game is Manning’s ability to make quick decisions in the pocket and get rid of the ball in a matter of seconds, while the offensive line has done a fine job of keeping No. 18 upright. Manning was sacked just 18 times during the regular season, but the line knows it will have its work cut out for it against Seattle’s aggressive, unrelenting pass rush.
The Seahawks have allowed just two teams (Houston, New Orleans in the Divisional round) to throw for more than 300 yards on them this season. Overall, Seattle is giving up just 177.8 yards passing per game and this defense has been waiting for this opportunity to matchup against Manning and company.
Although All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman may do the most of the talking, both on the field and off of it, he is not a one-man wrecking crew. Fellow All-Pro Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor form arguably the hardest-hitting safety tandem in the league, while cornerback Byron Maxwell has more than held his own in coverage. Sherman and Chancellor both stand 6-3, while Maxwell is 6-1, but this is one game in which the Seahawks won’t enjoy much of a height advantage on the opposition.
Seattle’s secondary likes to play physical, so it will be interesting to see how closely the officials call things on the outside and across the middle, especially considering how many crossing routes and rub patterns Denver likes to run. The Broncos’ pass-catchers also need to be ready for some pushing and shoving and not back down from the contact at the line or allow the Seahawk defenders to disrupt their route.
Seattle will try and pressure Manning, who isn’t near as mobile as Wilson nor as effective a passer when he’s moved from his spot in the pocket or forced to hold onto the ball longer than he wants. The Seahawks’ pressure may be effective even if it doesn’t result in sacks, as it could help create some rushed or errant throws, which plays right into the hands of this ball-hawking (28 INTs) unit.
No one knows how much Percy Harvin will play on Sunday, but if there’s one area he could have a big impact in it’s special teams. In his career, Harvin has averaged 28.2 yards per kickoff return and has five touchdowns. His only return this season went for 58 yards and with Matt Prater not kicking in the Mile High City, whomever gets the call back there should get some chances to bring one back. Golden Tate (11.5 ypr) should handle the punt return duties for the Seahawks.
Steven Hauschka has been solid this season, connecting on 33 of 35 field goal attempts, including just one miss (14 of 15) from 40 yards and beyond. He shouldn’t have any trouble kicking in the cold, as he’s well versed in dealing with the conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Punter Jon Ryan has been effective (39.2 ypp) by limiting returns (3.9 ypr) on his kicks.
While Seattle may finally get Harvin back on kick return duty, Denver has its own special teams weapon in Trindon Holliday. He has returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown this season and is averaging nearly 28 yards per kickoff return. The only question may be will the Broncos let him handle both assignments on Super Sunday, as Eric Decker and Wes Welker have been called on for punt return duty during the playoffs.
Denver has a pretty solid punter-kicker tandem in Britton Colquitt and Prater, but neither will have the benefit of kicking in the thin air of their home stadium in this game. Colquitt placed more than a third (23) of his 65 punts inside the 20-yard line during the regular season, while Prater missed just one (25 of 26) field goal attempt and nailed an NFL-record 64-yarder back in Week 14.
Key Factor: Turnovers
Seattle led the NFL with a plus-20 (39 takeaways, 19 giveaways) turnover margin during the regular season and has posted a plus-three mark in the playoffs. Denver tied for 13th in the league with a zero turnover margin (26 of each), and has gone minus-two in its two postseason victories. Despite this large discrepancy (Seattle is plus-23 overall, while Denver is minus-two), both teams enter this game with identical 15-3 records.
The Seahawks would no doubt love to force the Broncos into some mistakes, but Peyton Manning has thrown just 11 interceptions compared to his 59 touchdowns in 738 total pass attempts this season. He has fumbled it away six times and some of Denver’s other players have had their own issues with ball security, so it’s imperative that the Broncos keep two hands firmly wrapped around the pigskin when its in their possession. After all, they know full well how opportunistic Seattle’s defense has been this season.
On the other side, the Seahawks’ offense has committed fewer miscues, but Russell Wilson and company will need to continue to take good care of the football as it does not want to give Manning and the Broncos additional opportunities, especially should those turnovers occur in Seahawks territory. One thing is for sure, winning the turnover battle will more than likely go a long ways towards deciding Sunday night’s outcome. The team with fewer turnovers in the Super Bowl is 35-3 all-time.
Is this Peyton Manning’s (final?) chance at redemption or a golden opportunity to cap off the greatest season in the history of the game? Will Russell Wilson establish himself as the NFL’s top young quarterback? Will Denver’s experience be too much for Seattle’s talent and athleticism to overcome? Can the No. 1 defense slow down the highest-scoring team the league has ever seen?
These are just some of the storylines surrounding this game and that’s without even bringing up the weather. The bottom line is this: these two teams were the best in their respective conferences and what better way to decide which one is truly No. 1 than to settle things on the field?
While it can certainly be said that the stakes for John Fox’s Broncos are higher given where Manning and others are in their careers, that doesn’t mean there’s any less pressure on Pete Carroll’s team. After all, regardless of how young and talented a team you are, there is no guarantee you will make it back to the Super Bowl before that so-called window of opportunity closes. Just ask Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers.
Manning and Wilson may take center stage at MetLife Stadium Sunday night, but both defenses will have plenty to say before this game is decided. So what happens when the top-scoring offense in the league goes head-to-head with the stingiest defense? Fortunately for us as football fans, we get to find out.
Athlon’s editors make their pick for Super Bowl XLVIII:
|Rob Doster||27-21||Peyton Manning|
|David Fox||35-21||Peyton Manning|
|Braden Gall||31-28||Peyton Manning|
|Steven Lassan||27-24||Peyton Manning|
|Mitch Light||27-21||Russell Wilson|
|Rich McVey||21-17||Peyton Manning|
|Mark Ross||27-24||Peyton Manning|
|Nathan Rush||27-23||Marshawn Lynch|
|Corby Yarbrough||31-28||Marshawn Lynch|