Saturday, February 1, 2014

Super Bowl XLVIII Prediction

So here we are.  We’ve reached the big one, and the Broncos and Seahawks are the last two teams standing.  To get here Denver pulled off a fairly one-sided win against the always dangerous Patriots, and Seattle held off San Fran in what may have been the game of the year.  With both Denver and Seattle making it to MetLife, this is only the second time in the last two decades that both #1 seeds have squared off in the Super Bowl.  Earlier this month I predicted that we’d see these two in the final game, and I had Seattle earning the victory.  What’s changed since then? 

Peyton Peyton Peyton.  In case you haven’t turned on a television, radio, or computer or walked by a newsstand the last week, Peyton Manning is playing in another Super Bowl.  Arguably, the games greatest to ever toss it is on the verge of creating a ton of conversation, regardless of the outcome.  If the Broncos win, Peyton will have earned his second Super Bowl victory in three chances and will generate a lot of buzz (because ‘now’ always beats history in today’s hyper-attentive world) as the greatest of all time.  On the other hand, if Denver loses (and assuming 18 doesn’t gift wrap the game to Seattle) you’re going to hear about how Peyton can’t get it done when it counts and that there’s no way to put him in the same class as Montana and Brady.  Such is the world in which we live.

The last time the league’s best offense faced the league’s best defense in the season finale was the 1990 season where the defensively dominant Giants beat the Bills no-huddle attack 20-19 in Tampa.  Will Peyton add another chapter to his legacy, or will history repeat itself 13 years later and 1,128 miles north? 

When Denver has the Ball

  • Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, and Jacob Tamme against a talented and intimidating secondary made up of Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Walter Thurmond, Jeremy Lane, Earl Thomas, and Kan Chancellor
  • Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball against a front seven run crew headlined by Red Bryant, Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, and Tony McDaniel
  • Chris Clark, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez, and Orlando Franklin acting as the wall between Peyton and Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Clinton McDonald
Mr. Manning will earn his fifth MVP award before this game kicks off.  There’s no arguing that he was the league’s best player this season.  What I found somewhat surprising is that in the previous four seasons he won the award, he only made it to the big dance in one of them – the ’09 game against New Orleans, which, as I referenced earlier, was the only other time in the last two decades that both top seeds won their halves of the bracket.  Peyton runs the offense from the line of scrimmage and usually knows what the defense is doing, sometimes more so than players on the other side of that line. 

This time he faces what I believe is the league’s most physical defense (sorry San Fran).  It’s a unit that likes to get in your face early and disrupt your timing; something Denver relies on to move the chains and make big plays with the football.  It will be a tremendous test for both teams. 

For Seattle, Richard Sherman doesn’t often move from his LCB spot, and when he does, it’s to the slot, not the other side of the field.  That means Demaryius won’t have a shadow throughout the game.  It’s not like he’ll get much of a break on the other side though, as Byron Maxwell is no slouch himself.  I think the key here with Thomas is that Seattle’s corners are incredibly physical, and Demaryius, despite his size, isn’t known for his physicality or dominance at the point of contact.  Neutralizing or just simply limiting Peyton’s greatest receiving threat would go a long way in getting Seattle to the celebration stage.  Decker will see Sherman about half the time, and having the game’s best cover man in his face won’t help improve his tendency to let the ball hit the ground. 

The guys I see doing the most damage in the passing game for Denver are Julius Thomas and Wes Welker.  Welker will line up in the slot against Thurmond, and I think he’s the guy Peyton will look to especially on third downs to pick up those key catches over the middle.  Julius has been one of the league’s best tight ends this season, but Seattle has handled that position better than anyone else in the game.  This year the Seahawks faced Vernon Davis three times and also faced Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez.  All three were held far below their averages.  A big reason for that is the big punisher, Kam Chancellor.  Extremely underrated given the talent around him, the former Hokie is the most important player on Seattle’s defense in this game, in my opinion.  Seeing as he’ll have primary responsibility for tight end coverage, Chancellor’s ability to make Manning look away from Julius or to keep the athletic tight end in front of him will go a long way in determining the outcome of this one.  I already mentioned that Sherman doesn’t often move from his LCB spot, but when he does it’s to the slot.  Carroll and company would be wise to send Sherman Julius’ way a time or ten. 

Peyton is no dummy.  I don’t think we’ll see him string a ton of consecutive pass attempts together against this defense.  That means we should see a good bit of both Moreno and Ball.  The latter was expected to be the main man this year, but he remained the clear #2 throughout the regular season.  All Knowshon did was finish in the league’s top five in total yards from scrimmage.  Not bad for a guy who didn’t figure to have a prominent role back in August.  While the rib injury he sustained against the Patriots won’t keep him from playing in this one, you’ve got to think Seattle is going to take a few shots at the impacted area.  Will it hamper his performance? 

Ball will be rotated in, and I think he’s the more dangerous player beyond the line of scrimmage.  Getting past that first line will be a tough task if the good Tony McDaniel shows up.  He, Brandon Mebane, and Red Bryant are the main reasons why Seattle ranks as one of the league’s toughest teams against which to run the football.  If the front line, specifically Bryant, can get to the backs and keep them from running clean to Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, Seattle can make Peyton throw it more than he probably wants to. 

Anyone who follows football knows that you’ve got to get Peyton off his mark if you want to be successful against Denver, and Seattle’s defense brings it from multiple spots.  Free agent additions Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril did the most damage this year at getting to the passer, and Clinton McDonald established himself as one of the game’s better interior pass rushers.  Their ability to push the pocket and force Peyton into making questionable throws against an opportunistic secondary is exactly what Pete Carroll is looking for.  That won’t be easy given how quickly Peyton consistently gets rid of the ball.  Denver’s line surrendered the fewest number of sacks in the league this season, but Peyton’s style is the biggest reason for that.  Tackles Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin don’t have their names called often, Manny Ramirez has been solid at center, and right guard Louis Vasquez is their best blocker.  The weakest link up front is Zane Beadles, and with the aforementioned McDonald expected to line up against him regularly, that could be the key matchup to watch up front.  I can’t take anything away from Peyton; don’t want to.  He’s one of the best, but his lack of zip on the ball could be a factor if Seattle is able to get him off his spot and throw to a late read. 

I don’t anticipate Denver having sustained success on the ground, which means we’ll see plenty of Peyton passes.  That also means Seattle’s corners must disrupt receivers’ routes.  They can’t allow Denver to get comfortable with their timing and pick action.  Two factors are working in Seattle’s favor.  First, there haven’t been a ton of flags thrown in these playoff games (hasn’t that been nice), especially in Seattle’s games.  Second, this officiating crew is headed up by Terry McAulay, an official known for keeping the flag in his pants.  Former NFL strong safety, Steve Freeman, will be the back judge, and he’s not one to take over a game either.  This bodes very well for Seattle’s chances defensively.  Peyton makes his living exposing mismatches, but I just don’t see any weak spots in Seattle’s secondary, including when Seattle has to go dime and bring in Jeremy Lane.  Peyton may be forced to move his feet more than he’d like, but he’s not going to get sacked often (if at all), even against these pass rushers.  Simply put, he will need to make the passes an MVP QB makes in big spots, and Seattle will need to stick to their roots – play physical football, support each other, and don’t over-think. 

When Seattle has the Ball

  • Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Percy Harvin, Jermaine Kearse, and Zach Miller against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Champ Bailey, Tony Carter, Quentin Jammer, Mike Adams, and Duke Ihenacho
  • Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson trying to run through Terrance Knighton, Wesley Woodyard, and Danny Trevathan
  • Russell Okung, Paul McQuistan, Max Unger, JR Sweezy, and Breno Giacomini attempting to hold back Malik Jackson, Shaun Phillips, and Robert Ayers. 

Most offenses pale in comparison to the Broncos, but I believe the Seahawks come into this one a bit under the radar.  Russell Wilson’s job isn’t to light up the scoreboard with a ton of passing TDs, but let’s not go extreme and call their offense limited or one-dimensional.  After shutting out the Giants on the Super Bowl’s turf, Seattle played their last four games against the 3rd (SF), 4th (NOR), and 7th (ARI) ranked scoring defenses and a Rams front that gets after the passer.  Denver’s defense will need to be peeking at the right time if they’re going to present as difficult a challenge as did Seattle’s recent opponents.

When you talk about Seattle’s offense, you’ve got to start with Beast Mode, Señor Skittles, Mister Media – Marshawn Lynch.  The man who doesn’t enjoy speaking into a microphone lets his bruising running style do all his talking for him.  Everyone knows he’s going to get the football, yet he continues to produce.  In two playoff games Lynch has 249 yards and 3 scores on the ground, including 109 yards and 6 points against the nasty Niners last week.  Denver has put up impressive run defense numbers this year, for two reasons primarily.  First, when Denver gets up two or more scores on a team, the opposition often abandons the run.  Second, Terrance Knighton’s ability to make the middle of the field a “no backs allowed” zone goes a long way in shutting down a team’s run game. 

Even with constant double teams from the threesome of McQuistan, Unger, and Sweezy, I don’t expect Seattle to do much damage at all running at Knighton.  If they can run at the big man, I think that means game set match Seattle.  Let’s play the safe hand and assume they can’t.  I don’t expect Darrell Bevell to be stubborn in this one.  That means we should see Marshawn doing most of his damage on outside runs, where he’ll look to demonstrate his tackle breaking, big gain ability against a defense that’s been known to miss a tackle or two.  Marshawn’s big games are highlighted by signature long runs.  He had a 31 yard score against the Saints in the divisional round and a 40 yarder for 6 in the conference championship against San Fran.  I’d be a fool to bet against him doing it again. 

Sticking with the run, the read option wasn’t a huge part of the playbook this season, but when you’re playing 60 minutes of football for the Lombardi trophy, you do whatever it takes to get the win.  Following that line of thinking, I would feature the zone read early in the game to keep Denver (specifically their defensive line) guessing and attempt to break big runs on defensive breakdowns.  Marshawn is the main weapon, but Wilson could be the difference-making ground factor.  The man doesn’t make mistakes with the football and has that moment-seizing personality.  Expect to see Denver chasing the back of Wilson’s jersey a bit come Sunday as the QB is used as a runner more than usual in an effort to keep Denver’s defense from keying on his best offensive weapon.  

Without the ultra-athletic Von Miller, the Broncos are going to have to be opportunistic yet assignment-sound against Wilson and Seattle’s offensive line.  Shaun Phillips had 10 regular season sacks, but he’s only totaled 3 in his last 8 games.  Malik Jackson has been a more than admirable replacement for the injured Derek Wolfe, but he’s not a consistent pass rushing threat.  Robert Ayers has gone from utter bust to decent defender, but he has just 3 sacks in his last 12 games.  The lack of a dominant pass rusher or steady rush threat will a big help to a Seattle offensive line that isn’t one of the more stout units in the league.  They’re a smaller, more mobile bunch that must move as does their QB. 

I’m not going to pretend Seattle’s receiving corps is as prolific as Denver’s machine (Seattle’s leading receiver would rank fifth in Denver), but at full strength they’re an extremely underrated unit.  I believe this is a matchup they can exploit.  Where Seattle can go four deep at corner in front of two All Pro safeties, Denver is shallow in the secondary after DRC.  The Broncos surrendered a middle-of-the-pack 7.1 yards per attempt through the air this year, while the Seahawks led the league at 5.8.  Denver’s defense also gave up nearly twice as many passing TDs as Seattle’s (29 to 16). 

The Broncos lost arguably their best corner (Chris Harris) a few weeks ago in that divisional round win over the Chargers.  The moment Quentin Jammer replaced Harris, San Diego’s passing game started clicking, and Denver was fortunate they didn’t have to play another 15 minutes.  Jammer found himself behind Carter on the depth chart after that game.  Future HOFer Champ Bailey has dropped retirement hints this week, but before starting the Canton clock, he’ll need to repeat his conference championship performance for the Broncos to keep Seattle’s receivers in check. 

DRC figures to see a lot of Seattle’s leading receiver, Golden Tate.  Tate does a lot of his damage on short passing patterns, but DRC hasn’t allowed receivers to break free for big gains.  Julian Edelman was able to get a little physical and be successful against DRC last week, and Tate is a similar smaller, strong receiver.  Will Tate break a few, or will this one end up a wash?  Given the balance in that matchup, I expect to see Wilson focus most of his attempts on besting Bailey and Carter, primarily with Baldwin and Harvin. 

Let’s start with Percy.  The always-dangerous ever-brittle weapon finally got onto the field this year against the Saints in the divisional round and was able to make a few plays before getting knocked out with a concussion.  He missed the Niner game but is apparently good-to-go for the Super Bowl.  We know what Harvin brings to the table.  The question is how long he’ll be able to do it before getting hurt again.  Because of that great unknown, I expect Bevell to get Harvin engaged early and often.  Throw him short passes.  Throw him deep balls.  Give him the ball on an end-around.  Use him as a decoy.  Seattle needs to maximize Harvin’s threat and make the Broncos worry about him every play he’s on the field.  I’m also expecting Seattle to have him return the kicks that Matt Prater can’t put through the back of the endzone.  The more attention he draws in the passing game, the better that bodes for Marshawn and the running game.   

A healthy Harvin (at least at kickoff) puts Baldwin in the slot where he’ll primarily face Bailey.  I love this matchup for Seattle, and it’s the key one on this side of the ball in my opinion.  Baldwin is exactly what Denver doesn’t want to see with a Harrisless (yeah I went there) secondary.  He’s dangerous deep, and he doesn’t drop the football.  Champ may have had a good overall game against the Patriots, but Baldwin is better than any receiver New England has besides Edelman.  I expect Baldwin to lead the Seahawks in receiving and score at least one TD.  He’s my dark horse Super Bowl MVP candidate. 

Who Wins?

Well it doesn’t look like weather is going to be a factor in this one after all.  Current projections call for temps in the mid 40s, maybe some rain, and little to no wind factor.  That plays in Denver’s favor.  If these officials stay true to form, they’ll hold onto their hankies.  That plays in Seattle’s favor.  If Denver’s line can give Peyton time to catch the snap and his receivers can run picks with impunity, advantage Denver.  If Harvin can stay on the field and contribute to keeping Denver’s defense on its heels, advantage Seattle.  The fact that Denver dominated the Chargers and Patriots in their two playoff games yet was unable to put either away is something that stands out to me as a reason to expect this one to remain close.  I’ve also got to think that the fact Seattle has already won on this field this year, in convincing fashion, will make them a bit more comfortable in a game that is always emotional. 

Again, to me these are the matchups on which to key –
  • Terrance Knighton against Seattle’s interior offensive line
  • Red Bryant containing Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball
  • Russell Wilson reading ends Shaun Phillips and Malik Jackson
  • Doug Baldwin mid to deep against Champ Bailey
  • Julius Thomas trying to hide from Kam Chancellor
  • Clinton McDonald pass rushing against Zane Beadles

In the history of the league, 7 times has the team that led the league in scoring made the Super Bowl.  All 7 times that team lost.  Does Peyton break the streak, or does Seattle make history?

Highlights –
  • Peyton Manning throws for over 300 yards but has as many INTs as TDs (2)
  • Byron Maxwell turns one of those INTs into a pick-6
  • Percy Harvin stays unharmed and on the field throughout, totaling over 100 all purpose yards
  • Montee Ball outrushes Knowshon Moreno 54 yards to 42
  • Denver records more sacks than Seattle (2 to 1)
  • Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch combine for 158 rushing yards
  • Wes Welker leads the Broncos in receiving yards and scores once
  • Neither kicker misses an attempt (FG or PAT)
  • Danny Trevathan and Bobby Wagner combine for 22 tackles
  • Seattle will lead at halftime, but Denver will lead going into the fourth quarter

The battle of #1s proves to be sports entertainment at its best.  In the end, it’s Russell Wilson’s offense that steals the show.  On a broken play late in the fourth quarter, Wilson finds Doug Baldwin running free for a 46 yard game-winning score.  Seattle wins its first Super Bowl title in team history, and Peyton Manning’s greatness (unfairly in my opinion) will continue to be questioned incessantly. 

Seattle 30
Broncos 24

MVP – Russell Wilson

Scoring breakdown –
  • 1Q – Russell Wilson 1 yd TD run (SEA 7-0)
  • 1Q – Byron Maxwell 26 yd INT return for TD (SEA 14-0)
  • 2Q – Julius Thomas 6 yd TD reception (SEA 14-7)
  • 2Q – Steven Hauschka 37 yd FG (SEA 17-7)
  • 3Q – Wes Welker 18 yd TD reception (SEA 17-14)
  • 3Q – Montee Ball 3 yd TD run (DEN 21-17)
  • 3Q – Steven Hauschka 44 yd FG (DEN 21-20)
  • 4Q – Steven Hauschka 28 yd FG (SEA 23-21)
  • 4Q – Matt Prater 51 yd FG (DEN 24-23)
  • 4Q – Doug Baldwin 46 yd TD reception (SEA 30-24)

Congratulations to both of these teams for making it this far, and thank you NFL for another exciting season. 

Until next time…

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