Super Bowl XLVIII Preview

Five Quick Hits

* Peyton Manning has a 3-1 record in Conference Championship Games. Most of his postseason "chokes" have come on the road against better teams (2-5), or after a first-round bye (2-4). Tony Dungy always rested his starters in Week 17, and after two weeks off, I think a lot of the Colts' losses were about rhythm.

* The Bronco offense gained 507 yards on Sunday, the most New England had allowed all season.

* Denver's success on defense, I think, exposed just how poor the Colts' strategy was last week. Faced with bad weather and questionable receivers, the Patriots wanted to run the ball, but the Colts just wanted to make sure Tom Brady didn't beat them.

* Some people will knock New England for not committing to the run game that was so successful last week, but it's tough to keep running when you're down 10 at halftime and averaging two yards a carry. The Broncos have a much better run defense than Indianapolis.

* Congratulations to this year's finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award: Thomas Davis, Jay Feely, and Charles Tillman. I didn't realize Feely was still in the league.

***

Richard Sherman and Michael Crabtree both acted petty and childish after Seattle's win on Sunday. They're good players, but they need to grow up. I'm pretty tired of the NFC West's jaw-after-every-play style, to the point that I'm ready for Roger Goodell to go all No-Fun-League on the situation and start calling more penalties, maybe even issuing fines for unsportsmanlike conduct.

I know some people love it, but most fans prefer to keep the NFL and WWE separate. Behavior like Sherman's is distasteful and unsportsmanlike. I get that he's fired up, but he can channel that without going into 'roid rage mode. I've never seen a more intense competitor than Tom Brady, and he doesn't talk to his opponents like that. No one shows more energy on the field than Troy Polamalu, and he conducts himself like an adult. Adrian Peterson doesn't get up after every run trying to prove he's tough. J.J. Watt doesn't get into Twitter wars with his division rivals.

I agree with Richard Sherman: he is the best cornerback in the NFL. I actually named him Defensive Player of the Year. He shuts down his man and doesn't see a lot of passes, but he still led the league in interceptions, and he's a hard-hitting tackler. With so much game, he should let his play do more of the talking.

Conference Championship Roundups

Denver Broncos 26, New England Patriots 16

Most people I talked to this week were rooting for the Broncos, but this was sort of a disappointing game. It wasn't particularly dramatic, with Denver leading 23-3 in the fourth quarter and controlling the game even when the score was close. And injuries seemed to play a major role, with both teams missing key players and New England losing Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib in the first quarter. Plus, after all the Brady/Manning hype over the past week, Tom Brady didn't play a good game.

Brady's stats were pretty solid — 277 yards, 93.9 passer rating — but he repeatedly missed open receivers, enough that Dan Marino noted it: "He just didn't have it, had a lot of balls overthrown." While the language may not be very scientific, I think Marino's right: Brady just didn't have it on Sunday. Maybe he was held back by his no-name receiving corps, or Denver's defense, or maybe it was just a bad day. But whatever the reason, it was a bad day.

The only time Brady really excelled was on New England's final drive, when the Broncos played prevent defense, usually with a three-man pass rush. On his TD run, Denver actually used a two-man rush. Brady went 5-of-6 for 55 yards on that drive. In the end, though, this was an easy win for a Denver team that looks championship-ready. The Broncos had eight offensive possessions against New England. They gained at least one first down every time, and scored on six of the first seven, letting the clock run out on the final drive. The Patriots, in contrast, gained only 9 first downs and 3 points in the first three quarters. Knowshon Moreno left the game with a chest injury, and his status for the Super Bowl is not yet clear, but it didn't appear too serious.

Seattle Seahawks 23, San Francisco 49ers 17

After San Francisco benefited from some shaky officiating last week against Carolina, it was on the other side this weekend. Fortunately, the most egregious miss, NaVorro Bowman's fumble recovery, became a moot point when Seattle turned the ball over on downs one play later.

Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick combined for just 49 pass attempts, with fewer completions and yards than Peyton Manning. They totaled 2 TDs, 2 INTs, and 6 sacks. In the first half, Kaepernick went 3-of-5 for 17 yards. He did rush 11 times for 130 yards, including a career-long 58-yarder that was also the longest run allowed by Seattle this season. Kaepernick's two highest rushing totals both came in the postseason, against the Seahawks and Packers.

As effective as he was running, Kaepernick was equally ineffective as a passer. He netted only 147 yards, with 2 interceptions, a sack-fumble, and a 56.4 rating. His three fourth-quarter turnovers were the most obvious difference in the game. Turnovers are always critical, but even more so in a defensive struggle. The Niners had scored in each of the previous three quarters, but in the fourth Seattle outscored them 10-0 and turned a 4-point deficit into a 6-point victory.

Kaepernick threw multiple interceptions only twice this season — in the two games at Seattle. He also threw an interception in the 49ers' home win against the Seahawks, meaning 6 of his 11 picks, more than half, were thrown against this one team. On the other side of the ball, FOX reported that Marshawn Lynch's 40-yard TD was the longest allowed by San Francisco in the Jim Harbaugh era, the last three years. That's hard to believe. Lynch rushed for 109 yards, the most allowed by the Niners all season. In the Harbaugh era, they've allowed a 100-yard rusher only six times — four of them to Lynch.

More trivia: both teams gained exactly 308 yards of offense in this game.

The Crystal Ball

Super Bowl XLVIII: Denver Broncos vs. Seattle Seahawks
East Rutherford, New Jersey
February 2, 2014

There are a number of angles for this game: offense vs. defense, old-school pocket passer vs. young running QB, finesse vs. physical (though this is overstated), and everything related to an outdoor, cold-weather Super Bowl. I maintain the game should rotate through all 32 stadiums. It's crazy we've never had a Super Bowl at Lambeau Field. This is also the first time both conference's top seeds have made the Super Bowl since the 2009-10 season, when the Saints faced the Colts in Peyton Manning's last SB appearance.

But the most dominant storyline is likely to be Manning himself. Everyone recognizes Manning as one of the greatest players in history, but there's a sense in the media — and therefore among most fans — that if the Broncos win this game, Manning is the best QB ever, and if they lose, he's not even in the discussion. That's obviously crazy, but it certainly adds some drama to the game, because in many people's minds, Peyton is playing for his legacy.

DENVER ON OFFENSE

This should be fun: the NFL's best offense (1st in points and yards) against the NFL's best defense (1st in points and yards). Denver's offense set records this year, including the single-season scoring record, the first team ever to score 600 points in the regular season. Seattle's defense wasn't historic like that, but it was the best the NFL has seen in several years, probably since the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, a Super Bowl champion.

This is not a great matchup for Denver. The Broncos, with their historic passing offense, would have been much better off against the 49ers, whose specialty is run defense, than against the Seahawks, with by far the NFL's best pass defense. Seattle led the league in fewest passing yards (2,752), most interceptions (28), and lowest passer rating allowed (63.4, lower than Terrelle Pryor or Geno Smith). In all three categories, the Seahawks led by a lot. They don't just have the best pass defense, they have by far the best.

Contrary to reputation, the Broncos do run the ball. They ranked 11th in rush attempts, 4th if you exclude carries by the QB. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball both rushed for over 500 yards, and both should expect a heavy workload on Super Bowl Sunday. Moreno, so dynamic as both a ball-carrier and a receiver, will be key.

Denver's success formula is fairly simple. Step one is to establish the run, as its own weapon and to open play-action opportunities for Manning. Step two is to limit the pass rush, which the Broncos did so successfully against New England. Step three is to avoid negative plays. Denver can probably survive one turnover, but not two. The Seahawks will be willing to allow some runs if they can frustrate Manning. Pressure him, make him uncomfortable in the pocket, take away the deep ball, and force a couple of turnovers.

SEATTLE ON OFFENSE

Regardless of the midseason hype for Russell Wilson as an MVP candidate, the Seahawk offense rests on Marshawn Lynch. He rushed for over 100 yards in both of Seattle's playoff wins, and if the Broncos can hold him under triple-digits, they'll have a good chance to win. We saw on Sunday what Denver did to New England's rushing attack (which got more yards from its RBs than Seattle's did, and devastated Indianapolis in the playoffs). If I'm Jack Del Rio, I'll take my chances with Golden Tate and Jermaine Kearse; my focus is to contain Lynch and keep Russell Wilson in the pocket. Allowing long runs to opposing QBs is demoralizing, and it can get your defenders overthinking on subsequent plays.

So if I'm Darrell Bevell, that's exactly what I want to do. I want to get Wilson running early, either with options and designed runs, or roll-outs that put him in space and give him a run/throw option. I wouldn't run Lynch into the ground in the first half, but I make sure he's touching the ball on every series, and if he gets hot, I stick with him.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Both teams have excellent kickers and good punters. If you were going to identify a wild card, it has to be Denver return man Trindon Holliday. He's an explosive returner, with six return TDs in the last two years (including two against Baltimore in last year's playoffs). He also fumbled 10 times the last two years. If there's a big play to be found on special teams, it could easily be a long return or fumble by Holliday. Going in, there's not a clear advantage for either team.

THE FORECAST

Three weeks ago, I predicted Seahawks over Broncos in the Super Bowl. But on Sunday, Denver won easily, while Seattle really struggled to get past the 49ers. The Niners are better than the Patriots, but it's tough to shake the last thing you saw, and last time we saw these teams, the Broncos looked like championship material. The Seahawks just looked like a good team. We also tend, as fans, to underrate defense, which is what Seattle does best.

The Broncos haven't faced a defense like Seattle's. The Seahawks haven't faced an offense like Denver's. In fact, Pete Carroll has never coached against Peyton Manning, and most of his players have never faced Manning. This game has no obvious favorite; as of this writing, Denver is favored by 1½. A big play on special teams or a bad decision in the red zone could easily be the difference in the game.

If the Broncos win, it will be with sound defense, mistake-free play from Manning, and major contributions from the running backs. They'll hold Lynch under 100 rushing yards and Wilson under 50. Manning will have a clean pocket, and very few sacks or interceptions, maybe none. He'll hit a couple of big plays, but Moreno and Ball will move the chains and keep Seattle honest. Yards after catch play a major role. John Fox will resist his conservative instincts and make the most of red zone opportunities.

If the Seahawks win, they'll feature aggressive defense, a big day from Lynch, and impact plays from Wilson. He'll break a couple long runs, or hit a few deep passes, and Lynch will have one of those "Beastquake" rushes. The defense will contain Bronco RBs and harass Manning all game, keeping him uncomfortable in the pocket and capitalizing on turnover opportunities.

Manning is a rhythm passer, so the extra week and the media could throw him off, but I think this is his year, and Denver's. The Broncos win, 23-20. Moreno is the hero, but Manning wins his second Super Bowl MVP.

As usual, a link to last week's article: divisional round analysis and championship game predictions. I'm 7-3 so far this season. I went 7-4 both of the last two years, so you might want to bet on Seattle.

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