Friday, January 31, 2014

The Hail Mary - Super Bowl XLVIII

Super Bowl XLVIII: #1 Seattle Seahawks (15-3) vs. #1 Denver Broncos (15-3) in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Denver favored by 2 1/2

It isn't often that the two best teams end up making the Super Bowl but that’s what’s happened this season. Yes, as a San Francisco 49ers fan it pains me to say that Seattle was the best team in the NFC, but I have to say just that after they proved it on the field a few weeks ago. The Broncos were clearly the best team in the AFC the entire season, so much so that even Peyton Manning couldn't choke away the Broncos’ goal of reaching the Super Bowl. I'm mostly kidding, as Manning was superb in the win against New England, totally outplaying his counterpart Tom Brady.

What makes Seattle against Denver an even more enticing matchup is that each team has completely different strengths. The Seahawks win with and are built around their defense, with their offense being asked to do just enough. The Broncos win football games on the back of their offense, and ask their defense to make a play here or there.

An interesting stat to take note of is that Seattle is the first team to play in the Super Bowl since the 1990 Buffalo Bills that does not have a single player on their roster with Super Bowl experience. Sometimes the experience factor can be overrated, but I have seen even some of the most experienced players look a little flustered and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Super Bowl. I definitely think it’s something to watch for, especially for Seattle's offense. QB Russell Wilson hasn't been very good for a while now, although he did make some critical throws when he had to against the 49ers. His ability to move around in the pocket and lengthen plays could be a major factor on Sunday. He doesn't have the best receivers, so his ability to move in the pocket allows Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin to have time to get open. He  will be facing a Broncos secondary that has really struggled at times, ranking 27th in the league against the pass. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been good this season, but he is susceptible to allowing the big play, and the other Broncos corner, Champ Bailey, has been dealing with injuries and Father Time all season long. Mike Adams and Duke Iheanacho can also be beat, as they were in the AFC Championship, but, luckily for them, Tom Brady was unable to take advantage. Plays will be there to be made by Wilson and his receivers, but they are going to have to capitalize on them when they happen.

The most important player on offense for Seattle is RB Marshawn Lynch. Lynch hates talking to the media, but for Seattle to win he might have to be the MVP, after which he’ll  really have to grin and bear it with the media appearances. He’ll have his work cut out for him, however, trying to run on the Broncos, who ranked 8th in the league against the run this season. Broncos’ defensive tackle Terrance Knighton became a household name after the AFC Championship, partially for his play, but mostly for his nickname, "Pot Roast." Sylvester Williams is another force inside for Denver, and it will be up to the Seahawks offensive line, made up of Russell Okung, Paul McQuistan, Max Unger, JR Sweezy, and Breno Giacomini, to try to open up some lanes for Lynch. Another Broncos defensive player to watch is linebacker Danny Trevathan, who keeps making key plays multiple times a game.

This will be Manning's third Super Bowl appearance, and it might be the most well-rounded team he’s had going in. Manning and the Broncos passing game receives the bulk of the attention, but RB Knowshon Moreno has been reliable and productive almost every single game this season. The truth is that while Denver's offense ran roughshod over most of the league this season, the Seahawks defense will be the best defense Manning has faced this year by far. The Seahawks were first against the pass, allowing a paltry 172 yards passing per game. As a result, the best part of this game will be seeing Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas going up against the Seahawks secondary of Dick Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor.

The weather has been a major topic of discussion but right now it just sounds like it will be cold and a little windy with no snowfall. Manning and his play in cold weather have been discussed ad nauseum but if he struggles in this game it won't be because of the weather—it will be because his receivers aren't able to get open against Seattle's physical secondary. Colin Kaepernick was able to make plays against the Seahawks defense with his legs last week, which obviously isn't an option for Manning. This means  that he’ll need his big uglies up front (Chris Clark, Zane Beadles, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez, and Orlando Franklin) to win the battle against the Seahawks front of Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel, and Red Bryant. The Seahawks also have an edge at linebacker as Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin, both of whom are capable of making big plays.

Often overlooked, return man Trindon Holliday is a serious weapon for the Broncos. Holliday has had his issues holding on to the ball, but when he does he is a threat to go to the house every time. On the other side, the Seahawks have Golden Tate, who has the ability to break some long punt returns himself. Keeping with Special teams, both the Broncos and the Seahawks have excellent punters and kickers, and even in a tough weather environment kickers Matt Prater and Steven Hauschka should be expected to make their kicks when they get their opportunities.

Most of the recent Super Bowls have been great games that have been decided in the final minutes. I think we’re in for another game like that this Sunday. I expect the Seahawks defense to control the tempo of the game and keep the scoring relatively low. It’s clich├ęd but the turnover battle will be crucial in this game. Both teams are generally pretty responsible with the ball, so whichever offense makes that crucial mistake, or whichever defense creates a turnover, can expect to turn the tide of the game. I think Manning will play well but not spectacularly. I expect Moreno to find it very tough going and that the only impact he will possibly have on the game is as a receiver. The Seahawks offense will strike on a few plays, but ultimately I think the Broncos will keep Lynch in check. These teams are very evenly matched but I think the Broncos strengths on offense will overpower the Seahawks strengths on defense. I think that, if Manning plays as serviceably as I expect him to and Denver wins, Peyton will be named Super Bowl MVP for the second time in his career.

Prediction: Denver 24, Seattle 20

Last Week Against the Spread: 0-2
Overall Against the Spread: 126-114-10

Last Week Straight Up: 1-1
Overall Straight Up: 173-94-1

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