Breaking Down the Big Game

Super Bowl XLVIII

Last weekend on Facebook, I projected that the Super Bowl would feature the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots, because I believed that Denver had lost too many guys on defense to stop Tom Brady.  Well, I was half right.  The Broncos (who I was actually pulling for to win) prevailed, setting up a Super Bowl of teams that haven’t been on this stage in a while.  The last time we saw Denver, they capped off the second of two consecutive Super Bowls in 1999 with a 34-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons in a game that no one ever really believed they would lose.  Seattle was last here in 2005, putting up a valiant fight in Super Bowl XL before falling to the Steelers, 21-10.  A win here would give the Seahawks their first title.

Some analysts are presenting this as a clash of opposites: offense vs. defense, passing vs. rushing, experience vs. youth, etc.  But I think these are two fairly complete teams, and have earned their #1 playoff seeds with superior play on both sides of the ball.  The only unfortunate thing about that is that it makes this blogger’s task of picking the game all the more difficult.

Offense

Knowshon Moreno
Knowshon Moreno

Everybody knows about what an incredible player Peyton Manning is, so I’ll spare you those details.  Even if the Broncos’ offense was full of seventh-round scrubs, his presence would make them a .500 team.  But here’s the thing: Peyton is far from the only talented player on this attack.  Running back Knowshon Moreno, previously left for dead after several injury-marred seasons since the Broncos drafted him back in 2009, rebounded to rush for 1,038 yards and 10 TDs, while catching 60 balls for 548 yards out of the backfield.  He forms a nice one-two punch with Montee Ball, who many thought would replace Moreno when he was drafted this past April.  Ball rolled up 559 rushing yards and 145 receiving yards of his own.

This tandem will make opponents pay if they key on the Broncos’ vaunted passing game, with two receivers (Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker) that gained over 1,000 yards, and another (Wes Welker) that would have if not for a December concussion.  Tight end Julius Thomas also has a wideout-like skill set.  Denver’s offensive line has suffered some injuries as well, but has held up quite well with a “next man up” mentality.  Left tackle Chris Clark and center Manny Ramirez have filled in nicely when starters Ryan Clady and JD Walton went down.  As proof of their blocking excellence, Manning was only sacked 18 times during the year, lowest among QBs who have garnered significant playing time (though his quick release probably has a lot to do with that, too).

Seattle’s offense is also multidimensional and talented.  Their engine on offense is running back Marshawn Lynch.  Lynch is a throwback player in many ways, with a hard-nosed, physical running style that brings to mind past runners like Jerome Bettis and Walter Payton.  Quarterback Russell Wilson is a dual threat, which helps keep defenses honest.  While not the same virtuoso passer that Manning is, Wilson still posted a 101.6 QB rating.  For a second-year player, that’s impressive (it’s a little bit better than what Peyton was doing in his second year), so the gap between the two QBs really isn’t that wide.  Seattle’s receivers are underrated too, and have shown ability to stretch the field and break some long receptions.  If Percy Harvin is finally able to play, that will give them an extra downfield threat.  Seattle also has a couple of tanks on its offensive line in the form of Russell Okung and Max Unger that hold the line well but may struggle against Denver’s hulking D-line (more on that later).  While both offenses execute their gameplans well, and have some great strengths, I’m giving Denver the edge here because of their all-world quarterback and receiving corps.

Russell Okung
Russell Okung

Defense

Seattle’s defense is amazing statistically, no doubt.  They allowed the fewest yards and points per game in the league, and their secondary, with corners Richard Sherman & Byron Maxwell and safeties Kam Chancellor & Earl Thomas, is the best in the league today.  But those stats may be a tad misleading, as they played only two offenses (San Francisco twice, and New Orleans) that ranked in the top 10 in points per game before the playoffs.  So I think Denver’s offense will present a challenge that they haven’t seen frequently.  I’m dying to see their secondary matched up against the dynamic receiving threats Denver can throw at them.  Seattle’s defense can also rush the passer, with defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril racking up 16.5 sacks between them.  Linebacker Bobby Wagner is probably their most versatile defender, with 5 sacks, a pair of picks, and a team-leading 120 tackles.

Denver’s defense, like their offense, has seen its share of injuries, but have overcome them to this point.  Linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris have both gone down with torn ACLs, but others have stepped up in their places.  With the loss of those players, it will be up to the defensive line to drive these Broncos to a Super Bowl victory.  Defensive tackle Terence Knighton is a huge presence on the line, and his size will help clog up running lanes when Marshawn Lynch tries to power his way through.  End Shaun Phillips has also shown the ability to rush the passer, totaling 10 sacks.  Linebacker Danny Trevathan is similar to Seattle’s Bobby Wagner in that he can do a little bit of everything and must be accounted for by opposing offenses (128 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions).  Cornerback Champ Bailey also makes for an interesting storyline, as the 35-year-old will be playing in the first Super Bowl of his 15-year career.  I’m giving Seattle the edge on defense, based almost entirely on the fact that their defense has been healthy all year, whereas Denver’s hasn’t.

Broncos linebacker Von Miller has missed almost the entire season between a drug policy suspension and a torn ACL.
Broncos linebacker Von Miller has missed almost the entire season between a drug policy suspension and a torn ACL.

Special Teams

Denver’s kicker, Matt Prater, set an NFL record this year by kicking a 64-yard field goal, the longest in history.  Prater has been deadly accurate this year, missing only one kick total and making all but one kick of the 15 that he attempted from at least 40 yards out.  Punter Britton Colquitt hasn’t really distinguished himself.  Returner Trindon Holliday will rarely break a return for a score, but can give the Broncos some good field position on kickoff returns (27.7-yard average in the regular season).

Matt Prater
Matt Prater

Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka is almost as accurate as Prater in more attempts, making 33 of the 35 kicks he attempted and also kicking accurately from long distance.  Punter Jon Ryan’s stats aren’t anything to write home about, though he did have some success pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line, which could be a huge factor in a game where every yard will be precious.  Jermaine Kearse, Robert Turbin, & Golden Tate will be the primary returners, and none of them have ever returned a kick for a touchdown, so I don’t look for that to happen in this game.  I give Denver a slight edge here.

The Pick

Both teams are solid, and I would be unsurprised to see either ascend into the winner’s circle next Sunday.  However, I love Denver’s offense.  It set a record for the most points scored in a season in NFL history, and while I don’t think they’re going to score buckets of points on Seattle, I think they will make enough plays to win the game.  Seattle’s offense will get its points too, but I think Denver will pull away in the fourth quarter as the Seahawks won’t be able to quite keep pace.  Denver 27, Seattle 24.

 

 

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