*Late note: Warren Sapp has bet $100,000.00 on the Broncos. If I had gotten this news earlier, I simply would have linked to his twitter page and picked the opposite of Sapp. That would have been my entire preview. Instead, you now have to struggle through 2,000 words. I apologize.
Playoff Record Straight Up: 7-3
Against the Spread: 6-3-1
There’s just no way around it: Super Bowl Sunday is a national holiday. Even if you couldn’t care less about football, guess what … Bruno Mars is performing at halftime and I WONDER WHETHER HE’LL WEAR A FEDORA IN THE COLD!!! (yes, there is a way to bet on this for you degenerates out there). Even if you don’t know who Peyton Manning is, hey, people are singing Tiny Dancer … man, I remember seeing Elton John live back in 1973 and boy was he uhhhhhhMAZING. And forget about Richard Sherman’s stellar pass defense, instead … awwwwwwwww look how adorable that dog and that horse are. Really, the only positive that comes from all this non-football-fan noise is there’s a good chance Troy Aikman’s voice will be drowned out for the majority of your evening. For that, we must all be thankful.
For those of us who do know who Peyton Manning is and who won’t forget about Richard Sherman’s stellar pass defense, this should be a Super Bowl for the ages. Before the playoffs began, I talked about the lack of number one seeds who have made, and won the Super Bowl in the last ten years. So much for that trend. Finally, after years of Joe Flacco’s and Eli Manning’s getting hot at the perfect time, we have a Super Bowl that pits the two best teams in the NFL against one another. Even better, we get to see one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time lead one of the greatest (if not the greatest) offenses of all time up against one of the greatest pass defenses of all time. I can hardly contain my excitement.
Despite all there is to talk about as far as historical implications go involving this game, (Is Peyton the GOAT? Is this the best offense ever? Is this the best secondary ever? Does defense win championships?) I’m going to keep my preview shorter than usual, both because I’m releasing it on the day of the game (I do this only because I wouldn’t want to miss any injury or weather news), and because the amount of information revolving around the Super Bowl can be overwhelming at times. So without further ado, let’s efficiently break down the biggest game of the year.
The Public Darlings
As Richard Sherman was giving his now famous interview, bookmakers in Las Vegas were busy setting the Super Bowl line, with the goal being (as always in Vegas) to get 50% of money on both sides. Most books eventually settled on Seattle -1, causing a heavy stream of money to flow in backing Denver. Just thirty minutes later, the line fluctuated from Seattle -1 to Denver -2.5, where it has stayed for the last two weeks. This wasn’t surprising. To the average public bettor, Peyton Manning as an underdog represents great value, and unsurprisingly, average public bettors represent a large portion of the people who put money on the Super Bowl. Because this is true, betting on the Super Bowl can be extremely profitable if you are able to assess the situation and identify where the true value lies. In this case scenario, the true value lies with Seattle because, in overly simplified terms, Seattle is the Vegas underdog, but the true favorite. Why, you might ask? Let’s discuss, while trying to avoid these dangerous oversimplified terms.
Will Seattle’s D cancel out Denver’s O (and vice versa)?
To put it bluntly, NOOOOOOOOO. I’ve heard this argument a lot lately, both by people backing Seattle, and by people backing Denver. But think about it; how often does a defensive unit “cancel out” the opposing offensive unit? Is this even possible? People like to oversimplify things when analyzing two similarly successful teams (see I told you oversimplifying was dangerous), which leads to proclamations such as: Denver’s O will cancel out with Seattle’s D. The reality, however, is that one of these two historic units will most likely play more effectively than the other. Figuring out which one this will be is a much more difficult task, but not one we can’t handle.
To unlock who has the true advantage when Denver has the football, we can’t look only at how good Denver’s offense and Seattle’s defense have been, but why it is that they’ve been so successful and whether or not they will be able to keep it up once this game kicks off. Early in the week, multiple smart sportswriters wrote about the level that these two units are on, and most came to the general consensus that there isn’t a clear advantage when a top flight offense takes on a top flight defense (for the best of the best, read Robert Mays on offense vs. defense Super Bowls, Bill Barnwell on where Seattle and Denver rank historically, and Chase Stuart on the greatest passing showdown in NFL history). What determines who has the advantage revolves around the style of play used by each team to achieve this level of greatness.
For Denver, this is pretty simple. The Broncos have a multitude of receiving weapons, all who rely on a combination of overwhelming physicality and/or ridiculous quickness when running their respective routes. Denver runs tons of pick plays and lots of fades, both because of Peyton’s abilities as a QB (I wrote about this, and how it relates to Manning’s greatness when it comes to avoiding sacks, two weeks ago) and said physicality/quickness of the Bronco WR’s. Almost every defense that Denver has played couldn’t stop this onslaught of receiving weapons, mostly because no one had the personnel or the game-plan to match them.
Seattle is an entirely different animal. As Barnwell pointed out, Seattle plays a Cover 3 zone defense, which makes them much less susceptible to losing receivers on the pick plays that Denver specializes in. They also have a group of extremely big and strong corners who will be able to match the strength and size of guys like Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker without getting beat on deep routes. Really, the only way to truly pick apart Seattle’s secondary (when in the Cover 3 look) demands that the opposing offense have a QB with great arm strength and lots of zip on his passes. Uh oh. There are many great things one can say about Peyton Manning’s abilities as a quarterback, but arm strength and passes with zip are certainly not Manning’s specialty. Instead, Manning loves to loft extremely accurate passes to his wide-outs, understanding that opposing cornerbacks don’t possess the same strength as whomever he’s targeting. This won’t work tonight. As we saw on the final play of the NFC Championship game, Sherman and Co. are impossible to beat on deep fades that essentially become jump balls. Everything that Manning specializes in when throwing the football just happens to be what Seattle is built to stop.
Moreover, Manning’s ability to avoid sacks will be nullified once his usual quick reads are no longer open. Defensive end Michael Bennett has been a beast all season, and that shouldn’t change this week against an effective but banged up Denver offensive line that has to deal with multiple big defensive linemen.
Even Manning’s weaknesses don’t match up well with Seattle’s amazing defense. As Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry pointed out, Manning is at his worst when throwing near the right sideline. This just happens to be where Richard Sherman plays, meaning that Peyton will probably avoid throwing in that direction for most of the night. Having to avoid the entire right sideline for the majority of a game will significantly affect the success of the rest of Denver’s passing attack. This very affect has been apparent over the entirety of the season, as opposing QB’s average a 63.4 passer rating against Seattle, a mark even worse than Geno Smith’s passer rating (according to Goldsberry) in his sad rookie campaign.
All that leaves is Knowshon Moreno. I like Moreno, and think he will be an effective weapon for Denver over the course of this contest (Moreno over 59.5 rushing yards is a solid bet) but he isn’t capable of taking over the entire game, and he’s certainly not capable of leading the Broncos to victory.
Seattle’s defense and Denver’s offense will not cancel each other out. Yes, they are both relatively equal in terms of talent level and past success, but the Seahawk defense is perfectly suited to take away what Peyton Manning has done so effectively all season. I predict less than twenty points for the Denver Broncos.
And then there was Russell …
We’ve already established that Seattle has the advantage when Denver has the ball. Now it’s time to establish why the Seahawks will continue to hold that advantage when they themselves possess the football. This is much easier to do. Denver’s defense at full strength would enjoy playing Seattle in a cold environment with the Lombardi Trophy on the line. Sadly, the Broncos are far from full strength. Even with cornerback Chris Harris, Denver ranked 21st in defensive DVOA against the pass, especially struggling against the receivers Harris wasn’t covering. Now, with Harris out, Denver will struggle to cover all types of WR’s unless their pass rush can be a major factor. It was last week, which was one of the main reasons New England only mustered 16 points with their season on the line. However, while Russell Wilson is no Tom Brady, he is the best in the game at escaping pressure and extending plays until they can be turned into positive gains. Maybe if Denver LB Von Miller was healthy, he could contain Wilson from escaping the pocket and using his legs to gain yardage (something Brady couldn’t do), but in their current state, the Broncos will fail to stop Wilson from using his strength to his team’s advantage. Throw in a finally rested Percy Harvin as the potential X-factor, and suddenly you have the makings of a dangerous passing attack.
Denver’s run defense will do an okay job at containing BEAST MODE, but BEAST MODE can only be contained for so long before the entire city of Seattle is dancing in a sea of wondrous skittles. That is all I have to say about BEAST MODE.
I could go on for a lot longer, I promise. But I also promised that I would keep this as short as I possibly could, and I’m dangerously approaching 2,000 words. It’s time to make the prediction.
Seattle 28, Denver 13.
NFC West teams went 30-10 in non-divisional matchups this season, and I see no reason for this dominance to stop anytime soon. Peyton is the public darling, and for good reason; not just is he likeable, but he’s one of the greatest football players of all time. However, while his team may be just as good as Seattle, his strengths on offense don’t match up well with how Seattle plays defense. Neither do Denver’s defensive strengths match up well with how Seattle plays offense.
In the year of the horse, the bird will reign victorious.
Enjoy the game.