The matchup that makes this Super Bowl super is going to turn out to be a lopsided battle.
Leading up to this game, it's easy to get deliriously ecstatic over the prospect of the historically prolific pass offense of the Denver Broncos and the fiercely stout, league-leading pass defense of the Seahawks.
Neither team, however, has faced many opponents all that similar to what awaits them in New York.
As I looked over the results that offer up the closest comparison, Seattle's are troubling, which makes taking Denver and giving three points at places like Bovada easy money.
I'll discuss the merits of this further, but first, have a look at the vitals for this wonderful matchup:
Date: Sunday, February 2, 2014
Start Time: 6:25 p.m. ET
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Spread: Broncos -3 according to Bovada
As you are likely aware of at this point, the Broncos set a record for points scored in the regular season this past year. That came thanks to a passing offense that saw Peyton Manning set the single-season record for passing yards and touchdowns.
That offense will be facing the defense that led the NFL in passing. The Seahawks secondary is so fierce that it has its own nickname, "Legion of Boom."
While building their success, however, the Seahawks have not faced a passing offense anywhere near what the Denver Broncos will bring to the field. Take a look at the Seahawks schedule from this past season and the ranking of their opponents' passing offense:
|Week||Away Team||Home Team||Opp. Pass Rank|
|1||Seahawks 12||Panthers 7||28|
|2||49ers 3||Seahawks 29||30|
|3||Jaguars 17||Seahawks 45||23|
|4||Seahawks 23||Texans 20||16|
|5||Seahawks 28||Colts 34||14|
|6||Titans 13||Seahawks 20||21|
|7||Seahawks 34||Cardinals 22||13|
|8||Seahawks 12||Rams 9||27|
|9||Buccaneers 24||Seahawks 27||32|
|10||Seahawks 33||Falcons 10||5|
|11||Vikings 20||Seahawks 41||24|
|13||Saints 7||Seahawks 34||2|
|14||Seahawks 17||49ers 19||30|
|15||Seahawks 23||Giants 0||19|
|16||Cardinals 17||Seahawks 10||13|
|17||Rams 9||Seahawks 27||27|
Rankings via TeamStats.com
Obviously, when going by ranking, there is a glaring exception to my statement. The New Orleans Saints finished the season ranked second in passing, and the Seahawks handled them twice.
I have a caveat for that, however. The Saints offense was a different animal on the road, and both of their matchups against the Seahawks came in Seattle.
The Saints scored at least 30 points in 6 of their 8 home games. They did not reach that total even once on the road.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) January 4, 2014
The Saints' road issues were never more apparent than they were in the first half of their loss to Seattle in the divisional round. It was wet and windy, and the entire Saints team looked like Southern Californians trying to drive in the rain.
On top of this, the Saints passing offense is different than that of the Broncos. The Saints' main weapon in the passing game is tight end Jimmy Graham. No Saints receiver broke the 1,000-yard mark.
With arguably the best safety duo in the league, the Seahawks are well-equipped to handle tight ends, and hence the Saints' passing game.
As for that safety dude, there is no arguing over which is the best in the mind of Earl Thomas:
Other than the Saints, the Seahawks played five games against teams that finished the season in the top 20 of passing offenses.
This doesn't mean that the Seahawks' No. 1 pass ranking is bogus. They are No. 1 in just about any stat that's been devised to measure pass defenses:
Just how good is Seahawks pass defense? Expected Points Added measures defensive value above an avg D. Check it out pic.twitter.com/zY8kllcLk0— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 15, 2014
My point is that the Seahawks' pass defense hasn't played many games against top passing attacks and certainly not like the one they will face against the Broncos.
On top of that, in the games I feel give us the best comparison to how the vaunted Legion of Boom will fare against the Broncos, they didn't hold up that well.
Seattle found great success in passing defense against two of the five teams in the top 20 of the pass rankings that weren't the Saints: the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants.
What do those two passing offenses have in common? Two mistake-prone quarterbacks playing with less-than-elite pass protection. A little more on this below, but let's look at the other teams Seattle faced in the top 20.
- Week 4 in Houston, Matt Schaub threw for 355 yards and two touchdowns. Andre Johnson had nine catches for 110 yards on 12 targets.
- Week 5 in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck was 16-of-29 for 229 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton combined for 11 catches and 205 yards on 15 targets.
- Week 10 in Atlanta, Matt Ryan went 23-of-36 for 172 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Harry Douglas caught seven passes for 49 yards on eight targets. Wide receiver Roddy White was playing his first game in over a month and wasn't a factor in that contest, and Julio Jones did not play.
The Seahawks blew out the Falcons, and they were content to allow short passes as the game progressed. So take those stats for what they are, but Harry Douglas grabbing seven of eight passes is ugly.
I point out the leading receivers' stats in those games because that is where the Broncos get most of their production from in the passing game.
Tight end Julius Thomas is a wonderful weapon in the passing game, but he was third on the Broncos in receiving yards at 788.
Right behind him in receiving yards is Wes Welker, and Welker's 778 receiving yards this season were only good enough for third-best among receivers. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker were both comfortably over 1,000 yards this past season.
All those weapons play into Manning's greatest strength as a passer, which is his ability to identify the open target. He can dissect a defense and pick at the vulnerable spots, and he's found plenty of open receivers this year.
Consider that and then look at the Seahawks allowing the the receivers I highlighted above to combine to catch 27 passes on 34 targets, and I can't help but see Manning picking apart the Seahawks' Cover 3 zone defense.
I'm not the only one:
If Seahawks plan to play that Cover-3 all day, Manning will eat them alive.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) January 20, 2014
Certainly the Seahawks can switch up their zones, but it's not like this is going to befuddle Manning. He'll simply hit a different point of weakness, and the Seahawks have made little attempt to mask their defensive plays this season anyway.
How many yards will Manning throw for?
Now, to be completely fair, the Broncos' passing offense hasn't played a defense near Seattle's level.
The Broncos played the Texans in Week 15, and the Texans finished third in pass defense, but no one had to throw to beat Houston. The Texans were 11th in yards allowed per pass.
The next highest-ranked pass defense on the Broncos schedule belonged to the Giants and their 10th-ranked unit. In fact, with the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens, the Broncos played the teams ranked Nos. 10-12 in pass defense.
Manning threw for over 300 yards in each of the games against those teams, and Denver won all three comfortably.
There is another team worth mentioning here, as the Broncos did face a similar pass rush to Seattle. The Kansas City Chiefs finished the season eighth in sack percentage, which is two spots behind the Seahawks.
In two games against the Broncos, the Chiefs didn't get a single sack. That is not all that shocking. Denver led the league in sacked percentage, and that offensive line only appears to be getting better:
The Broncos O-line played out of its mind in this game. Manning could've been wearing a tuxedo back there against a Bill Belichick defense.— Scott Stump (@Scott_Stump) January 19, 2014
That brings me to my final point. A lot of the Seahawks' success in pass defense is built on the corners slowing down receivers with bump-and-run coverage and then rattling quarterbacks with their pass rush.
In this Bleacher Report video, it is argued that Seattle's physical style will slow down Thomas and Welker:
It's not like Decker and Thomas are small receivers afraid of physical play, however. Thomas outweighs Richard Sherman by 34 pounds, and Decker outweighs Byron Maxwell by seven pounds. Wes Welker is tiny, but he wouldn't know how to run routes if he was getting knocked around like a pin ball.
That physicality also didn't do much to rattle the receivers I listed above, and with all of Manning's weapons, that is a lot of rattling to be done to shut down all of his options on any given play.
Now, remember those games for the Seahawks against the Giants and Cardinals that I wrote off above?
The Seahawks totaled 13 sacks in those games. Their lowest sack total in those three games was two. That came in Seattle's second game against Arizona. That number would have been higher had Carson Palmer decided not to keep the sack total from rising by throwing four interceptions.
Seattle is not going to get consistent pressure on Manning. Denver's offensive line is playing too well.
This will leave the legendary quarterback free to pick apart the defense with his stable of weapons.
I could get into the merits of the Seahawks offense against the Broncos' defense, and I probably will before the game rolls around, but does anyone think Seattle can keep up with Denver if Manning can beat the Seattle defense like I predicted?
The Broncos will cover the three-point spread with little stress involved.