For about the last decade-and-a-half, the Super Bowl's tagline could have been "expect the unexpected." For Super Bowl XLVIII, though, fans at MetLife Stadium will find out what happens when you get exactly what you expected.
The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were supposed to be here. If someone went into a hibernation in August and only woke up today, there's a good chance he or she would have been able to accurately predict the NFL's conference finalists and Super Bowl teams without any help. This is the year that your boring front-running friends who always pick the favorites get to feel good about themselves.
And those of us who picked Falcons over Texans in the Super Bowl can only hang our heads in shame.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing (except my Super Bowl pick; yeesh). While the high variance of single-game-elimination football makes it so that you can never count out a Super Bowl participant, there's something comforting about actually having the league's two best teams in its biggest game. The Broncos and Seahawks deserve this opportunity, because they both do certain things so exceptionally better than anyone else.
Denver is all about the offense. It set enough regular-season offensive records to fill a book by itself. The first team to ever score 600 points? Check. Peyton Manning's immortal season? Check.
Seattle has the "12th Man" and the best secondary in football. Only one of those items were able to be checked into the carry-on luggage from Washington to New Jersey. From Richard Sherman to Earl Thomas to Michael Bennett and the club's elite defensive line, Manning will face his toughest test of the season on Sunday.
All is as it should be. With that in mind, let's check in with a few storylines to watch as we head toward kickoff.
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
When: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Spread: Broncos -2.5, per Vegas Insider
Peyton Manning's Chance at Immortality
While Bostonians and San Diegans would likely disagree, it's only proper that Manning gets this showcase. He's coming off the best statistical season for a quarterback in league history, setting both the record for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477) in a season. Those records are fungible in the historical context and could be broken as early as next season, but considering all that Manning has gone through, the narrative is just too good.
He'll just have to hope things go better than the last time someone broke the passing touchdowns record. That someone was respected rival Tom Brady. His 50-touchdown campaign also included a record-setting 16-0 regular season and a rampage through the AFC playoffs. The final memory of that brilliant campaign, however, is David Tyree's helmet catch and a still-flabbergasting Giants victory.
The Broncos aren't at such a massive advantage. In fact, if you trust the metrics, via Football Outsiders, the Seahawks are a better, more well-rounded team and have been all season. The fact that Denver has settled in as a favorite since the opening line is a testament to Manning—and frankly Manning alone. The public has unsurprisingly backed the world's most famous and perhaps best football player.
How Manning performs Sunday, then, could ultimately be telling of how we look at him in a historical context.
Obviously, you can count on one hand how many quarterbacks compare to him in league history. Manning is almost unarguably the greatest regular-season quarterback to ever live. His combination of smarts, consistent double-digit-win seasons and gaudy passing numbers make him incomparable to anyone—especially if he continues after this season and overtakes Brett Favre for the all-time lead.
Acknowledging Manning's excellent regular seasons also means highlighting his postseason "failures," whether that distinction is fair or foul. His eight one-and-dones in the postseason are more than any quarterback in league history. The rational among us will point to all the mitigating factors that played a part in this being just Manning's third Super Bowl, but the rational among us do not write the legacy papers, unfortunately.
If Denver wins, it becomes awfully hard to argue against him being No. 1 on everybody's list. He'll have just one fewer Super Bowl than Brady, but two less than Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana. Bradshaw is about 10 tiers down the discussion in terms of real quarterback play, and Montana, even adjusted for era, doesn't stack up statistically against Manning.
A loss, though? Welcome back to the same old conversation. About how Manning can't get it done. About his cold-weather acumen. About...ugh.
New York, New Jersey, Either Way It's About the Weather
The NFL, whether it wants to admit it or not, took a massive risk hosting the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium. We know the reason it happened. The league office wanted to reward the New York/New Jersey media market after it had provided the Giants and Jets with a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility.
Roger Goodell and Co., in that effort, ran the serious risk of ruining the NFL's biggest day. With a wave of cold and snow rampaging through the East Coast in late January, it was looking like this could be a mess of epic proportions. The NFL even talked about moving the Super Bowl had the weather been too bad.
There are any number of public-relations spins Goodell could have tried had that actually happened. But the reality is that having to move the Super Bowl after making a decision many questioned to begin with would have been a pretty noticeable black mark on Goodell's time as commissioner. The fiasco surrounding the weather and the distraction it has caused makes one wonder whether this will be a one-and-done for the open-air, cold-weather cities.
Luckily, it seems like the league is going to get off scot-free. The Weather.com report currently calls for a chance of precipitation, but it's rain, not snow. The temperature is supposed to be hanging around freezing, which will still be a mild annoyance for the fair-weather fans that typically populate the Super Bowl but nothing that will overcome the entire experience.
Any talks of moving the day of the game became silly over the buildup, as days went by and precipitation proved minimal.
Still, assuming there's rainfall and sometimes gusty winds, it's still up for debate whether this was a good idea. Cranky purists will give you their "back in my day" spiel, but it's disingenuous and inane. The Super Bowl is a spectacle, an event—not some excuse for old heads to get their jollies by seeing multimillionaires sit by a heater and fans to freeze in the stands.
A cold, wintery mix is a far better result than a below-zero blizzard. But you know what else is better than a below-zero blizzard? Tampa. Tampa, Mr. Goodell.
Not sure if you've heard, but Richard Sherman has been in the news lately. Some folks are wondering where the heck this brash dude gets off yelling at our TVs when we're just trying to watch some good, old-fashioned football with our families. Others are wondering what the big deal is.
The rest of us just want to know when everyone is going to shut up already. (#LenoJoke)
On the real, the constant Sherman discussion has become this year's instant inducer of the eye-roll. It's the storyline that has overshadowed everything. Manning's legacy? Second fiddle. The weather? Don't you be putting any mediocre wintry mix in front of me.
Since becoming a source of cultural polarization, Sherman has been the subject of roughly 5,000 Internet thinkpieces. A New York Times profile. An indictment of Erin Andrews' acumen as a reporter. He's become everything in one, the person who has been discussed over and over and over because he wasn't discussed over and over and over previously.
For Richard Sherman the brand, this is all great. I'm sure you've heard him and Aloe Blacc telling the world he's the man, he's the man, he's the man while wearing Beats By Dre headphones no fewer than 200 times this past week. Sherman gained hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, brand equity in this crazy world, and might honestly be the most famous defensive player alive at the moment.
For Richard Sherman the player, this fame increase comes with a metric ton of pressure. Sherman will likely be lined up against Demaryius Thomas, Manning's favorite target but someone probably a step down in talent level from the Seahawks corner. Despite his size, Thomas isn't a physical guy and would probably lose a battle to Sherman seven times out of 10.
And Sherman has been so good in these playoffs—ignored almost entirely by Drew Brees and Colin Kaepernick—that it stands to reason Manning will try doing the same. Manning is a smart guy. He knows the odds are better with him attacking Byron Maxwell or Jeremy Lane than they are Sherman.
Yet its not impossible to defeat Sherman. Roddy White torched him over the top for a 47-yard touchdown in last season's divisional playoffs. It's rare, but sometimes Sherman's aggressive nature gets the best of him and leads to a blown coverage. In a game that will probably be separated by a touchdown or less, one big play from Thomas could change the trajectory of the game.
And, of course, shift the Sherman narrative once more.
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