Super Bowl XLVIII: Expert Thoughts Heading into Sunday
Just in case you haven't heard, there's a rather important football game this Sunday.
On Feb. 2, the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos will meet in Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey. The winner will hoist the Lombardi Trophy and be crowned NFL champions.
It's a game dripping with storylines.
The game features the Broncos' record-setting offense squaring off against Seattle's league-best defense. Furthermore, it also marks the end of Denver quarterback Peyton Manning's quest to cap the greatest passing season in NFL history with his second Super Bowl win.
And that's just for starters.
So, as we gear up for the biggest game of the season and the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather venue in league history, here's a look at what's on the minds of the National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers here at Bleacher Report.
The Ultimate Matchup: Broncos Wide Receivers vs. the Seattle Secondary
It doesn't take long to find a compelling matchup in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Fresh off an NFL-record 55 passing touchdowns and propelling four receivers to double-digit scores on the year, Peyton Manning and the Denver offense will face the Seahawks and their vaunted "Legion of Boom" secondary.
It's a matchup NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon feels is the game's most critical:
A lot has been made about this being the league’s top-rated offense against the top-rated defense, but if we get a little more specific, there’s one matchup that is about as compelling as it gets.
The Broncos have the deepest, most talented receiving corps in the NFL as well as one of the league’s all-time best quarterbacks throwing the passes. But the Seahawks have, without a doubt, the most talented defensive backfield in the game.
For those of us who savor the individual matchups within the ultimate team sport, it’s as good as it gets.
You’ve got Seattle's Richard Sherman, who led the NFL with eight interceptions and is generally considered to be the league’s top corner, against Denver's Demaryius Thomas, who topped all receivers with 14 touchdown grabs and 697 yards after the catch during the regular season.
Opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating of only 47.8 against Seattle's Byron Maxwell during the regular season, which, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), ranked second in football to Sherman. But he’ll have his hands as full as ever with Eric Decker, who ranked within the top 15 in terms of yards and catches this year.
Broncos tight end Julius Thomas was voted to the Pro Bowl after scoring 12 touchdowns in 2013, but he’ll probably have to deal with Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, who might have been Seattle’s best player in their NFC Championship victory over the 49ers. But Earl Thomas and slot stud Walter Thurmond aren’t bad either. PFF listed both Chancellor and Thomas within the top 14 among safeties in coverage.
Thurmond, who, according to PFF, gave up the fifth-fewest yards per slot cover snap in the NFL in 2013, will likely have some fun matchups with Wes Welker, who has made a living by killing defenses from that same spot.
Expect an ongoing epic battle between Denver's Thomas, Decker, Welker and Thomas against Seattle's Sherman, Maxwell, Thurmond, Chancellor and Thomas.
That’s a lot of Thomases and a ton of talent.
Just imagine if the Seahawks still had Brandon Browner…
Peyton Manning vs. the Seahawks Secondary Is the Ideal Super Bowl Matchup
There's an old saying that great minds think alike.
In the case of Super Bowl XLVIII, Gagnon and NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen appear to champion this belief.
Like Gagnon, Bowen sees the matchup between the Denver passing attack and the Seattle secondary as the biggest storyline in the Super Bowl.
Bowen predicts that the chess match between Peyton Manning and Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will make for fascinating television:
Peyton Manning versus the Seahawks secondary is the ideal Super Bowl matchup.
Manning is going to earn his money in this matchup because of the talent and skill set that he will face in the Seahawks secondary.
Looking at the Seahawks on tape, the Broncos should expect to see single-high safety defenses (Cover 1/Cover 3) with free safety Earl Thomas closing the post and seam.
How does that impact Manning?
Think of the matchups outside of the numbers versus cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell to start. Both corners will play press coverage and challenge the Broncos receivers at the line of scrimmage. They will get their hands on Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas in order to impact the timing of the Broncos route schemes.
However, the key could be the underneath defenders in the Seahawks' three-deep zone shell.
That’s where strong safety Kam Chancellor and the linebackers can cushion the inside seam routes in the Broncos playbook, drive downhill on underneath crossing routes and play with a physical style to clean up receivers on any throw to the flat.
The throwing windows for Manning will be reduced on Sunday night, and ball placement could be the story if the Broncos quarterback is going to move the offense consistently down the field.
This Seattle secondary is the best unit in the NFL, and I have no doubts about that after studying them on film. But can they slow down Manning and the talent he has at the offensive skill positions?
This is the ideal matchup for a championship game, and there is nothing better than seeing it play out on the Super Bowl stage.
Broncos Defense vs. Seahawks Offense Is Key to Super Bowl
However, the Denver offense against the Seattle defense only tells half the story of Super Bowl XLVIII.
As AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen points out, Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense versus the Denver defense may not be getting the headlines, but it's every bit as important to the outcome of the game.
It's a matchup that favors the Seahawks, in Hansen's opinion:
Lost in the talk about the No. 1 offense versus the No. 1 defense is what will be happening when the two teams flip sides. Will the Denver Broncos continue to play their best defense of the season? Can the Seattle Seahawks run roughshod over a shorthanded defense with Marshawn Lynch?
If the Broncos offense and Seahawks defense play to a stalemate, the answer to those questions is the key to unlocking who will win the game.
Seattle’s offense isn’t nearly as bad as some people make it out to be. In fact, the Seahawks are built like the San Diego Chargers from an offensive standpoint. The Broncos played the Chargers three times this season and lost one of those games.
The key to that victory for the Chargers was their ability to move the ball on the ground, convert on third down and score in the red zone. It’s very difficult to be more explosive than the Broncos on offense, but it’s easier to be more efficient over a span of eight to 10 drives.
The Chargers played their best defensive game of the season when they beat the Broncos, but that was only because Manning was limited to just a handful of possessions. Manning can shred even the best defenses, so every extra drive he is given puts the opposing defense at risk.
Both the Chargers and New England Patriots successfully limited Manning’s opportunities to just eight drives per game in the playoffs, but they also struggled to score and play solid defense. The Seahawks have the latter part covered, so their offensive performance will be key.
According to TeamRankings.com, the Broncos ranked 18th in third-down conversion percentage allowed and 28th in red-zone touchdown percentage allowed. The Seahawks were 14th in red-zone scoring percentage and 18th in third-down touchdown percentage.
With the addition of wide receiver Percy Harvin to the Seattle offense and the subtraction of outside linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson to the Broncos defense, the Seahawks have a slight edge.
The Broncos have been playing some of their best defense this season during the postseason, and that is partly because of a lack of exposure. The Seahawks offense seems to be struggling in the playoffs, but the Broncos aren’t nearly as strong on defense as the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers.
Super Bowl XLVIII is Russell Wilson’s to Lose
Heading into Super Bowl XLVIII, it's been all Omaha, all the time.
That's understandable. After all, Peyton Manning is playing in his third Super Bowl, fresh off a season where he re-wrote the record books at the position.
However, NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter points out that there are two quarterbacks playing in the game.
In fact, Schalter thinks the stage is set for Seattle's Russell Wilson to potentially steal the show:
Of course, the football world is all abuzz about the impending collision of the immovable object (the Seattle Seahawks defense) and the irresistible force (the Denver Broncos offense) in Super Bowl XLVIII.
That’s not the matchup that will decide the game, however.
It’s safe to say the Broncos won’t be able to score at will on the Seahawks, who allowed an average of just 14.4 points per game in the regular season. It’s also safe to say the Seahawks won’t be able to shut out the Broncos, who averaged a whopping 37.9 points per game.
But what happens when the Seahawks have the ball? The Broncos allowed an average of 24.9 points per game in the regular season, but in the playoffs, they have held the 12th- and third-ranked scoring offenses to just 17 and 16 points, respectively.
Russell Wilson and the Seahawks averaged an eighth-best 26.1 points in the regular season, and in the playoffs, they have scored 23 points apiece against the NFL’s fourth- and third-ranked scoring defenses.
Though the Broncos defenders have taken their play up several notches in the playoffs—especially linemen like defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and defensive end Shaun Phillips—Wilson and the Seahawks present a balanced, talented threat that will stretch them to their limit.
This Broncos defense has lost many starters, including top edge rusher Von Miller and top cover cornerback Chris Harris. Tailback Marshawn Lynch will test the Broncos’ discipline and tackling all game long, and Wilson has the tools to bomb it over the top, pick them apart short or beat them with his own two feet.
Perhaps most importantly, Wilson will have his most dangerous weapon—one he’s barely gotten to use—in Percy Harvin, one of the most lethal playmakers in the NFL. Per ESPN 710’s Liz Mathews, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said Harvin “looked 100 percent” and will play with “no limitations.”
If that’s the case, Super Bowl XLVIII is Russell Wilson’s to lose.
Defense Wins Championships, but Which Defense Will Prevail?
You know the old axiom: "Defense wins championships."
On many levels, it holds water. Of the five previous meetings between the league's top offense and the league's top defense in the Super Bowl, only once has the team with the No. 1 offense prevailed.
NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller thinks defense will indeed carry the day in Super Bowl XLVIII, however.
The question at hand is which defense it will be:
We’ve all heard our entire lives that it’s the defense that wins championships, while the offense just puts butts in the seats. And while that trend hasn’t been particularly accurate during the regular season, it has been the case in the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks know this. Their last Super Bowl visit saw a crushing 21-10 loss at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers and their suffocating defense. And it was the same for Peyton Manning, whose last foray into the big game saw his Indianapolis Colts score just 17 points against the New Orleans Saints.
Defense will win Super Bowl XLVIII, but which team will come off the bus ready to hit in a cold-weather game? That will dictate the outcome of this game more than any of the media-fueled stories you read and hear this week.
Both defenses are facing obstacles and losses. Seattle is without cornerback Brandon Browner (suspended), and Denver is missing All-World outside linebacker Von Miller. And yet both teams played outstanding defense to get where they are. It will be on the backs of unsung heroes that this Super Bowl is won.
Seattle's Pass Rush Will Prove to Be the Real Difference Maker Come Sunday
It was demonstrated with crystal clarity in the AFC Championship Game: The New England Patriots were unable to generate any sort of consistent pressure on Peyton Manning, and in return, Manning carved the New England defense to pieces.
It's absolutely critical that the Seahawks get after Manning if they're going to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland expects that they will:
Even though pundits from around the league can’t get enough of the Seahawks secondary, the group to watch this coming Sunday will be Seattle’s pass rush. Defensive ends Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons have turned one of the team’s biggest weaknesses into one of its biggest strengths this season.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the three aforementioned players have combined for 21 quarterback sacks, 35 quarterback hits and 95 quarterback hurries. This, in turn, means they average 1.3 quarterback sacks, 2.1 quarterback hits and 5.9 quarterback hurries per game.
Those types of numbers will come in handy against the league’s most proficient quarterback. Peyton Manning is incredibly skilled when it comes to getting rid of the ball quickly. During the regular season, the All-Pro signal-caller was sacked 18 times (the lowest rate of any 16-game starter) and hit just 31 times. Furthermore, his average time to throw was 2.36 seconds, which was the lowest rate in the NFL.
Yet one has to wonder how fast his release will be with the Legion of Boom covering on the back end. If the Seahawks secondary holds up longer than a normal unit does versus Manning, then Avril, Bennett and Clemons will have a profound impact on Super Bowl XLVIII.
Seattle Just Needs to out-Jaguar the Jaguars to Beat Denver
By now, you've no doubt heard and read analysts, coaches, reporters and players alike break down Super Bowl XLVIII from every conceivable angle.
Or so you thought.
NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey has a rather unique blueprint for a Seattle victory in the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks need to out-Jaguar the Jaguars.
Yes, those Jaguars:
Who would have thought that a “meaningless” Week 6 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars would be so important to a Super Bowl matchup months later? The Jaguars haven’t even sniffed the playoffs in years, let alone provided such a blueprint for beating a potential champion.
Gus Bradley and the Jaguars knew exactly how to beat quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos; they just didn’t have the players to execute that gameplan. Still, at halftime, the Jaguars were only down 14-12 to Denver and had pulled to within three points in the third quarter. When one looks back to the Broncos' season and their offensive power, that seems incredible.
Remember, the Jaguars are trying their darndest to be “Seahawks South.” Gus Bradley doesn’t just have Seattle roots; he’s a Pete Carroll disciple. That defense and personnel plan the Jaguars implemented against the Broncos? That isn’t the Tampa 2 that Bradley learned when he first arrived to the NFL with Monte Kiffin. No, it was the strong and physical man/Cover 3 scheme that he was indoctrinated in with Carroll and the Seahawks.
To out-Jaguar the Jaguars against the Broncos, the Seahawks just need to be themselves.
This could easily be the worst offensive performance of the Broncos' season. That wouldn’t surprise anyone. The only question, then, is whether or not the Seahawks offense can hold up their end of the bargain as well.