Oddsmakers have been torn on Super Bowl XLVIII for much of the past fortnight, a testament to the evenly matched Seattle Seahawks-Denver Broncos matchup.
The Broncos have settled in as slight favorites recently, and per Bovada, Denver currently sits as a three-point favorite on game day. According to SB Nation, recent action on the Broncos has pushed the AFC champs up from a two-point favorite status they held for most of the last two weeks.
With a tightly contested Super Bowl expected, it appears a few key matchups could swing not only the championship, but millions of dollars along with it.
If the underdog Seahawks are to cover, their offense must do what the Chargers and Patriots failed to do: sustain long drives by controlling the ground game and winning third down. Seattle's defense has gotten much of the attention, and deservedly so, but Russell Wilson and Co. must operate efficiently if the Seahawks are to control the game's tempo.
San Diego and New England tried to run the ball on the Broncos, but that plays right into Denver's hands. The Broncos conceded just 3.9 yards per rush during the regular season, which was seventh-best in the league, and have followed up by holding their AFC playoff opponents to a 3.8-yard per carry average.
Marshawn Lynch is more physical than any back the Broncos have faced, but even he seems unlikely to dominate the game against Denver's best defensive unit. No, Denver's weakness is through the air, and as SI.com's Doug Farrar notes, Wilson must be prudent with his renowned improvisational ability to avoid the crippling mistakes:
But there are also times when Wilson tries like crazy to take a play beyond its logical conclusion, leading to some crazy results. Occasionally, he’ll hit a receiver deep downfield after his mobility leads to huge holes in pass coverage. More often, a play — and the drive within that play — will stop with a quickness, and Seattle’s offense will be forced to reset. Head coach Pete Carroll has talked often over the last two seasons about the need to balance Wilson’s improvisational skills with his overall efficiency as a quarterback, and that balance can stretch wildly — sometimes in the same game.
Wilson is capable of making a game-changing play, for better or worse. If the Seahawks are to come out on top, their second-year quarterback cannot afford to give Manning and the Broncos offense any extra possessions.
As for Manning and his ballyhooed offense, the Broncos figure to have a difficult time breaking 30 points against the league's best defense. That's not to say Denver will struggle offensively; they scored 24 and 26 points in their first two playoff wins, and clearly controlled the game's tempo for 60 minutes.
Indeed, the Broncos create significant mismatches out of their three-receiver sets, often lining up Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker on one side of the formation in "closed trips" set. That forces the defense to re-shuffle its coverage (since teams usually keep cornerbacks confined to one side of the field), and as Grantland's Chris Brown explains, the options for Manning from there are plentiful:
Defensive coordinators hate this formation because it puts the offense’s passing strength to one side and its running strength to the other, thus forcing difficult decisions about where to place additional defenders...If the defense wants to play man-to-man with both Demaryius Thomas and Decker, both cornerbacks likely need to flip to that side, or else Decker will wind up on a linebacker or nickelback, a sure mismatch. Doing that, however, tells Manning that the defense is almost certainly in man-to-man coverage, and regardless, few teams like to put both corners on the same side...It’s all catnip to Manning, since each defensive decision gives him an opportunity to adjust and attack.
Seattle has a unique moveable chess piece in Richard Sherman, who can move around if needed, but Manning figures to avoid the Seahawks' brashest and most talented player.
Instead, look for the Welker-Byron Maxwell matchup to determine much of Denver's offensive success. At heart, the Broncos are an offense that relies on Welker to move the chains with short 10- and 15-yard bursts before hitting one of the outside receivers after lulling the defense to sleep.
Denver thrives off converting third downs, having finished second in the league in third-down conversions during the regular season. If Maxwell can contain Welker, perhaps with help from a linebacker like K.J. Wright, that will go a long way toward shortening the sustained drives the Broncos have put together all postseason.
Ultimately, expect mixed results for the Denver offense, with Seattle's offensive efficacy determining the outcome. Despite an uneven recent month, look for Russell Wilson to make enough of an impact to swing the Super Bowl toward the Seahawks.
Prediction: Seattle 23, Denver 20