By: Shawn Davis
Number one offense versus number one defense, number one scoring offense versus the number one scoring defense and both teams are the top seeds in their respective conferences. Over the course of the regular season there have been teams that have gone on impressive streaks – the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers come quickly to mind – but has there been two better teams this year than the ones that will be playing this Sunday? (Or Saturday?)
Every year when the knockout round begins (I get tired of saying/typing “playoffs” at times; sue me) I become crestfallen to be quite honest. Why? Why not? Sports are fun to follow and since I’ve participated in just about every athletic activity since childhood I find sports to be the great equalizer. No matter if the coach is a relative or you got on the team because you were dating someone’s son or daughter, if you cannot perform you will be exposed.
What am I getting to? Like many other fans, I’m not going to be in the best of moods after the Super Bowl because that means some long months without my favorite way to close out weekends…well one of my favorite ways, ha. Going back to the exposure element, well, there’s a reason why the biggest game that the NFL can feature has been played in temperature controlled conditions – which just so happens to be why Saturday night might see a new champion crowned. (Who thought playing this game in New Jersey was going to be a bad idea?)
The game that fans deserve to see might not be the one they receive. Of the triumvirate of phases in the game of football, defense is the one that travels the best no matter the elements. Along with having that in their plus column, the Seattle Seahawks also feature a power rushing attack (also dependable in bad conditions) that is the base of their offense – and also a strategic way to bleed the clock to ensure the Denver Broncos get fewer possessions.
Unlike the most of the talking heads, I do think Peyton Manning has the ability to win games in the cold. He is less effective? Yes, but most quarterbacks are going to be; I’m not engaging in that argument here. The problem for the Broncos’ aerial assault will be the wind on a winter night, in New Jersey, for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The writer of this column was proudly born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, but a Northeast, outdoor, contest will do nothing but detract from a game that has the makings of an all-time classic. Now it may sound like I’m giving the win to the Seahawks but you have to stay tuned for the pick. C’mon, readers!
My focus, initially, is going to be on the line-play of both squads. Russell Wilson’s elusiveness will allow him to keep plays alive but I want to see how the offensive line protects him from an unsung, but recently dependable, Broncos pass rush led by Pot Roast (or Terrance Knighton as his parents call him) and Shaun Phillips. Manning has overcome the injuries – and the shifting of players – on his offensive line by getting the ball out his hands quickly to avoid the hits. In doing so, it calls into question just how good his linemen are. The Seahawks have so much depth among the defensive line that the Broncos front-five is going to be tested – and I cannot wait to see the fighting in the trenches as most, if not all, football games – ever – are determined at the line of scrimmage.
At this point we are all aware of the matchup that will be under the white-hot spotlight: Denver’s offense versus the Seattle secondary. Not to take away anything from the weapons featured on the Broncos but they are not the best weapons Manning has ever had. They’re not. The Indianapolis Colts team that he won the Super Bowl with was ok, I think. Let’s trash that thought because Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes were a notable group.
I could see the Broncos’ sheer number of formations and weapons overwhelming the Seahawks back four but I could also see it the other way around. There is no argument for the lack of velocity Manning’s passes have shown at certain times this year. A lack of velocity can make for interceptions that could turn into points or, at the very least, lead to extra possessions and tremendous field position. Popular opinion would seem to favor Richard Sherman lining up opposite Demaryius Thomas so they could possibly cancel each other out; if that holds true then Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno and Wes Welker will be there to carry the load because Manning spreads the ball around to every one of his options. He loves getting it to D. Thomas for the big plays but the rest of his unit are more than capable of ripping a defensive scheme to shreds is he finds himself too occupied.
How the referees call the game will also play a huge part in the crowning of a new champion. If they allow the Seahawks to play as physical as they’ve allowed thus far this postseason – without throwing flags – then the Broncos will be in for a long evening. In viewing some of their games, there’s a formation where the Broncos align in trips (three wide receivers) usually to the right of Manning and then the tight end isolated on the other side of the field alone. This formation is one Manning can use to exploit the Seahawks as the trips set always causes trepidation in the minds of defensive backs while also forcing them to put either a third corner or small safety on J. Thomas. This set can counteract the tight, physical coverage the Seahawks are known for by making them react and move quickly (something they have an issue with; see how T.Y. Hilton and the Colts attacked them for a reference).
The short-to-intermediate passing game is where the Broncos are going to have to make their living (aside from what Moreno and the other running backs will provide on the ground) but Manning is going to have to test them deep. Touch passes and back shoulder throws are fine but it would be in his best interest to refrain from short hooks and curls and avoid the short sideways passes that the Seahawks can feast on; see Matt Schaub. More than likely the wind is going to dictate how aggressive he can be on deep strikes but he’s got to take the shot when he has the chance – and I believe the opportunities will be there. With his array of targets, there will be routes his receivers can win and he must deliver the ball without doubt.
Since the masses favor grocery lists:
Wilson is among the next wave of young quarterbacks to carry the shield – and he may shine this weekend – well into the future. Manning is strongly the present.
Running backs: Seattle
This was real close (tighter than what I expected) and I was about to blindly hand this category over Marshawn Lynch without much of a second thought. Using aforementioned second thought, Moreno and Montee Ball, have a compelling argument:
Moreno: 1,038 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 548 receiving yards, 13 total TD
Lynch: 1,257 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 316 receiving yards, 14 total TD
If you want to add Ball’s numbers to the mix: 559 rushing yards, 4.7 avg, 145 receiving yards, 4 total TD. I’m giving Lynch the respect because of his track record but it’s not even close to being an obvious selection.
Wide receivers and tight ends: Broncos
Offensive line: Broncos
Based on the fact that the Seahawks move the pocket to give Wilson several launching points I could award it to the blue group – Wait, is that a plus or a minus? – for their versatility but then I remembered they surrendered 44 sacks to their franchise quarterback. No! On the other side, a group of five blocked for the most prolific offense the league has ever seen. That matters…and forces me to give the edge to the Broncos. Manning was sacked 24 less times than Wilson during the regular season and that’s too glaring a number to ignore.
Defensive line: Seahawks
Based on the sheer depth alone, the Seahawks walk with this one. Much respect though, Pot Roast.
Both units are unheralded but the number one defense in the league has to get the nod here. I do like the speed the Broncos linebackers possess – and they can cover ground just as good as the Seahawks.
I named the Broncos the Defense That Keeps Drives Alive, mostly, for their play on the back-end, which is also the ONLY reason I picked the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots to defeat them in back-to-back weeks.
Special teams: Seahawks
If Trindon Holliday didn’t scare the hell out of the Broncos – and their fans – every time he attempts to catch a kickoff or punt I could give it to them. He has the ability to personally stamp this game, like Desmond Howard did for the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI, but he also has it in him to cough it up (five fumbles this season and countless bobbles which has forced John Fox to put the reliable Decker back there in windy conditions) and put his defense in less desirable field position.
Coach Fox and Pete Carroll have both done an admirable job with their teams over the last few seasons so it’s hard to choose a clear winner here.
That’s a tally of 5-3-1 in favor of the Seahawks; are they the pick? We’re almost there.
The Seahawks hoist the trophy… if their defense travels and the Broncos fail to limit Lynch from morphing into Beast Mode. Simple? I actually think it is because I said above that they have the components that are best suited for funky, wintry, weather in a way that their opponent does not.
The Broncos stand triumphant in the end…if Manning can manipulate the safeties in the middle of the field and get them to commit one way or another. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are the best safeties in the league, no argument here, but they will have to be ready to cover because the Broncos will flood the seams, the middle and the deep parts of the field if the opportunity arises. A misstep, once or twice, will yield touchdowns because the Broncos don’t settle for field goals. It is also imperative the Moreno gets 20-25 touches combined, at the very least, to ensure Seattle has to defend honestly.
Pick: I have no idea. Is that ok? Ugh! My head and heart are at odds but I’m going to select the Seahawks, 23-20. In the last three minutes of the contest Manning moves down the field to tie the game with a touchdown but his defense isn’t capable of preventing Wilson from getting his team in position to kick the clinching field goal.
Last week: 1-1