It’s not a slight to Russell Wilson to give Peyton Manning a solid edge. Manning simply had one of the greatest statistical seasons in history with a record 55 touchdown passes, a record 5,477 yards and a passer rating of 115.1. Manning is asked to shoulder much more of the burden for Denver’s offense, but showed at age 37 that he remains at the top of his game. Wilson was in the conversation for NFL MVP for much of the season before struggles at the end. But he has continued to display a knack for making big plays at critical times.
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Marshawn Lynch has been at his best in the playoffs, averaging 5 yards per carry compared to 4.2 during the regular season, with 249 yards in two games, topping the 100-yard mark in each. Denver doesn’t run as much as most teams, but did well when it did. Knowshon Moreno led Denver with 1,038 yards this season but entered Super Bowl week battling sore ribs. Montee Ball, a teammate of Wilson’s at Wisconsin, had 559 yards on 4.7 yards per carry.
Seattle went back to the rotation of James Carpenter and Paul McQuistan at left guard for the NFC Championship Game. Indications are Seattle will stick with that line after Lynch became the first player this year to rush for more than 100 yards against the 49ers. The Seahawks figure to emphasize the ground game against the Broncos. Denver has battled injuries up front all year but has received surprisingly good play. Two keys are right guard Louis Vasquez, who made the Pro Bowl, and left tackle Chris Clark, who has thrived in his first year as a full-time starter.
Seattle’s receivers have been criticized often. The group could receive a boost if Percy Harvin plays as expected. With the ability to get in two weeks of practice, he should be a big part of the game plan. Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Golden Tate, while not putting up consistently huge numbers, have showed the ability to come up with big plays when needed most. Denver’s receiving corps has been historically great with its top three receivers each catching 73 passes or more. That doesn’t include Moreno and tight end Julius Thomas, who each had 60 or more. This will be the biggest challenge for the Seattle defense all season.
Denver has been surprisingly stout against the run in the playoffs, allowing the Chargers and Patriots a combined 129 yards with no run longer than 16 yards, and just 3.8 yards per carry. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton was dominant in the AFC title game, and veteran Shaun Phillips has become the team’s top pass rushing force on the edge, getting 10 sacks this season. Seattle’s deep defensive line has continued its strong play in the postseason but will need to be at its best to get consistent pressure on Manning.
The Broncos play a 4-3, and second-year outside linebacker Danny Trevathan leads a Denver group that has improved, often giving up chunks of yards but showing a knack for making big plays at key times. Seattle is getting back to full strength with K.J. Wright recovering from a broken foot and able to play on 16 snaps against the 49ers. He might start Sunday. MLB Bobby Wagner and WLB Malcolm Smith have continued to shine in the playoffs.
Seattle ranked first in the NFL this season in pass defense; the Broncos 27th. The styles of the teams led to some of that, but there’s a significant gap here, especially with Denver missing staring cornerback Chris Harris. Cornerback Champ Bailey, a 15-year veteran, leads Denver’s secondary, which allowed 254.4 passing yards per game. Seattle allowed 172 per game and intercepted 28 passes. The media focus will be on the big three of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. But Byron Maxwell and nickel corner Walter Thurmond will also have to come up big.
Seattle’s Steven Hauschka was 33 of 35 on field goals in the regular season and Denver’s Matt Prater was 25 of 26. Punters Jon Ryan of Seattle and Britton Colquitt had similar numbers. A wild card for Seattle is whether Harvin returns kicks. Denver gets most of its returns from Trindon Holliday, who had a 105-yard kickoff return for a TD this year, and an 81-yard punt return.
Denver’s John Fox is taking his second team to a Super Bowl, losing with Carolina against New England after the 2003 season. He has just three losing seasons in 12 years with the Panthers and Broncos. His record is 107-85 and he is 8-5 in the playoffs. Carroll is trying to achieve the rare feat of winning both a college football national title and a Super Bowl. The only others to do that: Jimmy Johnson (Miami, Dallas Cowboys) and Barry Switzer (Oklahoma, Cowboys).
Denver has Manning, and the team that knows its window for winning Super Bowls isn’t real big. Seattle has a young squad that has lived up to the hype but seems far from satisfied just to be here. The first outdoor Super Bowl, though, could throw a huge curveball as temperatures might be below freezing at kickoff. That could aid a Seattle team built around defense and the running game.
It’s a classic matchup of one of the best passing offenses of all time against the best passing defense of today. So that probably means the game is decided elsewhere. Seattle could have the edge there if Lynch can run effectively against the Denver defense and keep Manning off the field. We also have a sneaking suspicion the NFC was a bit better this year than the AFC (the NFC went 34-30 in interconference games this season). Add it up, and Seattle finally wins its first Super Bowl.
Prediction: Seahawks 24, Broncos 21.