While 2011 might have been the year of the quarterback, 2013 was the year of the pass. NFL games featured an average of 70.8 pass attempts per game this year, the most in league history. 61.2 percent of those passes ended up as completions, another league record. And 58.3 percent of all offensive plays were pass plays, which, as you must surely know by now, was another NFL record. Teams are passing more — and with more success — than they ever have before.
So it seems fitting, then, that the Super Bowl brings us a matchup of historic passing proportions. The Denver Broncos are led by the best quarterback in NFL history, Peyton Manning, who aims to finish up the greatest season any passer has ever had with his second Super Bowl trophy. Their opponents are the one team that seemed to figure out how to stop these new passing machines, and the Seattle Seahawks’ solution is to collect and unleash an irresistible amount of talent. As I wrote on Monday, it’s a matchup of the greatest offense in NFL history against one of the 10 greatest defenses in NFL history. And that’s only half the battle.
Graphic of Helmets Colliding
So, what typically happens when a dominant passing offense takes on a dominant passing defense? Usually, there’s something like a seven-yard slant to start the game followed by a big hit on the receiver before the color commentator starts giggling about how those boys are out there to play today. That checks out, I promise. On a more macro level, there’s the interesting question of whether one side in these huge matchups tends to have the advantage over the other. Our own Robert Mays broke down some key offense-vs.-defense matchups from prior Super Bowls, while Chase Stuart statistically identified the Broncos-Seahawks matchup as the greatest passing showdown the league has ever seen.
I wanted to extend those thoughts and analyze the great passing offense/great passing defense matchups, mostly to see whether one side retains more of its value in a strength-vs.-strength matchup. So I went back through 1990 and figured out each team’s adjusted net yards per pass attempt1 on either side of the football, and then isolated each of the games that included a top-three passing offense (by the terms of this metric) playing a top-three passing defense. Here’s what happened in those 69 “titanic” games and how it compared with what those dominant teams did against the rest of their competition that year:
The formula: (gross passing yards + 20 * passing TDs – 45 * interceptions – sack yards)/(attempts + sacks).
As you might have expected, both sides suffer a bit from playing their mirror image; the numbers seem to very slightly favor the defense, but it roughly degrades each team’s scoring performance on their respective sides of the football by three points, or about 12 percent. Interestingly, that doesn’t seem to help the defense win more frequently. Given their winning percentage across the remainder of their respective seasons in non-titanic games, the Log 5 methodology estimates that a team with the winning percentage of a typical dominant pass offense would beat teams with the win percentage of a typically dominant pass defense just less than 58 percent of the time. Instead, they’ve won a little more than 62 percent of the time. That’s not an enormous difference — roughly three more wins than you might expect over the 69-game sample — so I’m not sure the statistical record suggests anything notable, except there’s no clear favorite when a great pass offense meets a great pass defense.
You Can Throw the Numbers Out the Window
Instead, as I suggested on Monday, I believe that the specific matchup presented by these two teams against one another could render any small statistical differences irrelevant. I think it does. In fact, I think the Seahawks represent a particularly bad matchup for this Broncos offense, and it’s going to force Denver to go away from some of its usual strengths on Sunday.
There isn’t any easy or consistent way to stop Denver’s passing attack, but most teams try to do the same things. They know they can’t let Manning and his receivers get free breaks into their routes, so defenses often try to play man coverage at the line of scrimmage against the Broncos’ receivers, hoping they can disrupt Denver’s routes and create enough time for their pass rush to get home. That’s what the Colts did to beat the Broncos in October. Given Manning’s ability to read defenses, they are also terrified to blitz and create a mismatch in the secondary. Per ESPN Stats & Information, teams rushed five men or more at Denver on just 25.3 percent of its pass attempts, the lowest rate in the league. And with the big-play receivers in the Denver offense, most teams do their best to try to contain the Denver passing attack and force it into long drives of short passes, hoping they can come up with a stop, a dropped pass, or a sack to end a drive when they need to.
I just don’t know that the Seahawks plan on trying to stop the Broncos that way. As Chris Brown wrote two weeks ago, Seattle’s primary defense is Cover 3, named for the three defenders each assigned to cover one-third of the field in deep zones. Seattle twists it by pressing its starting cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, up onto the line of scrimmage, where they can trail each split receiver’s route from step one before settling into their more traditional zones. Earl Thomas takes the deep middle in center field, and the Seahawks play four underneath zones with strong safety Kam Chancellor, two of their linebackers (one of whom is almost always Bobby Wagner), and either a third linebacker or a nickel cornerback. Since Denver lines up with three or more wide receivers on the field more than 70 percent of the time, that seventh defender in zone will likely be a cornerback, with Jeremy Lane and Walter Thurmond rotating in that role.
The Broncos’ offense has evolved in ways to attack those best-practice game plans that other teams use. Take one controversial methodology they — and seemingly everyone else — have used during this postseason: pick plays. As Greg Bedard wrote about before the AFC Championship Game, pick plays aren’t inherently illegal, and Wes Welker got away with a pick during that game when he injured Aqib Talib. Legal or illegal, pick plays are designed to beat tight man coverage by forcing defenders to either run into each other or around each other, creating passing lanes and open space for receivers to run after the catch in the process. While they will remain tight to Denver’s receivers, I honestly don’t think Seattle will be running a ton of man-to-man defense over the middle of the field against the Broncos’ offense, which makes it exceedingly difficult to create picks. Seattle’s interior defenders have uncommon range and timing, as the Saints and 49ers have seen when they’ve tried to throw in those areas in recent weeks. Manning will certainly make throws to the inside of the field — he simply doesn’t have a choice — but the pick play has become an increasingly important friend to Denver this season, especially in the red zone, where Seattle has the league’s best defense, allowing a league-best 3.7 points per drive. Manning will instead have to attack those zones by stretching them horizontally and vertically (as he will with his legendary Levels concept).
Playing the Seahawks also really takes the jump ball out of the Denver playbook. Manning is very fond of throwing fade routes to his receivers when they’re isolated one-on-one in coverage against a cornerback, perhaps even to the extent that it’s a minor detriment. This most frequently happens with Demaryius Thomas, but Manning even has no qualms about throwing a 15-yard fade to a covered Andre Caldwell on third-and-3 if he thinks it’s a good matchup. In many cases, the worst-case scenario for these throws is an incomplete pass, while there’s the upside of a long catch or a defensive pass interference call. Denver’s overwhelming size and athleticism at wideout makes it difficult for isolated cornerbacks to pick off those passes.
That’s a very dangerous move against Seattle, which will start big cornerbacks with ball skills on the outside. Sherman requires no introduction these days, but Maxwell has really come on since entering the lineup after Thurmond was suspended, as he finished with four picks despite starting just five games at the end of the season. The Seahawks aren’t unbeatable on deep throws to the outside — the Cardinals beat them on a 31-yard touchdown on a Michael Floyd fade route against Maxwell (who was in almost-perfect coverage), but the ball hawks in Seattle make it a far riskier throw than you might hope for, regardless of what the matchup reads like on paper or looks like at the line of scrimmage. Ask Colin Kaepernick about that.
The pregame expectations have Sherman, the best cornerback in football, matching up against Demaryius Thomas, Denver’s top receiver, but I doubt the game will play out that way on the field. While Sherman did famously move around the field with Anquan Boldin in Week 2 and hold him to one meaningless catch, that’s not a common tactical move for the Seahawks. Seattle prefers to keep its starting cornerbacks on their respective sides of the field, regardless of whether the opposing team’s top wideout is lined up on the right side of the formation, where Sherman spends most of his time. And it’s not as if the Broncos are, say, the Bengals, a team with one dominant wideout and a bunch of other guys. Eric Decker and Welker are both dangerous, and the Broncos will occasionally split out tight end Julius Thomas as a wide receiver. The Seahawks will probably be confident that Maxwell can handle Demaryius Thomas on the more physical routes, too; the Denver wideout has two inches and 20 pounds on Maxwell, but Thomas is inconsistent with leveraging that size and strength into winning one-on-one battles, as Cian Fahey noted at Football Outsiders. The game could very well come down to whether Demaryius Thomas is able to use his physicality to win versus Sherman or Maxwell on a pass in the red zone.
The Men Staring Down a GOAT
One of the many other questions, of course, is whether the Seahawks will stick with their Cover 3 against the most devastating offense in NFL history. Most teams are horrified at the idea of dropping seven men into zone coverage and letting Manning bide his time before picking out an open receiver. Virtually every defense in football would install some new looks and pressure packages to try to present Manning with something he hasn’t already seen on film and solved in his head, especially with the extra week of preparation provided before the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks don’t appear to be that team. They’ve gotten this far playing what is honestly a very simple, vanilla scheme because the players suiting up in their Cover 3 are so damn good that they don’t need to do anything else. My suspicion is that they’re not going to scrap what they normally do just because they’re facing a wizard with the league championship on the line. They’re going to dare Manning to beat them while they’re running their best stuff. That’s what fits with their identity, especially as a defense.
So, if the Seahawks do stick with their usual defensive game plan, how will the Broncos adapt and adjust to attack the weaknesses of the Cover 3?
The simplest way is to just outnumber the Seahawks. Denver can test Seattle’s flexibility by lining up in bunch formations and creating numerical advantages on the outside. The Broncos can use Trips alignments, like the Trips Bunch or the Trips Open that Chris Brown wrote about in his excellent breakdown of the Denver offense today, to try to flood Seattle’s zones on the outside. That can create blown assignments or, more likely, a steady series of quick, safe completions for Manning, notably on bubble screens. Denver’s very good at blocking on screens, and while most teams can’t dream of matching up with Seattle’s size, the Thomases and Decker can match up physically against the likes of Sherman, Maxwell, and Chancellor.
The Broncos will also likely combine those screen looks with runs to create simple packaged plays. To steal a GIF from the AFC Championship Game preview, packaged plays like this one:
Installing more packaged plays over the two-week break makes some sense for the Broncos. It gives them new looks that Seattle hasn’t seen on tape, forcing the Seahawks to adjust on the fly. It allows Manning to play to his strengths by reading the defense, both before and after the snap, and gives him the opportunity to exploit the aggressiveness of Seattle’s outside linebackers, Chancellor, and Seattle’s nickelback — likely Lane or Thurmond — at the snap. If those guys flow quickly to the flats, Manning will hand the ball to Knowshon Moreno. If they delay for a moment, Manning will throw the bubble screen for a safe completion with the numbers in his favor.
Out of their more typical alignments with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) and Welker lining up in the slot, the Broncos will attack the Cover 3 with the curl-flat route combination. Matt Bowen breaks down how the curl-flat attacks the Cover 3 here, and it should apply well to this matchup. Because Seattle relies on Sherman and Maxwell to basically shadow outside receivers like they’re in man coverage while also maintaining deep zone responsibilities for their third of the field, teams do find some success throwing at the sideline with curl routes. Chancellor and the nickelback are responsible for flowing to the outside and taking away the curl, but if they get too deep, Manning will have an easy throw to Welker in the flat for positive yardage. And if the routes and the throw are both perfect, not even Seattle’s secondary can close on those routes quickly enough. Curl-flat isn’t going to produce a huge play, but it’s likely to be a steady offensive component when Manning recognizes that Seattle’s in three-deep.
If Denver wants to attack Seattle deep, the key player is going to be Julius Thomas. Having a tight end with the athleticism to run deep routes is a huge advantage against any defense, but it can be an absolute killer against Cover 2 and Cover 3. There are a few ways the Broncos can get Julius Thomas open downfield against Seattle’s favored coverage. One is with a sail route, described by Bowen here. With the strongside wideout (likely Demaryius Thomas) running a go route to occupy Sherman and the running back running a flat route to occupy Chancellor, the soft spot in the zone is on a deep corner route to the sideline, which is too deep for the safety in the underneath zone to sink toward and too wide for Earl Thomas to drive on from center field.
Julius Thomas will also run the dig (deep in) route, allowing Manning to identify and throw to a safe spot over the middle of the field in between the shallow zones of Seattle’s linebackers and the three deep zones of its defensive backs. The best way to attack Seattle deep is with four verticals. The most vulnerable columns in Cover 3 are up the seams, and while slow tight ends can’t really make it up the seam quickly enough to be a notable threat on a go route, Julius Thomas has the speed and the hands to be a significant concern on a vertical route. It would be a surprise if Manning didn’t take at least one shot up the seam to him during the game.
At the same time, teams have presumably had a shot at running four verticals against the Cover 3 all year, and they haven’t really been able to pull it off because of the presence of Earl Thomas. Seattle’s brilliant center fielder makes this entire defense work because of his ability to diagnose plays and snuff out anything to the vulnerable deep middle of the field. As Danny Kelly notes in his excellent look at the Seattle Cover 3, Pete Carroll expects his deep safety only to defend against the post and seam routes. Earl Thomas has the ideal blend of size, range, and smarts to know how to angle himself to cover those routes, and when the ball is thrown, he has the speed needed to close on them and make a play on the receiver. The proof is in the numbers. Kelly found that just eight passes were thrown to the deep middle of the field against Seattle this season, the lowest figure in football. The Seahawks had the fewest deep middle passes thrown against them in 2012, too, at 15. For what it’s worth, Manning went 16-of-23 for 472 yards and five touchdowns on passes designated as throws to the deep middle of the field this year.
Of course, the Seahawks know all this, and Manning knows that they know. Both teams have to execute, too. Seattle can’t just rely on its size and strength; it has to transition from its presnap look into its coverage responsibilities while rerouting Denver’s receivers away from the weakest points of the coverage. Seattle’s corners on the outside need to disrupt the timing of Denver’s receivers, and the defense as a whole needs to recognize Denver’s route combinations and successfully pattern-match as the play goes on. And Manning needs to look past whatever disguises Seattle has on before the snap, diagnose the coverage, and make accurate, on-time throws into the brief windows the Seattle defense provides. Nobody is less forgiving of subpar throws than the Seahawks and their 20 percent takeaway rate, and while Manning just completed the greatest season a quarterback’s ever put together, his biggest weakness is that propensity to throw one or two ducks each game.
Or, if they want to make things simpler, the Seahawks’ front four could just beat the Broncos up front over and over again. That’s how the 2007 Giants slowed the 18-0 Patriots and their juggernaut of an offense. Denver’s offense is the best unit to hit town since that Patriots attack, and it doesn’t operate the same way, but the same rules apply: If the defense disrupts a play as it gets started, it’s probably going to win. The Seahawks don’t necessarily have to sack Manning a half-dozen times to win, which is good, because they probably won’t; Manning was sacked just 18 times all year and has been knocked down only once in 79 dropbacks this postseason. Instead, what they need to do is disrupt Manning’s timing and force him to either throw passes away or rush into contested throws that end up one-hopped or in uncatchable spots.
That takes more than just beating your man; disrupting Manning requires disciplined rushing. Manning isn’t a threat to run, but his footwork in the pocket is impeccable, and you’re not going to surprise him with a hit from behind, because he’s been feeling rushes for the past 20 years. The Seahawks have a mismatch on the outside with Chris Clemons or Cliff Avril against Broncos backup tackle Chris Clark, but if those ends take a wide route past Clark and try to buzz around Manning, he’s just going to step up in the pocket and make his throw. That leaves the likes of Clinton McDonald and especially Michael Bennett as key contributors; they’re likely to be the Seattle defensive tackles in clear passing situations, and any pressure they can get up the middle against Denver’s strong guard tandem of Zane Beadles and Louis Vasquez will serve to eliminate Manning’s escape routes.
Red Bryant will also need to hold up as a two-gapping defensive tackle on earlier downs when Denver inevitably tries to run the football, especially if it goes hurry-up to try to prevent Seattle from making substitutions. Seattle has a handful of stars, but its depth up front and in the secondary remains a valuable part of its total defensive package. When Seattle makes substitutions between plays, it’s often subbing in a player who is nearly every bit as good as the guy coming off the field. It would behoove Denver to play fast to try to dictate personnel on the other side of the ball, and then make decisions with its play calling to exploit the relative weaknesses of the front seven Seattle has on the field at any given time. That wasn’t an issue against the Patriots, who used the same defensive linemen on virtually every snap and ended up with a gassed front four for most of the game.
Wait, Go Grab Those Numbers You Threw Out
Given each team’s strengths and likely game plan, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Denver dink and dunk its way down the field on a seemingly endless string of passes into the flat and shallow throws before making its way into the red zone. That’s where things will change for both teams. The Seahawks will likely have to come out of their Cover 3 shell and play more man-to-man coverage, while the Broncos will have to transition out of those underneath throws and move more toward their pick plays and runs.
The results for both teams this year in the red zone have been, well, phenomenal. Denver had the league’s best offense in the red zone this year, averaging 5.9 points per trip to the red zone, well ahead of the league average of 4.8 points. The only problem? Seattle posted the league’s best defensive performance in the red zone, as opposing offenses have scored just 3.7 points per red zone trip. They’re both significantly impressive figures, too; Denver’s offensive performance is the third-best red zone showing in the Football Outsiders database stretching back to 1997, while Seattle’s defense posted the best red zone performance since 2006. Denver’s red zone DVOA on offense was a staggering 51.5 percent. Seattle’s red zone DVOA on defense? An even more freakish minus-70.5 percent. You get the idea.
More so than any two individual players, the matchup of this offense and that defense in the red zone is the most critical one of this game. Denver’s going to make it into the red zone; you just can’t stop it in the middle of the field over and over again. If it makes it there four times, this game could swing on whether the Broncos score three touchdowns and a field goal (24 points) or, say, one lone touchdown and three field goals (16 points). And, hey, if Seattle could find a way to sneak in a takeaway or one of those famous Red Bryant blocked kicks, their fans wouldn’t mind that much.
Who will win that matchup-within-the-matchup? I’d be lying if I suggested there was some way to tell. My hunch is Seattle, if only because I think its size will play up against Denver’s running game and its taller receivers near the goal line. I would expect Denver to try to isolate Welker against Chancellor or Lane in the slot on an option route more than the likes of Demaryius Thomas on a fade against Sherman or Maxwell. That’s just my hunch, and I wouldn’t want to count out the interior of Denver’s offensive line against what might be a very tired Seattle front four at the end of a bunch of 12-play drives, either. How those final 20 yards play out on Sunday should have a huge impact on the final outcome of the game.
Relying on numbers or past performances to tell you something about the Super Bowl means something only if the same players who gave those performances are actually around to suit up and play in the big game. And yes, every NFL player is hurting by February, but there’s a huge disparity in the relative health and player availability of these two teams. Sunday will quite possibly be the healthiest Seattle team we’ve seen all season, at least in terms of its core talent. Denver, meanwhile, might very well be at its most injured. And that gap is most notable on Denver’s weaker side of this game, the matchup of its defense against Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle offense.
Denver has lost a number of enormously valuable contributors during the season on the way to this Super Bowl. That started in September, when All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady suffered a Lisfranc injury that ended his season. The team replaced Clady with the aforementioned Chris Clark, who hasn’t exactly held the offense back, but he isn’t in Clady’s league. He’s also been responsible, per STATS, for 7.5 of Manning’s 18 sacks this year.
Since then, the key injuries have come to the Denver defense. The most notable name is irreplaceable linebacker Von Miller, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in December, but he’s far from the only missing part. Safety Rahim Moore was eligible to return from short-term injured reserve before the AFC Championship Game, but a setback in his recovery from compartment syndrome means Moore will likely miss the Super Bowl. Cornerback Chris Harris tore his ACL in the divisional-round win over the Chargers. And Denver was already thin up front after losing Kevin Vickerson to a hip injury, but when versatile lineman Derek Wolfe was placed on injured reserve two weeks ago after struggling to recover from a “seizure-like episode,” it reduced the Broncos to a skeleton crew. Denver has had to push 2012 fifth-rounder Malik Jackson and 2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams into the starting lineup, and it’s demanded more out of Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, who had an excellent game against the Patriots. Consider that Jeremy Mincey — who was cut by the lowly Jaguars in December — saw 16 defensive snaps for the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. That’s how desperate things are up front.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, have only one player missing from the core group they would have hoped to bring to New York because of injury: wideout Sidney Rice, who tore his ACL at the end of October. They’re also missing cornerback Brandon Browner thanks to a suspension, but otherwise, just about everybody on the Seattle roster is ready to go.
If anything, these Seahawks should be better than the team that went 13-3 this season because they’ve gotten a number of key contributors back from injuries. Starting linebacker K.J. Wright returned from a foot injury he suffered in Week 14 to play in the NFC Championship Game; he should be healthier and quicker with two more weeks of healing under his belt. Seattle’s two best offensive linemen — left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger — each missed time during the regular season, with Okung suiting up for eight games and Unger starting 13. They’re both back and at their healthiest for the Super Bowl.
And, most notably, wideout Percy Harvin will return to the lineup for just his third game of the season, having played only 38 offensive snaps after the Seahawks traded a first-round pick (along with a 2013 seventh-rounder and a 2014 third-rounder) for the former Vikings star this past offseason. Harvin missed 15 games during the regular season with a hip injury before returning for Seattle’s playoff win over the Saints, only to leave that game before halftime when he suffered a concussion. It seems foolhardy to count on Harvin to suit up for 65 offensive snaps on Sunday, but there’s also no reason to believe that he can’t contribute in at least a limited role. Seattle built a surprising chunk of its offensive attack around getting the ball to Harvin during his 19 offensive snaps against New Orleans, and a healthy(-ish) Harvin gives the Seahawks a weapon the Broncos just haven’t seen much of on film. Harvin will also almost surely move back into his role as the team’s kickoff returner, which is excellent news for Seattle. Harvin was one of the best kickoff return men in the league during his time in Minnesota, and Denver’s biggest weakness on special teams comes on kickoff returns, where it allowed a league-high 29.3 yards per kick return this season. Broncos kicker Matt Prater can nullify that problem with touchbacks, but his touchback rate falls from 84 percent at home to 58 percent on the road, and the cold air in the Meadowlands shouldn’t do him any favors.
The only guy Denver was without who might help it look better than its regular-season performance is Champ Bailey, who started just three games all season because of a recurring foot injury. Bailey made his way back at the end of the season in a limited role before graduating to the starting lineup in the AFC Championship Game. A healthy Bailey is unquestionably somebody the Broncos want to have on the roster, but it’s also fair to say that Bailey isn’t the player he once was, given that he’s 35 years old. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has had a fine season on one side of the field as Denver’s primary cornerback, so Bailey doesn’t need to shoulder quite the workload he did for so many years, but he’s still going to need to hold up against a team with far better wideouts than the group that the Patriots sent out two weeks ago.
The Textbook Committee
Injuries are also informing my opinion of the Broncos’ defense right about now. Denver’s had a very interesting season; it would have been very reasonable to expect the Broncos to struggle without Von Miller and play significantly better with him in the lineup, but instead, the opposite’s been true. Miller suited up for and finished eight games this year before leaving his ninth, a win over the Texans, after just six snaps with the aforementioned torn ACL. The Broncos have been notably better, strangely, in the 10 games without Miller around:
Denver had previously won its only other game without Miller in the lineup, leaving it 11-0 with its defensive dynamo on the sideline. I’m not advocating that the Broncos ceremoniously tear Miller’s ACL at a preseason fan fest to ensure an undefeated season, but I’m certainly surprised they’ve been better without their best defensive player in the lineup. Is that meaningful over eight- and 10-game samples? Probably not. My guess is that the Broncos would suit Miller up if he were healthy this Sunday, numbers be damned.
Stranger still, the Broncos defense has followed an uneven regular season with an unexpectedly impressive postseason run. After finishing 15th in DVOA during the regular season, Denver’s defense has been lights-out for most of the postseason. It shut out the third-ranked Chargers for three quarters before allowing 17 points in a fourth-quarter sprint, and then held the fourth-ranked Patriots to three points during the first three quarters of that game before allowing 13 relatively meaningless points in the fourth quarter. It certainly looks like the Broncos’ defense is raising its game when it needs to.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for a middling defense to get hot and suddenly start playing better during a memorable postseason run, either, and Manning would remember as much. The 2006 Colts went 12-4, but that was almost entirely thanks to their offense; their defense was deplorable, finishing 25th in DVOA and 23rd in points allowed, giving up 22.5 points per game. During the postseason, though, they locked opposing offenses down; they allowed eight points to the Chiefs, six to the Ravens, and 17 to the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. The Patriots did score 34 points in Indy’s memorable comeback win in the AFC Championship Game, but even that included a pick-six. In all, the Colts allowed just 16.3 points per game during their run to the Super Bowl. Could the Broncos be riding a similar sort of hot streak?
It’s possible. With the Colts, though, there was an obvious and tangible reason for their improvement: Bob Sanders. The mercurial safety was one of the most impactful players in football on a per-snap basis at that point of his career, and while Indianapolis had been a top-five defense the year before with Sanders suiting up for 14 games, the Iowa product managed to play in only four games during the 2006 regular season, sitting out 12 of the final 14 contests that year. Indy wisely saved its star defensive back for the playoffs, where he was a one-man wrecking ball: Sanders picked up two interceptions, forced a fumble, and broke up a key pass that might have ended the AFC Championship Game in New England’s favor.
Could Bailey be Denver’s version of Sanders? It’s hard to say. Certainly, there are some similarities — Denver was great with Bailey last year, and he’s been a dominant player in the past— but I’m not sure that the situations match. For one, Sanders was 24 years old and in the prime of his career. Bailey’s 35, and it’s not clear that even a healthy Champ is the player he used to be. Sanders was also an every-down defender for those Colts after his return, while Bailey suited up for just more than half of the defensive snaps against the Chargers in the divisional round before the injury suffered by Harris pushed him into the starting lineup for the AFC Championship Game. There’s also a smaller sample to work with; those Colts exhibited improvement over a four-game stretch, while we’ve seen these improved Broncos for only two games.
Plus, both the Chargers and Patriots were suffering from their own injury woes. The Chargers unexpectedly lost guard Jeromey Clary during the week, and backup Johnnie Troutman got smoked in his absence. Star back Ryan Mathews — who had driven San Diego’s stunning run to the playoffs — carried the ball only five times because of an ankle injury. And while the Patriots did drop 43 points on the Colts in the divisional round before being shut down by Denver, they got some help from Andrew Luck’s four interceptions; that offense had been in steady decline from the moment Rob Gronkowski tore his ACL. Denver’s done an admirable job in the playoffs regardless of the circumstances, and it has been much better than it was during the regular season, but the extenuating issues just make me wonder whether it can keep that up for a third game.
And if it’s not playing at its previously high level, Denver’s at a pretty significant disadvantage against the Seattle offense. The Seahawks were a balanced, effective unit that was seventh in DVOA during the regular season, and while Russell Wilson’s been inconsistent during the postseason, there are the mitigating factors of wild winds and bad weather in the Saints game.
The 49ers’ front seven beat up Seattle when it tried to throw in the NFC Championship Game, with a few big plays sustaining the Seahawks’ attack. That really came down to the incredible work done by their linebackers, especially in pursuit of Wilson. You saw what Aldon Smith could do on the first play, when he chased Wilson out to the edge, brought him down, and stripped him of the football in the process. Ahmad Brooks knocked Wilson down three times while serving as San Francisco’s primary spy on Wilson during play-action, and the 49ers knocked Wilson down 10 times amid just 29 dropbacks.
Denver just doesn’t have that kind of pass rush or athleticism at linebacker. Danny Trevathan is a useful player, and Shaun Phillips can both get to Wilson on a rush and spy him on one side of the field, but what they really need is, well, Von Miller. He would be the perfect asset against Wilson, a player who can keep up with every step Wilson makes while finishing plays on the edge. Robert Ayers just isn’t that guy. As a result, I think this will be Wilson’s best game of the postseason; he might not have as many big plays as he had against the 49ers, but I think you’ll see him have his way outside the pocket, creating throwing lanes and improvising for first downs.
An inexperienced Broncos front seven will need to stay disciplined in its run lanes against Lynch. Seattle’s myriad blocking schemes frequently allow Lynch to cut back against defenses flowing to the point of attack, which is where he ends up one-on-one against some terrified defender who ends up resembling roadkill. Denver has an excellent pair of defensive coaches in John Fox and Jack Del Rio, and it will be well-coached for this game, but this is a thin group of journeymen and undrafted free agents; they’ll need to win a lot of one-on-one matchups against superior talent to keep Lynch in check.
The Weather Underground
You’ve already read more words about the New Jersey weather and how it might affect Super Bowl XLVIII than you needed to, so I won’t waste your time here. In short: The weather’s not going to make a noticeable impact upon how this game is played. The only weather phenomenon2 that really drastically changes how offenses perform is wind, and Sunday’s forecast calls for light winds. Colder weather might dampen each team’s propensity for passing slightly and take a yard or two off each kicker’s range on field goals, but as currently forecast, it’s going to be a relatively mild 40 degrees.
That is to say at small-to-medium levels. Obviously, monsoon-level rain like we saw in the Panthers-Saints game this year or the blizzard-like conditions in Eagles-Lions are meaningful, but storms that severe obviously aren’t in the picture for Sunday.
The possibility of a cold-weather game was perceived to be an unfair disadvantage against the Broncos, but I’m not sure either term fits. The idea that Manning can’t handle cold weather, as I wrote about earlier this year, is overblown and disingenuous. The case against Manning is jaundiced in a number of ways; it uses an arbitrary and misleading temperature endpoint, it relies on a small sample, and it hides the fact that the vast majority of quarterbacks tend to play worse on the road, where virtually all of Manning’s cold-weather games have occurred. Furthermore, while the effect isn’t exactly game-changing, all quarterbacks are worse in cold weather. Here are the numbers for passers since 2000 split by 10-degree temperature bands:3
Without including games played in domes, which obviously deflates the numbers both by removing great weather from the equation as well as most of the careers of Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
The argument of fairness, meanwhile, seems to revolve around the idea that the Super Bowl is normally played in a dome or other warm-weather environment. That might be typical, but it’s not inherently fair; if you believe that pristine conditions give a little bit of a boost to a pass-heavy team, that would seem to suggest that the Broncos would actually gain an unfair advantage from playing in your usual Super Bowl conditions. Instead of suggesting that the Broncos are at a disadvantage by playing in the (relatively) cold outdoor conditions of New Jersey, it’s probably more accurate to say the Broncos simply don’t have a weather advantage. And just because something is the usual arrangement doesn’t mean the usual arrangement is in itself fair to both sides.
Seattle was a better team than Denver during the regular season by DVOA, Simple Rating System, and Advanced NFL Stats’ Team Efficiency metric. The Seahawks are unquestionably healthier than the Broncos right now. And while Denver’s offense is probably slightly better than Seattle’s defense, Seattle’s advantage when it has the football is far superior. Before the season, I picked Seattle to beat Denver in the Super Bowl.4 It seems wrong to go against that now. Seattle 27, Denver 16.
Ignore the part where I picked the Giants and Buccaneers to win their respective divisions. Robert Mays made me do that. It was weird.