Season In Review: New England Patriots

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Overall Record: 12-4 (Regular Season) 1-1 (Postseason)

Division Winner? Yes, as has become as close to a lock you’ll find in the NFL, the Patriots took the AFC East from clearly unprepared foes in Miami, New York and Buffalo. While the Dolphins and Jets both managed to come out even in their games against the Pats, it ultimately wouldn’t matter, as both teams finished four wins behind first place. This wasn’t as easy a division title as that number may lead you to believe, for reasons we’ll dig into shortly.

Milestones Of 2013: While certainly not surprising, despite the hardships the 2013 Patriots endured from the beginning of offseason prep to the almost-there loss in the AFC Championship game, Bellicheck, Brady and the Patriots once again got the job done for the majority of the season, losing just five games total out of the eighteen they played in. Of course, that last loss to the Broncos stung, but the fact that New England has either played in the Superbowl, or came one game short, in almost every season under Bill Bellicheck is a continuing milestone that will no doubt go down as one of the most successful dynasties in the history of the National Football League.

When we narrow our focus, we realize how adept the Hoodie and Tom Terrific are, as 2013 was a year that consisted of an injury-depleted roster and a major youth movement at many positions, some as a consequence of injury, others as a designed plan. With rookie wide receivers and without the benefit of Wes Welker, Brady put up excellent numbers mostly by utilizing the suddenly glaring skill set of Julian Edelman, who is the Welker clone the Pats thought they were getting in ex-Rams slot receiver Danny Amendola. Aaron Dobson and Kembrell Thompkins, the Pats’ youth movement at WR, each caught 30+ passes and four TDs each, and both seem to have a future with the club.

With an obviously serious murder investigation (Aaron Hernandez) and an injury-plagued season (Rob Gronkowski) forcing Josh McDaniels and his offense to switch gears early and often, the offense produced despite coming into 2013 lacking the vast majority of their pass production from 2012. Somebody didn’t give Brady and company the memo.

As the season progressed, free agent pickup LeGarrette Blount did as well, and became a focal point down the stretch, opening up the passing game even more with his inspired running. His performance should see him back in a crowded backfield that features the dual-threat Shane Vereen and the talented but fumble-prone Stevan Ridley. Of the four backs that carried more than 40 times for the Pats in 2013, no one averaged less than 4.3 yards per carry.

On the other side of the ball, injuries massacred the core of the Patriots defense, as Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo both ended up on injured reserve early in the year. Others had to step up, and a handful did; second year DE Chandler Jones quietly produced an excellent season, with 11.5 sacks and 79 combined tackles. Aqib Talib was a dominant presence when he managed to stay healthy, and Steven Gregory provided some inspired support from his strong safety position. Dont’a Hightower picked up some of the slack at linebacker, leading the team with 97 total tackles in his second season as a pro.

The Season In Review

The Patriots got things off to a shaky start, but still managed to go 3-1 in September despite narrow victories over division rivals Buffalo (23-21) and New York (13-10). The Pats moved to 3-0 after trouncing the hapless Buccaneers, but caught a loss against the then-healthy Falcons to close out a somewhat worrisome (relatively speaking) first month for the team.

October was a bit of a rollercoaster ride, with injuries beginning to mount and games beginning to turn in unexpected ways. After losing a tight, defensive battle in Cincinnati, the Pats turned around and perhaps literally stole one from the Saints. The Jets would get some revenge the following week, but New England helped themselves to an improved division record by finishing October with a well-earned win over the Dolphins.

November began with a 55-point barnstorming of the Steelers which segued into a bye week, which then segued into a disappointing loss to the Carolina Panthers. In true bounce-back fashion, the Patriots managed to best the Denver Broncos, the first team to do so in 2013.

December was, for the most part, a conspicuous month for the Patriots. Narrowly beating two of the bottom-feeding teams in the league (Houston, Cleveland) was quite unlike the Patriots’ typical December showing, and losing to Miami had many questioning their ability to maintain come January. Of course, the resiliency of the 2013 Patriots would again show itself, as they soundly defeated the Ravens and Bills to close out the regular season.

The postseason began with a very, very dangerous game; the Colts, fresh off of one of the most improbable comebacks in NFL history, were riding an emotional high into Foxboro. They would leave empty-handed, however, as the Patriots simply were the better team and played like it. Alas, despite their victory over them in the regular season, the Patriots could not best the Broncos for the AFC’s spot in the Superbowl, and the entire season, hard fought and emblematic of the quality coaching and depth that New England possesses, was all for naught in the end.

Future Forecast

Few teams can honestly say they have no pressing needs, but the Patriots are one of them. That being said, they do need to shore up their defense, and begin to look at youthful alternatives to older vets (Wilfork) and inconsistent starters. One signing that many people completely lost track of, Cardinals veteran safety Adrian Wilson, never came to fruition as Wilson injured an Achilles before the season started and never played a game. His cap number in 2014 is modest, and his return to the field, even as a situational player, should provide major dividends.

The draft will be key for New England’s continued youth movement. While the team must stay committed to the young up-and-comers they already have, there most be an increased focus on youth across the offensive line and, perhaps, a search for the man who will eventually step in for Tom Brady once he retires. The idea that Ryan Mallett is that man is an unclear one, and if Brady plays for another three or four seasons (as he claims he will), Mallett will have been riding the bench in New England for seven or eight years, which is unheard of for anyone besides career backups.

Overall Grades

QBA

RB – B

WR C

TED

OLA

DLC+

LB B

CB C+

FS/SS – C

K/P – B+

KR/PRD


Team MVP: Bill Bellichick, HC

Offensive MVP: Julian Edelman, WR

Defensive MVP: Aqib Talib, CB

Rookie Of The Year: Logan Ryan, CB

Biggest Disappointment: Losing Wilfork, Mayo and Gronkowski before the playoffs began.

Very Early 2014 Projection: 11-5, Division Winner

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Season In Review: Dallas Cowboys

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Overall Record: 8-8 (Regular Season) (No Postseason Berth)

Division Winner? For the third year in a row, the Cowboys were on the verge of a playoff berth, playing against an NFC East foe in the last game of the season. And, for the third year in a row, they blew it, and in the process coming one game shy of actually sweeping their division in 2013. It never seemed like a lack of trying this year; more like a lack of healthy bodies, including not having Tony Romo for the last game (some might actually say that was a benefit, but I recall backup Kyle Orton throwing the interception that sealed the Cowboys’ playoff-less fate this time around).


Milestones Of 2013
: No Cowboys fan wants to even look for a silver lining after another heartbreaking season, but underneath it all there remains a glimmer of hope. Tony Romo had another fine season, and statistically has been one of the best QBs in the NFL for several years now. Head Coach Jason Garrett has another year of experience under his belt, but the utter confusion surrounding his staff (who is calling the plays? What happened to Monte Kiffin’s defense? What happened to Monte Kiffin?) makes it hard to lay too much of the blame (or applause) on Garrett.

Instead, I think fans are more convinced than ever that Jerry Jones is going to continue to tease them with teams that appear capable of great things, but due to injury histories or any number of bizarre snafus (playcalling, execution, etc), never even reach the summit of good things. Again, a silver lining; Demarco Murray, when used adequately, was a thorn in the side of every defense he faced. The offensive line is starting to take shape, with Pro Bowl talent Tyron Smith at left tackle and rookie Travis Frederick having a solid season at center. The evolution of Dez Bryant continues, and despite his lapses in production (a testament to bad playcalling more often than not), he remains one of the five best at his position. Jason Witten is a year older but seems to be as effective as ever, even if his stats are on a slight decline.

Milestones for the defense? Just one: getting through 2013 without completely falling apart. By a thread is about right.

The Season In Review

The first month of the season seemed a perfect encapsulation of the Cowboys’ last decade; a win, a loss (against an eventual playoff team), a win, a loss (against an eventual playoff team). It wasn’t until week 5 that the team gave their fans something to truly rally behind. They lost to the Broncos.

But the now-infamous Jerry Jones quote of it being a “moral victory”, however ridiculous, actually spoke to something far more true; this 2013 Cowboys team could hang with anyone if they wanted to. Hang, but eventually find a way to let go at the last second. After the 51-48 monster of a game against Denver, the Cowboys bounced back to win divisional games against the already-deflated Redskins and the inexperienced Eagles, who were still in the midst of a QB ‘situation’. Losing by one point to the Lions put a cap on October.

November? More of the same. In between barely beating two lesser teams in Minnesota and New York (Giants), the Cowboys were thrashed by the New Orleans Saints like most teams were in the Superdome in 2013. Their week 11 bye apparently geared them up to beat the Giants, but consecutive losses to the lowly Raiders and the better Bears seemed to take most of the air out of the team. But wait! The NFC East as a whole was still up for grabs. Even after a heartbreaking loss to the Packers in early December, it was still in reach. Dallas managed to eke out a one point win over the Redskins before, once again, finishing in dramatically depressing fashion by losing their division in the last game of the regular season; this time to the much more experienced and prepared Eagles.

In a nutshell: up, down, up and then finally finishing down. A trend that the Cowboys have perfected.

Future Forecast

Who can tell? Jason Garrett has another year to get things going, but again, how much can he do? Do any of us really know? Jerry Jones is the overseer without a real clue about overseeing his football team, and he apparently is standing in the way of this decent team taking the next step.

A middle of the pack draft number (17th) doesn’t necessarily hurt the Cowboys, but what they use it on is pivotal; their defense was an absolute mess in 2013, and they need real help at all three levels. DeMarcus Ware is aging and nobody on the team seems adequate to even come close to replacing his production and ability to harass the pocket. The secondary was decent on the edges, but the safety positions were poor at best. Sean Lee is seemingly a game away from being on IR every time he suits up, which is a shame because he is the heart and soul of this defense when healthy.

So, what has to happen? An influx of defensive talent for new coordinator Rod Marinelli to work with, for one. Letting Miles Austin walk is also vital; he’s eating up cap space and lacks the ability to change games like he did only a couple of years ago. Developing an actual offensive philosophy instead of only hearing Jason Garrett say they have one will be pivotal despite the team scoring the 5th most points in the league in 2013; all those points meant nothing when the Cowboys couldn’t sustain time-killing drives, or didn’t even bother trying to kill time, most of the time. 8-8 doesn’t seem like a big hurdle to overcome; but in Dallas, it is apparently the biggest hurdle on their track.

Overall Grades

QBB+

RB C+

WR – B

TE B

OL C+

DL – D

LBD+

CB C

FS/SSC

K/PB-

KR/PRB

Team MVP: Dez Bryant, WR

Offensive MVP: DeMarco Murray, RB

Defensive MVP: Barry Church, FS

Rookie Of The Year: Travis Frederick, C

Biggest Disappointment: Losing the division in the same fashion for a third straight year.

Very Early 2014 Projection: 9-7, No Postseason Berth

Season In Review: Jacksonville Jaguars

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Overall Record: 4-12 (Regular Season) (No Postseason Berth)

Division Winner? Not even close. Despite playing in a weak division, the Jaguars were one of the primary reasons why it was weak. Their 1-7 record at home, coupled with a ruinous 0-8 first half, saw them out of contention for anything other than high draft priority (they ended up with the 3rd overall pick). While the division is far from elite, the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans were clearly better teams in 2013, and the Houston Texans may have simply laid a massive egg because, man to man, they have to be seen as the more talented team, at least.

Milestones Of 2013: They’re hard to find, but new head coach Gus Bradley (pictured above) certainly began to put his stamp on this team. Despite their horrid offensive numbers, the defense managed to hold up slightly better, improving minimally (but still improving) on their 2012 numbers. They also managed to win twice as many games as they did in 2012, which is improvement despite the unsatisfactory results. New GM David Caldwell has begun to outline a blueprint for the Jaguars, along with new owner Shad Khan, that involves building through the draft and being cautious in free agency. This offseason will tell much more about where this team is headed than their 2013 campaign did.

As far as the product on the field went, 2013 revealed more negatives than positives, but some of the perceived ‘bad’ is actually beneficial in the long run. Maurice Jones-Drew, one of the few (if only) Jaguars with league-wide recognition for his skills, is perhaps past the age and mileage mark of a starting NFL running back, and it would be a surprise if he ends up in Jacksonville next year. Chad Henne proved to be a capable starter when called upon, but neither him nor Blaine Gabbert (who, like Jones-Drew, has proven he is beyond repair, albeit for different reasons altogether) are the team’s long-term answer at QB.

Despite many players not stepping up, the team got a glimpse at some of their raw, young talent. Cecil Shorts III and Ace Sanders look like quality components to the passing game at WR, as does Justin Blackmon, but his story is one of much confusion and a serious decision on his future as a Jaguar must be made by Caldwell and the upper brass this offseason. Defensively, Paul Posluszny and Jason Babin proved to be key contributors, but Babin is slated to be a free agent, and his 7.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles might not be worth his asking price.

The Season In Review

Things were quite shaky from the start, as serious doubts about the starting QB and the early suspension of Blackmon had the Jaguars starting well behind the line. In a month, the team managed a combined 31 points of offense, losing to outstanding opponents (Kansas City, Seattle, Indianapolis) and one less-than-outstanding team (Oakland). The next four games would be much of the same, although the offense began to produce at a slightly higher level. Despite that, they were blown out of almost every single game during their 0-8 stretch, never losing by less than 10 points and losing by at least 20 points 5 times.

After a much-needed bye week, the Jaguars were able to pull out a nailbiter against the Titans, 29-27. With that monkey on their back, the team managed to win 3 of their next four, including a sweep of the Houston Texans. Perhaps a sign of their improved outlook and comfort in Bradley’s system, the team lost their final three games by far less than they were losing games early in the season. But they did lose their final three, and their 2013 campaign can easily be summed up as a learning experience for ownership, management, coaches and players alike.

Future Forecast

The Jaguars need help at almost every single position, none more important than QB, where many expect them to take one of the big-name college passers entering the draft this year. Bringing back Chad Henne as a stop-gap solution would benefit the team as well. Elsewhere, they must decide what to do with Jones-Drew, and see if anyone behind him has what it takes to step into his shoes. Expect a by-committee approach and perhaps an early draft pick dedicated to the position. Finding a replacement for longtime center Brad Meester (retired) is also vital.

The defense is similarly set (or not set), with major holes along the defensive line and secondary. The team needs pass rushing help, run blocking help…they need help. Free agency looks like a solid route to take in that department this year, as the team spent a fair amount of their 2013 draft on their defense, where safety John Cyprien looks like the real deal. Bradley’s forte is defense, and I expect him to push hard to either bring in fresh faces, or further the on-the-field results of those already under his wing.

Overall Grades

QB D+

RB C-

WR – B-

TED

OL – C+

DL D+

LB C+

CB D-

FS/SS – C+

K/P – B+

KR/PRC

Team MVP – Paul Posluszny, MLB

Offensive MVP – Cecil Shorts III, WR

Defensive MVP – Posluszny

Rookie Of The Year – John Cyprien, SS

Biggest Disapppointment – The whimper that marked the end of the Blaine Gabbert era.

Very Early 2014 Projection – 5-11, No Postseason Berth

Season In Review: Kansas City Chiefs

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Overall Record: 11-5 (Regular Season) 0-1 (Postseason)

Division Winner? No, and it speaks to both the strength of the AFC West and the ultimate weakness of the Chiefs that their divisional record was unfavorable at 2-4. With the Broncos in the Superbowl and the Chargers managing to sneak into the playoffs, the Chiefs found themselves sandwiched between two talented teams who both managed to proceed further in the playoffs. A surprising development, considering the Chiefs were the last team to hold an undefeated streak in 2013.

Milestones Of 2013: Coming off of an abysmal 2012 season, it seemed as though the Chiefs might have already had most of the pieces in place to quickly turn things around. With multiple Pro Bowl players and a fresh vacancy at the head coaching position, Andy Reid’s tenure in Philadelphia ended at just the right time for everyone involved. He quickly jumped at the opportunity to lead the Chiefs, and in the process retooled the roster to suit his offensive mindset. Alex Smith, cast off from the 49ers after the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, seemed to fit Reid’s system like a glove and, more so, was a solid counterpart to the Chiefs’ revitalized defense. Smith’s tendency to avoid mistakes kept the Chiefs defense fresh, and they took advantage of this by preying on opposing quarterbacks and forcing their opponents to play to their strengths.

Essentially, all the talent this team maintained during a drought of a 2012 season was put in great positions to succeed by a coaching staff that has a wealth of experience in doing just that. What remains to be seen is how the team can improve going forward; but in discussing the here and now, Chiefs fans have to be more than happy with the turn-around.

The Season In Review

The Chiefs didn’t lose a game until November 17th. In the ten weeks prior, their games were mostly close contests, decided by the narrow margins of a team that prides itself on safe execution, strong defense and a handful of playmakers making their plays. A rousing opening day victory over the hapless Jaguars was followed up by a near miss against the Cowboys, but two weeks in and you had a sense that this was a team destined for bigger things. That feeling was ultimately turned to reality as Andy Reid took his new team back to Philadelphia and thoroughly out-coached the Eagles’ new kid on the block, Chip Kelly. After this, each victory was at first icing on the 3-0 cake…until one Sunday, the Chiefs had their bye week and were 9-0. The attention of the football world was squarely in the west, between the Broncos, Seahawks and 49ers…but the Chiefs certainly earned some of that spotlight as well.

It wasn’t until after their bye week that the easily missed truth of the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs was revealed; this was a good team that, despite their record, couldn’t hold their own against the bigger dogs in their pack. In their last six games, they lost twice to the Broncos and Chargers, showing that they weren’t quite ready to compete with their own division. Despite these losses, and a let down against the Colts, the Chiefs managed to finish 11-5 and take their mostly successful season to the next level.

What happened on that next level will remain in our memories forever. After the Colts had gotten the better of them only several weeks before, the Chiefs were out to prove a point in the wildcard round, jumping to a huge 38-10 lead early in the 3rd quarter. Game over? Absolutely.

Only, it was the Chiefs who had lost, and in such a remarkable, jaw-dropping fashion that the entire feel-good season seemed to be a memory of some long forgotten success. In retrospect, however, the 45-44 outcome of that game doesn’t quite tarnish the otherwise solid season in Kansas City. The only real concerns, beyond those that have followed Andy Reid his entire career, center around whether or not they can overcome the Broncos and Chargers in 2014.

Future Forecast

There are few holes on this team, but they could definitely use help at wide receiver. Dwayne Bowe has been a one-man show at the position for the vast majority of his time in Kansas City, and as Alex Smith has shown in his later years in San Fransisco, he can shine with the right talent at his disposal. The offensive and defensive lines have health and age-related question marks, but a wide receiver that is more polished than Dexter McCluster and more athletic than Bowe is a necessity this offseason.

Beyond that, the team is in excellent shape to shore up depth across the roster. With a stacked front end of talent on both sides of the ball and wiggle room under the salary cap, the Chiefs can use the draft to stockpile picks and dig for diamonds in the rough(er) rounds past the 3rd.

In all, the Chiefs can easily bounce back into contention in 2014, so long as they maintain their composure and don’t let the disappointing finish to this season carry over.

Overall Grades

QB – B

RB – A-

WR – C+

TE – D

OL – B+

DL – A

LB – B

CB – B

FS/SS – B+

K/P – B

KR/PR – B


Team MVP: Jamaal Charles, RB

Offensive MVP: Alex Smith, QB

Defensive MVP: Justin Houston, DE

Rookie Of The Year: Eric Fisher, OT (The trade for Alex Smith technically applies to the Chiefs’ draft class, which easily makes him a co-winner in this category)

Biggest Disappointment: That Wild, Wild, wildcard game.

Very Early 2014 Prediction: 10-6, Top AFC Wildcard.

Super Bowl Primer

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The big one is finally here. The game that every moment of preparation, training and practice prepares you for. The game that every other game has led you to. The Big One. The Superbowl.

Here’s a long-winded and hopefully informal view on how I see the game turning out, and why I think I see it doing so.

Denver Broncos 30 – Seattle Seahawks 26

Much has been made, and made some more, about the #1 offense led by the league MVP going up against the #1 defense led by nobody in particular. To be sure, Richard Sherman seems to be the most vocal of the group, but the defense has playmakers on all three levels, and for Manning and the Broncos to overcome that hurdle, several things have to happen.

To begin with, Manning must be on top of his game. While a true historian of the game will tell you that Peyton has had more success in the playoffs than most QBs have in the history of the game, there is still an underlying current of anticipation that comes from expecting who may be the best quarterback ever to play…to play like it. All the time. Without exception. It’s not possible, but the idea floats around the NFL media circles like the giant elephant in the room.

Sometimes, those media folk even point out the elephant, and all of its flaws despite how damn good it is.

So, Manning has to be sharp. The Broncos are where they are mostly because of their passing game, which is an obvious point. While many fans will be looking for alternate means for a Broncos victory (the running game, stiffer defense, key special teams play), things will still boil down to how well Manning and his receivers manage against the best defense since the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Yeah, I said it.

How do they manage this? Well, beyond Manning avoiding mistakes and being crisp with his passes, the scheme has to be pinpoint accurate; the easy road to success is high-percentage, short-yardage passes. It just so happens that the Broncos have a guy named Wes Welker who excels at working within the first 7 or 8 yards from the line of scrimmage. It also happens that Julius Thomas, the breakout tight end, can also be effective in the short passing game. It also doesn’t hurt that Knowshon Moreno has the ability to turn flares and screens into solid yardage.

Blocking at the second level will be key to the Broncos pushing the ball down the field. Don’t doubt that Manning won’t take some shots further down the field, but the key to winning will be long, sustained drives that eat up 5-7 minutes of clock. The offensive line has to be disciplined enough to hold their initial blocks, and simultaneously be prepared to release and move upfield to help turn short passes into longer gains. It doesn’t hurt that Eric Decker is one of the league’s better blocking wide receivers, either.

Now, in between all the passing, it’s debatable on whether or not the Broncos will try to push the running game. It’s not worked out for most teams who’ve tried it against Seattle, but if the passing game hits a rhythm, it’s going to open up opportunities for Moreno and Monte Ball to find some holes in a stout front seven. It’s of major consequence that Peyton Manning is the best in the business at pre-snap adjustments and audibles; if he sees an opportunity for a run, he won’t shy away from making it happen.

Essentially, the entire Broncos offense has to be well-oiled, tough and focused on making every yard count. An obvious point, but it still amounts to the vital aspect of a potential Denver victory.

For Seattle, they will have a somewhat easier time making their offense click, but don’t be surprised if Marshawn Lynch is slow to get going. The Seahawks love running up the middle, and the Broncos defense, anchored by Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, is strongest in the middle of the field. Much of Russell Wilson’s success is predicated on play-action and buying time in the pocket; the former will be difficult to sell early, and the latter will be pivotal to pushing the chains. Wilson isn’t as apt to escape the pocket and run the ball upfield himself, so it is vital that Seattle’s receivers find separation as quickly as possible. While Von Miller, the Broncos’ most polished pass rusher, won’t be playing, Shaun Phillips and a handful of role players can and will harass Wilson and put him under pressure.

Seattle never abandons the run, and you can expect Lynch to break bigger gains as the 3rd and 4th quarters wear on. For the Broncos defense, it will be important to keep a fresh rotation amongst their front seven. For their secondary, keep an eye on the play of Champ Bailey; while Seattle’s receiving core is underrated and nowhere near as accomplished or talented as their opponent’s, they are capable of making big plays when the ball is thrown their way. Bailey will be a key piece in Denver’s attempt to limit the explosive plays that seem to break games wide open in surprising fashion, as teams are often focusing themselves on stopping Lynch and containing Wilson.

If the game ends up as close as I expect, special teams will play a major role in however it tilts. Most analysts rightly claim the Seahawks are a superior team when it comes to kicking, punting and gunning, but don’t discount the ability of Matt Prater to turn stalled drives into points. The Seahawks have the same luxury, but the Broncos have much more firepower at their disposal, which gives Prater a better chance to put his strong leg to work.

The return game will come into play as well. Trindon Holliday has had his ups and downs for the Broncos, but he’ll need to do his best to at least keep the ball in his hands on returns. Any positive yardage after that fact would be icing on the cake.

Both teams have capable punters who can put their opponents in unfavorable field position, and I fully expect there to be more than a handful of punts in this game.

Ultimately, I see the Broncos winning because I fully expect them to be at the top of their game. If they are, they’re simply better than the Seahawks. But if they slip up, perhaps just once, it could very well be the difference between victory and defeat. One costly turnover, one blown assignment, one muffed punt or missed field goal…something tells me this game will come down to one or more of those things happening.

Either that, or Peyton Manning and the Broncos simply out play the Seahawks. I’m banking on that.