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.