Scouting the Super Bowl: Broncos vs. Seahawks
This Super Bowl is a fitting finale to the season. The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were the NFL's two best teams. Denver's top-ranked offense will face Seattle's top-ranked defense. The game appears to be an even match.
"Both sides have been fairly historic in what they've accomplished," Broncos coach John Fox said. "I remind everybody that there's three phases of the game, and my experience . . . is who executes the best and who performs the best [wins]. Obviously, your star players have to be great in championship games."
There is no shortage of star players. From Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning to Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, some of the NFL's most popular players will be on the game's biggest stage. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said the less-heralded units - Seattle's offense and Denver's defense - want to prove their value.
"It's obvious that . . . the defense and the offense is a logical matchup to look for, but this game is going to be involving so many different aspects of it," Carroll said. "It will be interesting to see if that is the story. . . . It will be wonderful to see what the story line is afterwards."
When the Broncos run
Peyton Manning justifiably draws most of the attention on Denver's offense, but the Broncos' 117 rushing yards per game ranked No. 15 in the NFL in the regular season. Knowshon Moreno recorded his first 1,000-yard season since becoming a first-round pick in 2009.
Moreno benefited from defenses' focusing on Manning. The Broncos like to rush up the middle - that's where 37 percent of their runs were directed. Rookie Montee Ball is also one to watch. The running back averaged 11 carries during the two playoff games, and he averaged 4.7 yards per carry this season. Their top run blocker is right guard Louis Vasquez.
Seattle finished the season with the No. 7 rushing defense in the NFL, keeping opponents to 101.6 yards per game. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel are stout against the run, and their defensive ends are strong in run support. Linebacker Bobby Wagner patrols the middle with his speed. Safety Kam Chancellor can play in the box and serve as an extra linebacker.
When the Broncos pass
This is the marquee matchup of the game. Peyton Manning had the best season for a quarterback in NFL history, throwing for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. Four receivers caught 10 or more touchdowns.
The Broncos' two outside receivers are Demaryius Thomas (92 catches, 1,430 yards, 14 touchdowns) and Eric Decker (87, 1,288, 11). The slot receiver is Wes Welker (73, 778, 10), with difference-making tight end Julius Thomas (65, 788, 12) also a major factor. They have complementary skills, and Manning is democratic in dispensing the ball. It will be the most difficult challenge of the season for the Seahawks' top-ranked pass defense.
Sherman might be the NFL's best cornerback - just ask him - and his reputation is merited. Sherman is seldom targeted, yet he still led the NFL with eight interceptions. Sherman will play exclusively on the left side; he will not follow a wide receiver. The Seahawks use Byron Maxwell on the right side; he's not a big name, but he had a nice season. Maxwell fits the Seahawks profile: He's tall and rangy, attributes Seattle needs against the Denver receivers. Their slot cornerback is Walter Thurmond; he will have his hands full with Welker.
Earl Thomas and Chancellor form the best safety combination in the NFL. Thomas plays deep safety and covers such a large part of the field that he's bound to be involved in many plays. The Seahawks' defensive backfield, nicknamed "the Legion of Boom," plays an aggressive, physical style. Pay attention to the way the game is called. If the officials don't pull the flag out often, the contact will be noticeable. If not, the Seahawks might give some free yards.
It will be important for Seattle's pass rush to pressure Manning. Denver's offensive line allowed only 20 sacks, which was the fewest in the league. That's in large part because Manning threw the ball an average of 2.36 seconds after the snap, which is the best in the NFL. The Seahawks emphasized the need to move him from his spot and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Pass rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett will be critical in that effort.
When the Seahawks run
Marshawn Lynch's stance throughout the week was that he does his talking on the field. Lynch will have a chance to prove that, because he's the catalyst for Seattle's offense. Lynch rushed for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns, with the "Beast Mode" shining while averaging 5 yards per carry in two playoff games. The Seahawks like rushing behind left tackle Russell Okung - their 110 rushes behind left tackle were the most in the NFL.
The Broncos, with the NFL's No. 8 rush defense, play a 4-3 defensive front that relies on Temple product Terrance Knighton to fill space in the middle and stuff the run. Defensive end Malik Jackson is also stout against the run. Outside linebacker Danny Trevathan leads the team in tackles.
Denver must be aware of quarterback Russell Wilson. Although he scrambles more to buy time than to run, he is always a threat to tuck away the ball. Wilson rushed for 539 yards this season. The running game will be important because the more Seattle holds the ball, the more the Seahawks will keep Manning off the field.
When the Seahawks pass
In a passing era, the Seahawks have managed to win without a dynamic passing offense. They ranked No. 26 and did not have a 1,000-yard receiver. Whereas the Broncos had four players with 10 touchdown receptions, the Seahawks did not have any player with more than five. The Broncos' weakness is their pass defense, so this matchup might end up being a key part of the game.
Quarterback Russell Wilson is an effective quarterback who threw for 26 touchdowns this season, although he has just one touchdown pass this postseason. Wilson is perhaps the NFL's best quarterback at scrambling to buy time, and Seattle's big gains come when he extends the play. Their top receiver is Golden Tate, although the return of Percy Harvin could make a major difference. Harvin is a potential game-breaker who played in only two games this season.
The Broncos' top cornerback has become former Eagles starter Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Champ Bailey, a potential Hall of Famer, has endured injuries this season but will play in his first Super Bowl. The Broncos' top pass rusher is Philadelphia native and Willingboro alumnus Shaun Phillips, who had 10 sacks this season.
The Broncos' special teams dominated the Eagles when the two teams played in September. Trindon Holliday, the 5-foot-5 return specialist, brought a punt and kickoff back for touchdowns this season. The Seahawks have not generated many big plays in the return game, but they have solid coverage units. Both teams benefit from good kickers - Denver's Matt Prater and Seattle's Steven Hauschka. The wind patterns at MetLife Stadium will be worth monitoring.
This won't be as frigid a Super Bowl as some feared when the game was awarded to New Jersey. The temperature will be in the low 50s during the day and drop to the upper-20s at night. The Broncos have more postseason and Super Bowl experience, from the coach to the quarterback. The neutral site means there will not be a home-field advantage, and Super Bowls seldom draw a raucous crowd.
ZACH BERMAN: BRONCOS 31, SEAHAWKS 24
JEFF MCLANE: SEAHAWKS 28, BRONCOS 27