(Super Bowl) Sunday Lurk: Pick Denver

denver-broncos-wallpaperThe Latvians have spoken, by some total equaling (47) points, the AFC’s Denver Broncos are favored (-3) over the NFC’s Seattle Seahawks in a Super Bowl that is wildly exciting to fans who love the game of football. Super Bowl XLVIII lacks the mass appeal of the marquee franchises the NFL would have liked to have seen (San Fran and New England anyone?). The specter of cold weather combined with smallish fan bases for the respective entrants has pushed the price of tickets downward in relation to past Super Bowls. In agreement with the former Governor of Pennsylvania, we’re becoming “a nation of wusses.”

I’ll never understand how everyone in the national football media thinks it’s totally acceptable to play Conference Championship games in brutal winter elements in certain parts of the country (the national football press even romanticizes about these contests, how often do you see footage from the “tuck rule” game?) but then throws a complete hissy fit when the Super Bowl is dropped in the chilly but not freezing cesspool of humanity that is New Jersey. Why can’t the game be played in 42 degree weather this week when we were sitting in a polar vortex and thought nothing of it two weeks ago? Make no mistake, if the game is marked by a couple of inches of snow (Note: it doesn’t look like this will happen) it will be significantly more memorable that way. I’m happy to see the Super Bowl actually get played in football weather. Both teams will have to make adjustments in the event that mother nature decides to make a notable appearance, but that’s what football is, a game of skill, strength, ability, and adjustment.

More importantly, this year’s game pits the most prolific passing offense in NFL history against the first great defensive secondary in the “there are rules against defending the pass” era. This is like the type of matchup you propose when you’re sitting around drinking and you want to watch your friends argue. “I’m not sure how you guys could see it differently, but the 2000 Ravens defense crushes the 2007 Patriots offense… every time.” “ The 85 Bears don’t stop the greatest show on turf. Torry Holt, Ike Bruce, and Az Hakim burn them every offensive series. I don’t see this playing out any other way.” This game is one of those mythical matchups, except it’s one that we’ll never have to speculate about. Peyton Manning and 4 great receivers versus Dick Sherman and the PED Patrol. We’ll never have to wonder how these teams would match up in a “one game to win it all” scenario because we’ll know for sure, if that doesn’t get fans blood pumping for this Super Bowl I don’t know what does.

Oh did someone say gambling?  Maybe it’s just the voices in my head.  They always set me straight.  After all, we’re not here to listen to me rail on the national football press, we’re here to talk about the single greatest season for a quarterback in NFL history.  We’re here to talk about an offense with a 1,000 yard running back and four pass catchers who caught 10 or more touchdowns.  We’re here to talk about a bend but don’t break defense that has peaked at the right moment, allowing a total of 33 points over two playoff games.  We’re here to talk about why it would be foolish to bet against the Denver Broncos this Sunday.

The game within the game that everyone is discussing is the battle between Peyton Manning’s prolific offense, and the Seattle Seahawks league leading defense.  The discussion is one worth having but I’m going to Memento this shit and start at the end.  I think Denver will score three touchdowns and add a field goal or two along the way.  The Seattle defense is highlighted by their incredible coverage in the secondary, and that isn’t merely hype.  In 2013 they led the NFL in allowing a measly 4 yards per passing attempt against opposing offenses.  For a frame of reference, the league average for yards allowed per passing attempt is 6.8 and the next best defense in that category, the Cincinnati Bengals, allowed over a yard more per passing attempt this season at 5.2 YPA.

Seattle benefitted from a slate of weak offensive opponents in 2013.  In the 16 regular season games the Seahawks played, only 6 were played against teams who were either at or above the league average for offensive yards per passing attempt (7.1 YPA).  In those games (Carolina, San Francisco twice, Arizona twice, and New Orleans) the Seahawks allowed 5.4 YPA passing.  While this still is a remarkable number and significantly better than league average, it goes to show that the vaunted secondary isn’t impossible to beat.

Seattle is not as strong against the rush as you may have been led to believe.  Allowing 3.9 yards per carry, Seattle is only slightly better than the league average against the rush (4.2 YPC) which was good enough to rank 9th in the NFL in 2013.  Also, Seattle was once again a beneficiary of a schedule that only pitted them against 6 teams that performed either at or above league average (4.2 YPC) in yards per carry in 16 regular season games this season.  In those games (Carolina, San Francisco twice, Houston, Indianapolis, and Minnesota) the Seahawks allowed 4.5 YPC rushing, which is slightly below league average.  Again, we’re talking about an elite defensive unit and this statistic can hardly be called a weakness, it just isn’t a shut down strength that one might think after listening to all the hype this week.

Enter Peyton Manning.  In 2013 he ran the most explosive passing offense in league history throwing for a record 55 touchdowns as well as a record 5,444 yards.  His spirals aren’t quite as tight as they used to be and he can’t really rear back and haul off the deep ball anymore.  However, while it’s been said a million times at this point, Manning truly did perform at such a high level in 2013 due to his ability to read defenses and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage.  He is to quarterback play what aging Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine were to pitchers.  He effectively nibbles around the edges, finds weaknesses, and exploits the opposition.

I expect to see a lot of exploitation this Sunday, and not just of the American consumer during the commercial breaks.  With all the talk surrounding the aerial threat posed by the Broncos, Peyton’s offense quietly finished in the top half of the league in rushing yards this season.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see heavy doses of Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball this weekend as Peyton reads coverages and adjusts accordingly.  Despite the fact that this was his greatest statistical season, Peyton has played more unselfishly in 2013 than I can ever remember.

Flash back to the AFC Championship two weeks ago.  In the second quarter, while the eventual blowout was still in question, just on the edge of field goal range Peyton checked out of a passing play and handed the ball to Moreno on a draw play from the Patriots 39 yard line.  Moreno took the ball to the 11 setting up an eventual pass to Jacob Tamme for the Broncos first touchdown of the game.  So what?  That checkdown occurred on 3rd and 10.  Manning read the defense, saw that the Patriots edge rushers were lined up wide in an attempt to beat his tackles around the outside and that the linebackers were providing a cushion to avoid giving up a big play.  He called the perfect play in the perfect situation.  There’s no way he expected Moreno to burst through the second level and carry the ball down into the red zone, however, he was likely fairly confident that Moreno would pick up the 6-8 yards necessary to put Matt Prater in field goal range so that the existing 3-0 lead could grow.

In years past, Peyton would have stubbornly kept the ball in his own hands, despite the fact that the defense was begging him not to.  In 2013, with diminished physical skills and an offensive approach that seems geared towards getting some points at all costs, Peyton made the perfect call.  That play delivered a huge blow to the Patriots on the scoreboard, but also in the way they played the remainder of the game.  The Pats never looked comfortable or certain of what was coming from the Broncos offense again, and Peyton put together the greatest playoff performance in his illustrious career on his way to this Sunday’s big game.

This is all a way of saying, if the Seahawks defense is willing to let the Broncos running game beat them, this iteration of Peyton Manning will be more than willing to oblige.  There will come a time where he throws at Richard Sherman (likely underneath or on back shoulder timing routes to Demaryious Thomas), there will come a time where he hits Eric Decker or Julius Thomas in the seam when he senses a safety is out of position thanks to a blitz or a “disguised” coverage, there will come a time (or perhaps many times) where Wes Welker is open for 7 yards in the flat.  But don’t look for Peyton to throw into double coverage or stubbornly force the action where there is no play.

When Bane is beating the living hell out of Batman in “The Dark Knight Rises” while located conveniently under the Research and Development Department of Wayne Enterprises he tells the caped crusader [Bane voice], “You fight like a younger man… with nothing held back.  Admirable but mistaken.”  Earlier in his career, many defenses could have uttered these words to Manning as he often threw bad interceptions at the worst possible moments.  The most important number Peyton put up this year was 10.  That’s the number of total interceptions he threw in 2013.  Relative to his passes thrown that represents an interception percentage of 1.5% which trailed only Nick Foles and Alex Smith amongst quarterbacks who played 10 or more games this season.  Mature Manning knows his physical limitations.  For years the football press has referred to him as an “offensive coordinator on the field,” but this is the first season in which he has truly performed in that capacity.  Expect that to continue on Sunday.

Of course, Peyton’s performance won’t be the only thing that decides the outcome of the Super Bowl.  As much as I’m in on what the Broncos offense can, and will, do against Seattle, I’m even more out one what the Seattle offense is incapable of doing against the Denver defense.  First, let’s get some misconceptions about the Broncos defensive unit out of the way really quickly.  Denver ranked 22nd in total defense this year despite coming in 7th against the run.  No one looks at this like an elite defensive unit, and no one should, however, they are above average despite what the overall statistics tell us.  I say this because in nearly every game this season, the Broncos defense was tasked with maintaining a massive lead.

Rather than being asked to lock down opposing offenses and prevent them from scoring as priority one, the Broncos defenders were placed in schemes that merely prevented big plays for quick scores.  Up three touchdowns in the third quarter, you don’t care if an opponent scores a touchdown or kicks a field goal if it takes 6-8 minutes for it to happen.  The other byproduct of playing from ahead is Denver’s abysmal ranking against the pass (27th).  Only 5 teams were thrown against more than Denver and they gave up the 6th most yards through the air as a result, however, they only gave up a league average 7.1 yards per passing attempt which is a much more accurate gauge of the ability of their secondary.  But Dazzle, you ask, isn’t the opposite true for the 7th ranked Denver run defense?  Since everyone is passing on Denver, doesn’t that mean that their ranking against the rush is artificially propped up?  Thank you for asking those thoughtful questions, but the answer is no on both accounts.  While Denver faced slightly fewer rushing attempts than the league average, their yards per rushing attempt allowed was 3.9.  If that number sounds a little familiar to you, that’s because it’s the same exact rushing yards per attempt allowed by the vaunted Seattle defense.  Ipso facto, the Denver defense is average against the pass, and above average against the rush.

This does not play into Seattle’s strengths.  We have to interrupt the feel good story about Russell Wilson right now.  The guy is going to be a great quarterback for a long time.  If not for the existence of Andy Luck, he’d be the guy I’d pick to be my quarterback if I were starting my franchise from scratch today.  None of this changes the fact that he’s been actively bad for the last month or so at this point.  In his last 6 games going back to the regular season he has thrown a total of 5 touchdowns.  His quarterback rating over the course of those games has averaged 82.02 (with a low point of 49.6 against Arizona with a chance to clinch the NFC West in Week 15).  Juxtapose this against a career quarterback rating of 100.6, and it’s clear, something isn’t right with Russell Wilson.  If the Denver defense can bottle up Marshawn Lynch and keep Wilson from breaking off a large run or two, and the statistics suggest they have that capability, then this game will fall on to the right shoulder of Wilson.

That is the nightmare scenario for Seattle and it is a real possibility here.  As I see it, Denver will put together some plodding early drives, scoring twice on their first three possessions and racking up 6-10 points in the process.  Slow and deliberate has been Denver’s pace in the late season and postseason and it’s worked to their benefit as they’ve controlled the clock and frustrated opponents who simply cannot stop them in the process.  Seattle will struggle to move the ball and, in particular, will continue their season long trend of failing to penetrate the endzone from close range (Seattle scores a touchdown from the red zone 53.23% of the time and only 25% of the time in their last 3 games).  Fantasy superstar Steven Hauschka will have his day, kicking at least two field goals by the end of the first half which, again, are really just the byproduct of Seattle’s red zone ineptitude.  If Pete Carroll finds his team down by more than a score at halftime (17-6 at the half would not surprise me in the least) the Seahawks are in big trouble.  Denver will put together an early second half scoring drive that exhausts nearly the entire quarter from the clock.  Suddenly, Carroll will be forced to rely more on the passing game than he would like (insert stat about Russell Wilson not throwing more than 33 passes in a game this season here).  Once this happens, the game is over.  Denver will eat clock and not worry about scoring more points, Seattle’s offense will get creative, but ultimately fail.

I’m taking the Under of 47 here for the reasons I described above.  Denver has slowed the pace significantly over the past month or so but the oddsmakers have barely taken notice.  On the other side of the ball, Seattle is simply not strong enough offensively to score enough points to push this game over.  In a game that will be great to watch I really can’t see it playing out any other way.  A final score of 27-16 feels about right to me.  If I’m correct, I can lurk off into the sunset with a profit and the smug sense of self satisfaction that comes with being correct about something.  Do with that information what you will, and wager accordingly.

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