The Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event of the year, and so every little thing will be analyzed and overinflated in the run-up to the game. But there's no overemphasizing the dramatic contrast in styles offensively in this game. On one side, you have the wide open no-huddle attack of the Denver Broncos with Peyton Manning pulling the trigger; on the other, you have the smash-mouth, ball-control style of the Seattle Seahawks with Russell Wilson directing the show. Who rides off into the sunset victorious will likely come down to which team's defense responds best to the challenge.
Now, it's been said that the Broncos have "fixed" their run defense after holding the Chargers running backs to 55 yards rushing in the Divisional round and holding the Patriots running backs to 57 yards rushing in the AFC Championship Game.
Well, I'm calling bullshit on that.
Maybe they have, maybe they haven't, but the truth is that they haven't had to hold up for a whole game against the run. Chargers running back Ryan Mathews started off well against them, but didn't last long as he left the game with an injury in the first half. The Patriots, on the other hand, had a piss-poor game plan and never committed to the running game.
The Broncos were able to take advantage of both of those situations. It's important to remember, however, that Marshawn Lynch, much like LeGarrette Blount prior to the Broncos game, tends to wear teams down and then break the long, embarrassing run in the second half. Even when the running game isn't working early, the Seahawks are not apt to go away from it until absolutely necessary.
All I'm saying is, we will certainly know whether that run defense has been "fixed" late in the game on Sunday, but there is no way to know right now. I say that after picking the Broncos to win the Super Bowl, by the way. Their run defense is the only thing that worries me.
Having said that, the main event on Sunday is without a doubt going to be when the Broncos and Manning line up on offense and that big, bad, nasty Seahawks defense is staring back at him on the other side of the ball. Count me among the folks who are hoping for good weather for the Super Bowl. "Good" meaning no snow or rain or sleet or hail or wind or anything other than maybe some cold.
I want both of these high-powered juggernauts at their very best with no excuses to fall back on after the game. If that happens, we might get to witness one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played.
The game within the game Sunday evening will be the Broncos offensive line against the Seahawks defensive line. Specifically, this matchup will be one to watch when the Broncos are facing third-and-5 or more. That (among other times) is when the Seahawks bring in their NASCAR pass rush package and the fireworks tend to begin.
I looked back at the last couple of weeks to get a deeper feel for both of those units and how they have played in the playoffs so far on third-and-5 or more. Here's what I have found, and here's how I think it will go on Sunday.
Let's start with the Broncos offensive line.
From left to right, they go Chris Clark at left tackle, Zane Beadles at left guard, Manny Ramirez at center, Louis Vasquez at right guard and Orlando Franklin at right tackle. Clark has filled in all year for the one guy on the offensive line that the Broncos could usually depend on to be elite: left tackle Ryan Clady, who was injured in a Week 2 victory over the Giants.
Individually, none of these guys will "wow" you, but they have been playing good ball collectively so far in the playoffs.
Manning has been chased around a bit, but both the Chargers and Patriots were unable to sack him. Keeping Manning clean has helped the Broncos convert a whopping, eye-popping, incredible (and every other adjective you can think of) seven out of 12 times on third-and-5 or more in the playoffs. Most teams might have trouble converting seven out of 12 times on third-and-1.
Oh, it gets better. They have also converted three of four on third-and-10 or more in the playoffs. That's just sick.
Both the Chargers and Pats went with a four-man rush on the vast majority of those third-and-5 or more downs. Manning was only blitzed on two of those 12 plays. One of those times was the 29-yard reception Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas hauled in over Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib and Patriots safety Devin McCourty on a skinny post. That might be why more teams haven't blitzed.
Interestingly, the Broncos offensive lineman who seemed to have the most amount of trouble so far on third-and-5 or more in the playoffs has been the left tackle, Clark. Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones gave him fits almost all game on third-and-5 or more.
Beadles has had his issues on a few plays as well. For the most part, Ramirez, Vasquez and Franklin have held up well on those money downs.
Why I used the word "interestingly" will become more clear in a moment ...
The Seahawks tend to bring in their pass rushers on third-and-long. Cliff Avril has generally lined up at left end, Michael Bennett at left defensive tackle, Clinton McDonald at right defensive tackle and Chris Clemons at right defensive end.
The Seahawks are unique in that of their four regular starters on the defensive line, only one (Clemons) is usually in on third-and-5 or more. Some teams don't even dress seven defensive linemen every game, but for the Seahawks they rely on seven guys to play their specialized role for most of every game. It's rare to see guys with good sack numbers be content, or at least appeased, when they are not starting. Some how, some way, Seattle has made it work.
The Seahawks have forced the opposing offense into a third-and-long 16 times so far in the playoffs. Lest you think they just feasted on Colin Kaepernick, a total of nine of those 16 plays were against the Saints. So far, their opponents have converted on only three of those 16 opportunities. That includes a paltry once in 10 chances that their opponent converted third-and-10 or more. Where I'm from, that's what we call BALLIN!!!
The Seahawks haven't been big on blitzing on those downs, and they have only brought the blitz twice so far on third-and-long. They have also gone with a three-man rush on four other downs of third-and-5 or more. Add that up, and the Seahawks have rushed four on nine out of 16 of those downs, yet they've come home with three sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery on those nine plays.
Watch the film and you see Bennett and Avril jumping off the screen at you with that down and distance. Avril has been giving right tackles fits with his speed rush. Bennett has beaten both right guards he has faced like they stole something from him. Mind you, he was going against Ben Grubbs and Alex Boone, both very good players (Grubbs was a Pro Bowler this year for the second time; Boone was an alternate the last two years). Bennett made both look like they didn't belong on the same field with him.
Back to the interesting part. It appears that the Broncos are playing their best on the right side of their offensive line. Conversely, the Seahawks are rushing their best with Bennett and Avril coming on that side. Maybe Seattle will decide to put Avril or Bennett or both on the other side to try to take advantage of Clark and/or Beadles. If they don't, we get to see Denver's best go against the Seahawks' best pass rushers. I'm giddy with anticipation!
McDonald and Clemons can bring it too, don't get me wrong. Clemons has had some success with inside moves so far in the playoffs, and wouldn't you know it, that's what has been giving Clark trouble. McDonald has done a bit of everything so far. He has had some good rushes, but he has also been a spy/pass dropper on occasion. Clemons or McDonald could have a huge day rushing Clark and Beadles; you never know. Clemons and McDonald haven't gotten nearly as much pressure as Avril and Bennett the last two games, so if they do decide to step their game up, the Broncos will be in a lot of trouble.
The Seahawks will have opportunities to get pressure on Manning with four. Realistically, I think at least one of their pass rushers will sack Manning for the first time this postseason. So how can I still pick the Broncos?
It's really simple.
While I do believe the Seahawks can slow Manning and the Broncos down with their pressure up front and their tight coverage underneath, I don't think they will be able to shut the Broncos down. Because of the style of offense the Seahawks run, they generally need time to move the ball down the field and score. The Broncos, however, can score in the blink of an eye. Even when you have throttled them all game, all it takes is one play where Manning gets enough time to see down the field. For that reason, I have to go with the Broncos.
Even if they win the game, I'm not sure Denver's offensive line will win the battle against Seattle's defensive line. Conversely, if the Seahawks do happen to win, I am almost positive that Avril, Bennett, McDonald or Clemons will be your Super Bowl XLVIII MVP.