Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Zach Fearless NFL Playoff Predictions: Super Bowl XLVIII

            I’ve spent most of my post-adolescent life hating the Broncos and Seahawks, and so it’s appropriate that their first-ever Super Bowl matchup will occur in the cold, bleak snow of winter in the middle of New Jersey.  It’s also appropriate that (at least on paper) both teams have looked less than spectacular during the course of the playoffs.  The Broncos needed a fairly miraculous 3rd-and-17 conversion deep in their own territory to prevent an epic collapse against the Chargers, and put up way too many field goals instead of touchdowns in beating an Aqib Talib-less Patriots team.  The Seahawks – a team that on average outscored home opponents by 15.4 points per game this season – somehow let a timid Saints team on the road hang around all game and needed an end zone interception to beat a 49ers team they had handled by a combined 55 points in their prior two meetings in Seattle.
             But see, that’s my negativity seeping in again.  I hate these two teams, so it’s natural that I see the “glass-half-empty” perspective first.  The truth is, the Broncos just beat two teams that had been playing their best football of the season (while also managing to avenge two of their three regular season losses) and Marshawn Lynch just manhandled the league’s third and fourth ranked defenses.   The other truth is the Broncos had the greatest offensive season in the history of professional football and the Seahawks have allowed a league-low 476 points over the past two seasons (to put that in perspective, the Chicago Bears gave up 478 points in 2013 alone). 
            And the other truth is I really shouldn’t hate these teams any more.  Over the last 15 years, they’ve combined for one Super Bowl loss, many mediocre head coaches and players, and a handful of bad seasons.  In fact, Denver and Seattle parallel each other a surprising amount if you examine the last 15 years more closely:

1998-1999: Denver wins back-to-back Super Bowls and an 11-year-old Zach Saltz first learns what it’s like to hate a professional sports franchise.  After Elway retires and the Broncos collapse, Seattle takes the temporary reins of the AFC West, fielding a particularly annoying team that started 8-2 and finished 1-6, including their home playoff loss to the Dolphins.

2000-2002: Not a lot happens here. The Broncos boast a different leading rusher each year, and the one year where Brian Griese plays well (2000), Denver loses to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens.  Seattle doesn’t do much either, but does find a star in RB Shaun Alexander.

2003-2007: The bad years.  Jake Plummer is just frustratingly inept enough to win 10 games each year and lay playoff stinkers . . . except in 2006, when the Broncos hand Brady/Belichick their first playoff loss ever in a fluky game.  The Seahawks do pretty much the same thing and make the Super Bowl in 2006, when they lose to the refs a quarterback with a 22.6 QB rating.  It’s this era which resonates the strongest for me.

2008-2009: Both the Broncos and Seahawks disappear from the planet.  Denver gives up a four-game lead with four games to go in 2008 and hires Josh McDaniels the next season. Meanwhile, Seattle fans, already suffering through the loss of their beloved Sonics, are forced to endure the Jim Mora era.

2010-2011: Resurrection in the unlikely forms of Marshawn Lynch and Tim Tebow (actually, I think the Tebow game was the best NFL game of the last five years). Suddenly, these teams would be considered back in perennial Super Bowl contention were it not for subpar quarterback play.  That is, until . . .

2012-2013: Peyton Manning 2.0 and Russell Wilson arrive.  During these seasons, the teams combine for a 51-13 regular season record, but suffer through unbelievably traumatizing playoff losses

            February 2, 2014 is where the Broncos and Seahawks separate: One will win the Super Bowl, the other will see its fan base continue to wonder what they did to make God smite them so. 
            If you are rooting for the Broncos, you make the case that experience and veteran leadership still matter in Super Bowls.  Denver has Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and John Fox – that’s a total of six different Super Bowl appearances represented.  The only player Seattle has with comparable experience is Percy Harvin, who won two NCAA championships at Florida.  In last year’s Super Bowl, Seattle’s doppelganger, the 49ers, looked sluggish throughout the first half and ultimately could not get themselves out of a 22-point second half hole.  Similar stories with other Super Bowl newbies like the ’06 Bears, ’08 Cardinals, and ’09 Saints (who eventually outscored Peyton Manning 31-7 after trailing by ten points early).  If Manning and company are able to move the ball early and often against the Seahawks – maybe take quick 10-0 or 14-0 leads – it may be difficult for the methodical, run-oriented Seattle offense to muster adequate responses. It isn’t impossible to imagine that happening, since essentially that exact thing happened to the Chargers and Patriots the last few weeks.
            If you are rooting for the Seahawks, you make the case that experience isn’t as important has what has been considered the classical hallmark of teams that win Super Bowls – a dominating, bruising, physical defense.  Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Joe Flacco all had questionable playoff reputations before their defenses stepped up and made huge plays down the stretch en route to Super Bowl victories.  Another parallel for hopeful Seattle fans: Super Bowl 37, when the more “experienced” Oakland Raiders, led by Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and 37-year-old league MVP Rich Gannon, got demolished by the unproven but spectacular Tampa Bay Buccaneer secondary.
            And one more good sign for Seattle: The cold weather should be much more conducive to their grind-it-out, physical style of play – a far cry from Denver’s 55 touchdowns through the air.  By now, we’ve heard all the stories about Manning’s inability to play in cold weather (and how the 63 degree weather last week in Denver may have diluted the actual way the Broncos play in January).  If Manning is off target, the Broncos will be forced to rely on a rushing game led by either a guy with bruised ribs who has been held out of practice (Knowshon Moreno), or a rookie (Montee Ball).  Meanwhile, the Denver defense, already missing its best player (Von Miller), will be lining up Rodgers-Cromartie, 35-year-old Champ Bailey and 34-year-old Quentin Jammer against Seattle’s sneaky-good receiving corps.  And in case you forgot, this was a unit that gave up 399 points and 4,360 passing yards to opposing offenses during the regular season; and although they shut Rivers and Brady down, they also haven’t forced a single turnover in their two postseason games.
            Seattle fans like to point out that the Seahawks played in the NFL’s toughest division and have played the league’s most difficult schedule.  In reality, that claim is questionable; according to advanced strength of schedule metrics, they tied with the Panthers for the 9th toughest.  According to those same metrics, the Broncos had the league’s 8th easiest schedule; however, it is worth noting that Denver faced off against more playoff teams in the regular season (7) than Seattle (5; although that number would have jumped to 7 had the 10-6 Cardinals made the playoffs like they should have).  As I have already pointed out in previous columns, the Seahawks owed a good portion of their outrageous 2013 pass defense statistics to the inferior passing games they faced for much of the season (including Cam Newton, Chad Henne, Mike Glennon, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Kellen Clemens twice).  Holding Kaepernick to 153 yards through the air was impressive last week, but not if you consider the 49ers ranked 3rd worst in the NFL in passing.  Three weeks ago, against Drew Brees – a 5,000 yard passer like Manning – Seattle gave up 309 yards (144 of which were to Marques Colston), a touchdown, and did not pick him off.

            What’s funny is how similar the storylines are between this year’s Broncos and Peyton Manning’s first Super Bowl team, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.  That year, the Colts were criticized during the regular season for their horrific defense (which gave up a whopping 2,768 rushing yards), but played stellar D in their playoff games.  Manning’s credentials in big games were still being questioned (something that has stuck with him his entire career, I suppose) and as gametime approached in Miami, more and more lingering questions were asked about the weather conditions, like this year.  And like the Seahawks, the ’06 Bears possessed a bruising, opportunistic, genuinely scary defense.  But Manning was able to hold off the pressure by deferring to the running game with an unheralded former second stringer (Dominic Rhodes/Knowshown Moreno) and a talented rookie (Joseph Addai/Montee Ball). 
            And if you’re rooting for the Broncos, that is your best case scenario: That the Seattle D spends so much time honing in on Welker, Decker and the Thomases that running lanes are open and seized upon by a healthy Moreno and Ball.  The running game is so much more critical for the Broncos than most people realize; they open up Manning’s playbook for play action, audibles, and screens. But in 30 degree weather – and, to be blunt, with a 37-year-old QB who showed last year that he can’t throw 15 yards downfield in those conditions – many of Denver’s vertical options will be greatly diminished.  With Sherman and Earl Thomas covering Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker downfield, the success of Denver’s passing game will depend largely on short patterns run by Welker, Julius Thomas, and Moreno.
            And if you’re rooting for Seattle, you hope that Bad Peyton shows up – the guy who can’t throw in the cold, can’t win big games, has bad luck, and whose greatest Super Bowl moments have come in luxury boxes.  You hope that even though Russell Wilson has looked jittery at times, the Seahawks don’t abandon their gameplan because you know that at some point in the third or fourth quarter, Beast Mode will show up and completely turn the tide of momentum. You also know that defense win championships. You know that the Seahawks have at least five defensive players (Sherman, Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, Michael Bennett) who are better than the Broncos’ best defensive player (Danny Trevathan).  You know that the three biggest factors in this game – turnovers, running the ball, and playing in cold weather – eventually favor Seattle.  You know that the winner of that epic NFC Championship game is the best team in football.  You know that Russell Wilson is a scoring threat from anywhere on the field.  You know that the previous record-setting offenses that made Super Bowls have all floundered (‘01 Rams, ‘02 Raiders, ‘07 and ’11 Patriots, and Manning’s own ’09 Colts).  You know that playing in cold, nasty weather is what real football is made of.  And you are angered by the fact that everyone is picking Denver to beat you.
            If there’s anything we’ve learned from pro football the last few years, it’s that Nobody-Believes-In-Us is more powerful than Everyone-Believes-In-Us (credit Bill Simmons with that theory).  All the hype this week about Peyton Manning’s record-breaking year overshadows the fact that the best defenses he faced were the Chiefs (who just gave up 35 second-half points to a team) and the Ravens (who gave up 49 points in Week 1).  All the hype this week about Richard Sherman overshadows the fact that, as a team, Seattle ranked first in the league in eight separate defensive categories.  Vegas favoring Denver is a reflection of their trust in Manning’s leadership and experience; but let’s not forget that the three quarterback kings of the AFC (Manning, Brady and Roethlisberger) are a combined 0-4 in Super Bowls since 2007.  Brady and Manning were favorites in their losses. 
            I have to pick the Seahawks here.  I did not think so originally, but after looking at the matchups, it’s pretty clear.  I think even if Denver jumps out to an early lead like the 49ers did, the Seahawks will settle in and dictate the tempo and momentum of the game.  I’m picking Seattle, but I still irrationally hate them – Pete Carroll’s smug smile and stupid ironed khakis, Richard Sherman’s antics which get overlooked by officials, the rampant PED use only scratching the surface, and the helplessly delusional fan base living in isolation from reality like Norma Desmond.  I refuse to like them and I am not alone (although I admit to being equally delusional for disliking them so much).  But they are the best team in football and they will win Sunday.  And I will be happy for Todd, Terry, Paul Allen, Cameron Crowe, Ann Wilson, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kathy Goertzen, Dave Grohl, Bill Nye, Dave Niehaus, Digital Dave Niehaus, Howard Schultz, the Red Robin restaurant chain, Sir Mix-a-Lot, ferry boats, umbrellas, Skittles, the staff at Seattle Grace Hospital (current and diseased), Josh Brown, traffic on 520 Eastbound across Lake Washington, Sheriff Reichert, Serious Pie pizza, and Kurt Donald Cobain, may he rest in peace. Seattle > Omaha.

Prediction: Seahawks 34, Broncos 28

Playoff Doppelganger: Every Peyton Manning playoff game 1999-2006, 2008-present.  And every Super Bowl not officiated by Bill Leavy.


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