In this Jan. 19 photo, Seattle Seahawks fans celebrate a Seahawks touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch during the second half of the NFC championship game against the San Francisco 49ers in Seattle.
Matchups for the Super Bowl on Sunday between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium:
When the Seahawks (15-3) have the ball:
Beast Mode. And big plays.
That’s what got the Seahawks to the big game for the second time in eight years, although nobody is left from that team which lost to Pittsburgh.
RB Marshawn Lynch (24) has been pretty much unstoppable in the playoffs after a late-season slump. He powered his way to 109 yards and a 5.0 average per rush against San Francisco’s staunch defense in the NFC title game. His 40-yard TD run got Seattle back in the game, and he ran all over New Orleans the previous week.
Denver has stepped up defensively on the ground, led by NT Terrance Knighton (94) — yep, “Pot Roast vs. Beast Mode” — and LBs Danny Trevathan (59) and Wesley Woodyard (52), and will be in excellent shape if it can slow Lynch.
And don’t think Lynch can’t burst free for big gains as well as get tough yards inside.
Seattle’s offensive line struggled protecting Russell Wilson (3), but was fine when pounding it out against the 49ers. The Broncos aren’t as physical or as deep defensively, and without LB Von Miller, there could be vulnerability.
Then again, they are 10-0 without him as Trevathan has become a standout, DE Jeremy Mincey (57) has sealed the edge, and LB Shaun Phillips (90) and Robert Ayers (91) have ramped up their play.
Seattle prides itself on an unrelenting physical offensive line. It’s anchored by center Max Unger (60) and tackle Russell Okung (76), but it’s also deep because injuries forced backups into action all season.
Where the Seahawks sometimes struggle is keeping pass rushers off Wilson; he was sacked four times by San Francisco. Phillips led the Broncos with 10 sacks during the season and has two more in the playoffs, while Ayers also has become dangerous.
The key is to keep Wilson contained in the pocket. Once he gets outside, he will create big plays either running or passing.
Despite what some critics maintain, he does have the targets to produce with his arm. Doug Baldwin (89) has been superb in the postseason, and Golden Tate (81) is just as formidable at wide receiver. Third wideout Jermaine Kearse (15) caught the 35-yard TD pass for the winning points last week.
Denver’s battered secondary handled Tom Brady quite well for the AFC championship, so it should ride a wave of confidence into the Meadowlands. Veteran DBs Champ Bailey (24), Tony Carter (32) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (45) will have a tougher time against these receivers than they did against New England.
Don’t underestimate the abilities of TEs Zach Miller (86) and Luke Willson (82) to get open and contribute, either. And if WR-KR Percy Harvin (11) is recovered from a concussion suffered against the Saints, it adds more speed and elusiveness for the Seahawks.
When the Broncos (15-3) have the ball:
The Seahawks ranked first in overall defense this year, yielding a league-low 231 points. All Denver did was score 606, shattering the previous NFL mark.
Even juicier for this Super Bowl, Seattle was tops against the pass, which, of course, is a Peyton Manning (18) specialty. This is likely where the game will be decided.
If Seattle’s unequaled secondary led by All-Pros cornerback Richard Sherman (25) — yeah, the guy can talk, but he sure can play, too — and safety Earl Thomas (29), supported by terrific S Kam Chancellor (31) and emerging CB Byron Maxwell (41) can handle Manning’s myriad receivers in man coverage, the Seahawks get a huge edge. Denver has not faced a defense with these cover skills, and those talents even extend to nickel backs Walter Thurmond (29) and Jeremy Lane (20).
Of course, Seattle has not faced a QB like Manning, either. His 400-yard game against New England epitomized his sensational season.
Manning will look for WRs Demaryius Thomas (88) and Eric Decker (87) in favorable matchups, especially on the outside, and for slot receiver Wes Welker (83) and TE Julius Thomas (80) over the middle. The Seahawks like to keep LBs Bobby Wagner (54) and Malcolm Smith (53) on the field as much as possible, so one of them could wind up against the dynamic Denver tight end. So might the now-healthy LB K.J. Wright (50).
Manning will go there quickly to see if Seattle can handle Thomas. The Seahawks’ defenders will play tight and tough on those targets.
For those who haven’t noticed, mesmerized by Manning and his record-setting performances, the Broncos have a running game. The question is whether that ground attack will get anywhere against Seattle, which held the 49ers’ third-ranked rushing unit to 161 yards, 130 by Colin Kaepernick.
Manning hasn’t accumulated 130 yards rushing in his last eight seasons combined. So no worries there.
The worry for Seattle is workhorse Knowshon Moreno (27), who can offer enough balance with his running to keep the opposition, well, off-balance. Moreno’s work as a receiver out of the backfield gives Manning an astonishing five targets who caught 60 or more passes. All five also scored 10 or more touchdowns.
Denver’s line has surrendered a mere 20 sacks, none in the postseason. RG Louis Vasquez and RT Orlando Franklin and center Manny Ramirez are particularly stout, and will need to be against Seattle’s deep D-line rotation. Watch for Michael Bennett (72), Chris Clemons (91), Cliff Avril (56), Red Bryant (79), Brandon Mebane (92), Tony McDaniel (99) and Clinton McDonald (69) all to play roles.
Denver PK Matt Prater (5) broke the NFL record with a 64-yard field goal and might have the strongest leg in the league. He shouldn’t be bothered much by the swirling winds should they blow through MetLife Stadium.
Seattle’s Steven Hauschka also is very reliable, although his range is not like Prater’s. But he has made 17 of 18 field goals from 40 yards or longer.
With Denver’s offense clicking, Britton Colquitt has punted just once in the playoffs.
Seattle P Jon Ryan (9) excels at putting the ball inside the 10.
If Harvin is healthy, it adds a lot to Seattle’s return teams: a game-breaker any time he touches the ball. Tate is a solid punt returner with a penchant for gambling and Baldwin had a 69-yard kickoff runback against San Francisco.
Denver’s Trindon Holliday (11) also can break open big returns, but must show he can hang onto the ball.
Seattle’s Pete Carroll and Denver’s John Fox both took over moribund franchises. Now look where they are.
Both are strong motivators, although Carroll does it in more of a rah-rah style his players embrace.
No team is more aggressive, especially on defense, Carroll’s specialty, than the Seahawks. He had some success in a previous head coaching stint with the Patriots, then went to USC and won two national titles. Since returning to the pros, Carroll has done a brilliant job turning the Seahawks into a championship contender.
Fox, who missed a month of the schedule after heart surgery, is smart enough to keep the reins very loose on Manning. His background is in defense, where the Broncos struggled until recently. His players and assistants credit his energy and easygoing manner with helping steer them through a season of potholes to get to the Super Bowl.
Manning’s legacy overrides many other elements of this game. He’s already proven to be among the greatest regular-season players the NFL has seen. But he is only 1-1 in Super Bowls; hey, even his younger brother, Eli, is 2-0 in them.
Eli will be on hand in his stadium to root on Peyton, who was in Indianapolis two years ago when his bro beat the Patriots for his second championship.
There’s also the possibility, perhaps remote, that Peyton will emulate Broncos boss John Elway and retire should he win a second ring. Elway said he doesn’t see that happening.
The Seahawks lost in their only previous Super Bowl, which adds to the franchise’s hunger. They also recognize that in Super Bowls featuring potent offenses against stingy defenses, the defensive team usually wins.
Carroll coached in the Meadowlands in the 1990s as defensive coordinator, then head coach of the Jets. That didn’t end well, and he could erase a few demons with a victory.
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton and Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this story.
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