NEW YORK — Peyton Manning, unstoppable.
Seattle Seahawks, immovable.
At least that’s how the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather city shapes up. The NFL and its followers — those frozen fans in the Meadowlands next Sunday, and more than $110 million watching on TV — couldn’t have asked for a juicier matchup.
Manning’s Denver Broncos went 13-3 to earn the top seed in the AFC, scoring more points (606) than any team in league history, with 55 of their touchdowns coming on his passes, shattering Tom Brady’s record. They used home-field advantage to beat San Diego and New England for their first appearance in the Super Bowl since John Elway had the Manning role in the 1999 game.
The Seahawks had the same record to rule the NFC before downing New Orleans and San Francisco, using a relentless defense reminiscent of the 2000 Ravens. They allowed only 231 points — the Broncos scored 230 in their first five games.
Something has to give in MetLife Stadium.
“You would want that challenge,” says Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, who already grabbed the limelight for a postgame diatribe on national TV following the win over San Francisco. “We really embrace that. As a defense, we respect the heck out of Peyton Manning, but as a true competitor, as competitive as our team is, you wouldn’t want to have it any other way. You want the best of the best; otherwise you don’t feel like you’re getting the biggest challenge of your life.”
Seattle will be challenged, make no mistake about that.
“Just still trying to get to know them, but from what I’ve seen so far, it’s certainly an excellent defense,” Manning said, and that was before he saw everything the Seahawks can do to stop opponents.
“It’s the Super Bowl, so it’s going to be tough,” adds Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas. “Nothing is going to come easy. I’m pretty sure you’re going to see two teams playing as physical as possible. This is for all the marbles, so I’m pretty sure it will be a tough game all around.”
This is the sixth time the NFL’s top offense in points faces the top defense in the Super Bowl. Who has had the edge?
The defense, winning four of those five games: Green Bay over Kansas City in the very first one; Pittsburgh over Dallas in 1979; San Francisco over Miami in 1985; and the New York Giants over Buffalo in 1991. The one exception came in 1990, when the Broncos had no chance against Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and company, losing 55-10 in the biggest romp in Super Bowl history.
Only once have the teams ranked first in yards gained and allowed met in the Super Bowl. That was 11 years ago when defense-minded Tampa Bay routed Oakland 48-21. The Buccaneers had five interceptions, scoring on two, and yielded 11 first downs.
But this is the first time the leader in yards gained and points scored faced the team that was most miserly in both categories.
Denver averaged 37.9 points and 457.3 yards per game, and in the postseason is gaining 435, scoring 25 points. That decline in lighting up the scoreboard hasn’t mattered because the Broncos’ defense has played so well.
Seattle gave up 14.4 points and 273.6 yards a game in 2013. For the playoffs, the numbers are 16 points and 365 yards. Don’t fret, Seahawks fans, about the yardage allowed in the last two weeks: a bunch of those came as New Orleans was playing catchup in the divisional round.
What adds so much spice to this offense-defense confrontation is Manning’s brilliant adaptability.
“He understands that defenses see looks and they see similarities and recognize formations and recognize personnel,” says Sherman, who led the NFL in interceptions with eight and clinched the win over the 49ers by tipping a pass that teammate Malcolm Smith picked off. “And he keeps it mixed up. If you have a quarterback like that, it’s hard to catch a break with him, catch a tendency or something that you can jump.
“He finds so many different ways to attack you, so once he finds a crack in the armor, he continues to nick at it until he makes it a hole.”
On the other hand, Denver hasn’t faced anything close to the physicality Seattle will bring. It begins with a deep rotation up front, flows back to a somewhat overlooked linebacking group — Bobby Wagner will be the best player at that position in this game, and he got no Pro Bowl love — and ends with the best secondary on the planet.
That defensive backfield led by Sherman and fellow All-Pro Earl Thomas at safety will be tested, naturally, by what got Denver all those fancy stats: Manning throwing to Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas. Because the Seahawks prefer man coverage, the essence of this matchup will be in those clashes.
Or will it? All of this talk about Broncos running wild with the ball and Seahawks swooping in to make tackles for losses ignores the existence of a Seattle offense and a Denver defense.
Who knows? Maybe one of those units will steal the show.
“We have the No. 1 offense, they have the No. 1 defense,” Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips says. “But we’re looking at it as a challenge for us. Just like they’re looking at it as a challenge for them. They want to outplay our offense and we want to outplay their defense.”
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