Seattle vs. Denver
Sunday 6:30PM ET
The Vegas line for Super Bowl 48 has fluctuated between two and three points in Denver's favor, which surprises me based on how these teams match up. I think Seattle has distinct personnel advantages on both sides of the ball. The Broncos' team strength is its pass offense, which the Seahawks can counter with the NFL's premier pass defense. Seattle has an answer for Denver's most dangerous element, and I'd give the Seahawks an edge in every other toe-to-toe category (SEA run offense vs. DEN run defense; DEN run offense vs. SEA run defense; SEA pass offense vs. DEN pass defense).
During the 2013 regular season, few defenses gave Denver more fits than Jacksonville's, which is run by ex-Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Despite major talent deficiencies, Bradley's scheme held the Broncos to 14 points through one half in Week 6, and the scoreboard read 21-19 deep into the third quarter. The Jaguars blitzed Peyton Manning on just 2-of-42 dropbacks, got pressure with their front four, and played physical press coverage on the perimeter. They held Demaryius Thomas to three catches for 78 scoreless yards, Julius Thomas to a 4-22-1 line, and Eric Decker to 5-50. The Seahawks will play the Broncos in similar fashion. And they have much better players than the Jaguars.
I'm also surprised more is not being made of the banged-up state of Denver's defense. Despite recent struggles, I think Russell Wilson is capable of shredding this MASH unit, and Marshawn Lynch has a chance to run all over it. Since November, the Broncos have lost OLB/DE Von Miller (ACL), slot CB Chris Harris (ACL), LE Derek Wolfe (seizures), DT Kevin Vickerson (hip), and FS Rahim Moore (leg) to season-ending injuries. That's 5-of-11 starters. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio deserves credit for keeping his side of the ball competitive in the meantime, but this is not an imposing defense for running or passing opponents.
In addition to their top-ranked pass defense and top-seven run defense, the Seahawks match up favorably with the Broncos because of the way they play. Arguably Manning's greatest strength is his pre-snap dominance, dissecting defensive intentions at the line of scrimmage and identifying soft spots before attacking them, often repeatedly in the same area. But the Seahawks rarely blitz, and in terms of defensive alignment generally look the same before every snap. In other words, there won't be much for Peyton to dissect. The Seahawks essentially do the same thing every week, and every down. They line up at their usual spots, and play fast and physical.
Readers of the weekly Matchups column know Seattle LCB Richard Sherman won't shadow Demaryius Thomas on Super Bowl Sunday. Sherman plays strictly left corner and some slot in deeper sub-packages, where he'll spend most of this game taking on Z receiver Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas on a handful of downs. Rather, Demaryius will run the majority of his pass routes versus RCB Byron Maxwell, an impressively physical 6-foot, 202-pound presence who's proven an upgrade on suspended Brandon Browner since inheriting the starting job seven games ago. Per Pro Football Focus, Maxwell has allowed just 25 receptions among 53 targets (47.2%) into his coverage this season, for 313 yards (5.91 YPA) and two touchdowns. Maxwell has four picks.
Thomas (Maxwell) and Decker (Sherman) have the toughest matchups on the perimeter. Orange Julius and Wes Welker won't get easy coverage draws, either, but I think they are the two biggest keys to Denver's chances of playing chain-moving pass offense in Super Bowl 48. Expect Welker to spend most of Sunday in Seahawks slot corner Walter Thurmond III's coverage, while Julius moves around the formation and gets looks against a variety of defenders. Thomas runs better than WLB K.J. Wright and is more fluid than SS Kam Chancellor, so when they clash I expect Peyton to attempt to exploit those matchups. The Seahawks will likely counter as they always do -- by getting physical with Thomas and disrupting him at the line of scrimmage. Denver's pass catchers won't get clean releases into their routes.
From a toe-to-toe perspective, the single biggest advantage Seattle has over Denver is its smash-mouth rushing attack keyed by chin-checking hammer back Marshawn Lynch. Although the Broncos' run defense statistics improved on paper in January, the playoff numbers look so good because Denver has grabbed early leads and forced opponents to become one dimensional. I do not believe they're a good bet put the Seahawks in a significant early-game hole.
Depleted up front as explained above, the Broncos coughed up 583 yards and five TDs on 137 carries (4.26 YPC) across their final five regular season games. The 4.26 yards-per-carry average allowed would've ranked 21st in the NFL. It's no coincidence that those numbers coincide with LE Derek Wolfe's (seizures) absence. The Seahawks play top-four rushing offense in both yardage and attempts per game, and with the ground attack can limit Peyton's field time by controlling time of possession. Seattle OC Darrell Bevell typically doesn't devise opponent-specific game plans, but his weekly routine is inherently opponent specific in this instance. The Seahawks can do what they do best against a relatively soft Denver front, and put clamps on the Broncos' strength in the process.
I still believe this will be a close, hard-fought Super Bowl, and games decided by three points or fewer can end up going either way. I like the Seahawks to prevail because I think they are a better top-to-bottom ballclub than the Broncos, and pose easily the most difficult matchup Peyton Manning has faced all year.
Score Prediction: Seahawks 23, Broncos 20
Seattle vs. Denver