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by Frank Scicchitano

NFL fans will be treated to an old-fashioned heavyweight battle in Super Bowl XLVIII this Sunday. Peyton Manning and the AFC Champion Denver Broncos will take their record-setting aerial attack to East Rutherford, N.J., to challenge the NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks and their ferocious defense.

Las Vegas oddsmakers have slated the Broncos as an early favorite. It is difficult to justify betting against a team led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback with plenty of Super Bowl experience, but my purpose in writing this article is to tell my readers why the Seahawks, two-and-a-half point underdogs, will emerge victorious.

Before I get into supporting my claim, let me first lay out the basic statistics that everyone should know going into the matchup. The Seahawks boast the league’s No. 1 ranked defense, allowing just 273.6 yards and 14.4 points per game.

They will be tasked with shutting down a Denver Bronco offense that scored at a blistering pace this season, averaging 37.9 points and 457.3 yards per game, both league highs.

More specifically, the matchup to watch will be Manning and his plethora of wide receivers against Richard Sherman and the Seattle secondary known as the “Legion of Boom.” The Broncos picked apart opposing defensive backfields all season, putting up a ridiculous 340.2 pass yards per game. Conversely, the Seahawks have allowed only 172 yards per game through the air and have intercepted 28 passes on the season, including eight by Sherman.

The Seahawks will prevail at MetLife Stadium on Sunday because defense wins championships. It is one of the oldest clichés in the history of sports, but at the end of the day it cannot be denied. Seattle matches up against the Broncos better than any team Denver has faced all season, particularly in the secondary.

At 6-foot-3-inches, Sherman, a big physical corner, will likely be tasked with covering Manning’s favorite target Demaryius Thomas for the majority of the game. Thomas, who led all NFL wide receivers with 14 touchdown receptions, is one of the most talented young receivers in the league. His size and speed make him very difficult to stop, but corners like the Patriot’s Aqib Talib have shown that it can be done.

In two matchups against the Broncos this year, Talib managed to handle Thomas pretty well. In the AFC Championship game, it wasn’t until Talib left the game with a season-ending injury that Thomas began shredding the Patriots secondary.

The talent in the defensive backfield doesn’t stop with Sherman. Third-year corner Byron Maxwell has proven to be a more than capable replacement for the suspended Brandon Browner. Hard-hitting safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are two of the best in the game and will make it very difficult for Manning to throw down the field.

Denver’s Thomas said in a press conference last weekend that he welcomes the opportunity to line up against Sherman and looks forward to the chess match against the Seattle defense. His confidence is admirable, but he should be careful what he wishes for. After all, this is a Seahawk defense that held All-Pro Larry Fitzgerald to just five catches and 35 yards in two games this season and made the Saints’ Jimmy Graham a complete non-factor in a NFC Divisional Round game.

The Broncos have done a good job keeping Manning protected this season, and his quick release and unprecedented decision- making helps him stay off the ground as well. However, when a secondary provides airtight coverage like the Seahawks do, pass rushers are able to pin their ears back and really attack the quarterback.

Seattle has tallied 44 sacks on the season. Although this is not necessarily an eye-popping total, the Seahawks have a number of different players that can get after the quarterback. Defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril combined for 16.5 sacks in the regular season while middle linebacker Bobby Wagner has five of his own. There is no doubt that Manning will be feeling the pressure on Sunday night, and that could certainly have an impact on his performance.

On a night when the marquee matchup will be a quarterback and his receivers against corners and safeties, the production of both team’s running backs will play a major factor in determining the games’ outcome.

One of the biggest keys for the Seattle will be to avoid getting beaten by running back Knowshon Moreno. While Denver’s offense is primarily pass-oriented, Moreno did manage to amass 1,038 rushing yards in the regular season, including 224 against the Patriots in Week 12. It is undeniable that the Broncos are going to move the ball and gain yards through the air, so it will be imperative for the Seahawks to shut down their rushing attack and not give up any unnecessary yardage.

Seattle should be able to achieve this thanks to defensive tackles Tony McDaniel and Brandon Mebane as well as Wagner, the team’s leading tackler. If Moreno and his backup Montee Ball are taken out of the equation, the Broncos will be forced to test the Seahawk’s secondary more than he may have anticipated—a test that even the great Peyton Manning may have trouble with.

Marshawn Lynch, Seattle’s running back, will play a major role in controlling Manning’s production as well. “Beast Mode” ranked sixth in the NFL with 1,257 regular season rush yards and was tied for first with 12 touchdowns on the ground. The Seahawks will need to control the ball and keep Manning on the sidelines as much as they can. A productive day from Lynch will certainly help the cause.

Denver’s run defense has not been tested a lot this season because their opponents always found themselves airing it out and playing catch-up on the scoreboard. In their Week 15 loss to the Chargers, the Broncos allowed 127 yards and a touchdown to the Bolts’ running back Ryan Mathews. The Chiefs’ Jamaal Charles had two solid games against the Broncos as well, tallying 171 yards and a touchdown in both contests combined.

Lynch is a completely different animal compared to Mathews and Charles. He is the premier power running back in the NFL and the Broncos have not seen anyone quite like him all season. Denver’s nose tackle Terrance Knighton should be able to clog a lot of the running lanes, but don’t be surprised if Lynch finds his way into the second level of Denver’s defense.

Seattle will have to feed the ball to Lynch and be very efficient in the passing game if they want to control the clock and keep Denver’s offense on the sideline. Winning the time-of-possession battle seems to be the blueprint for stopping Manning and the Broncos. Phillip Rivers and the Chargers did this more effectively than anyone during the regular season when they controlled the ball for almost two-thirds of each of their regular season games with Denver.

Although San Diego only won one of those games, Manning struggled to get in rhythm and was visibly frustrated during those games. The Seahawks offense operates similar to the Chargers’ and quarterback Russell Wilson is capable of playing a smart and efficient game to help his team hold on to the ball. This will also allow the defense to stay fresh and continue to keep the pressure on the Bronco’s offense.

With all these big-time matchups to look forward to, it still seems that the weather has been the main topic of everyone’s conversations surrounding the game. Both teams have been tested in the elements this season, and both have performed very well. The temperature will not bother either team, but the potential precipitation could have a major impact on the Broncos ability to throw the football.

If a wintry mix begins to fall over the stadium, the Seahawks would be the favorites solely because of their style of play. Their physical, ground-and-pound offense is catered more toward wetter weather than the Broncos aerial assault. From a fan standpoint, I hope  the only element present on Sunday is the cold temperatures, because both teams should be able to handle that with relative ease and neither team would be disadvantaged.

The Seahawks have a tall task ahead of them, but I believe their physical offense and relentless defense can lead them to the promise land and help them hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

Score Prediciton:

Seahawks 27 Broncos 24

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