by Greg Habeeb
At some point, we have to recognize that the 2013 NFL season has just been the year of Peyton Manning.
We should have seen this coming in March, when the Denver Broncos signed former Patriots receiver Wes Welker to a two-year deal adding to an already potent offense, which scored 30.1 points per game the previous season and robbing Tom Brady, Manning’s archrival, of his favorite receiving target.
We should have seen this coming in September, when the Broncos opened their season against the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, who pulled off a stunning upset in last year’s playoffs, thanks to a near miracle pass from Joe Flacco in the waning minutes of regulation.
The Broncos throttled the former champs by a score of 49-27. Manning threw for 467 yards and tied an NFL record with seven touchdown passes, setting the tone for the rest of the season.
We should have seen this coming 19 days later, when ESPN aired a documentary called “The Book of Manning” detailing the story of Manning’s family, and focuses specifically on the football legacy left by his father, himself and his two brothers. The documentary was part of ESPN’s second straight night of Manning-centric programming; the previous night the Broncos’ quarterback shredded the passing defense of division rival Oakland on Monday Night Football.
We should have seen this coming in October and November, when Manning continued his sweltering pace. Over that seven-game span, Manning passed for 20 touchdowns and averaged 322 yards per game, numbers which somehow ended up being below his final season averages.
We should have seen this coming in December, a banner month for Manning as he broke the records for passing yards and passing touchdowns in a single season and was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. Manning would finish the regular season with 55 touchdowns, 5477 passing yards, a passer rating of 115.1 while completing over 68 percent of his passes.
The Broncos scored an NFL record 606 total points, good for a 37.9 per game average. Denver also secured the first overall seed in the AFC thanks to their 13-3 record.
We should have seen this coming in January, when, in the Divisional round, the Broncos drew a 9-7 Chargers team that barely made the postseason and had the fortune of playing the Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis led Bengals in round one. The Broncos won 24-17, though the game was never really that close, setting up a matchup with the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
We should have seen this coming two Sundays ago, when Denver temperatures inexplicably hit 60 degrees in January, and Manning torched the Patriots secondary for 400 yards without so much as breaking a sweat or getting a single grass stain on his uniform. In one fell swoop, Manning drew his playoff record (both all-time and against Belichick and Brady) to .500 and helped to bring Denver to its sixth Super Bowl in franchise history. As a proud member of the Patriots fandom, watching Manning slice and dice New England’s secondary for sixty minutes was like experiencing surgery without anesthesia, but even I had to marvel at the precision with which he totally dismantled the championship aspirations of my favorite team.
Now the Broncos face their toughest test of the season yet. The Seattle Seahawks are not the banged up Patriots. They are not the slightly-above-mediocre Chargers.
The Seahawks are without a doubt better than any other team in the AFC, and based on DVOA (or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, a stat which is a quick way to measure how well a team has performed all season) they have been the best team in the entire league by a solid margin.
Certainly, the case can be made for the Seahawks to win it all this Sunday and stop Manning’s dream season. In fact, at a glance, it seems like it would be foolish to even think about taking the Broncos over Seattle.
The Seahawks’ defense, for example, has all the tools to be able to stifle Denver’s passing attack. Richard Sherman matches up well against just about every receiver, and something tells me the 6-3 Compton native will be able to handle Demaryius Thomas a little more effectively than Alfonzo Dennard did in the AFC Championship game.
All-Pro safety Earl Thomas and his Pro Bowl battery mate Kam Chancellor are certified beasts. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is everywhere and is effective at both stopping the run and dropping back in coverage. Defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril can put tons of pressure on the quarterback.
Look, I get it. The Legion of Boom was the best defense in the NFL this year for a reason.
I also get that the weather is supposed to be less than conducive to the Broncos high octane passing attack, thanks to commissioner Roger Goodell’s brilliant idea to hold this year’s Super Bowl in an open air stadium in New Jersey rather than some place where winter weather doesn’t make everyone want to curl up into a ball and cry. I’m well aware that the narrative (fair or unfair) is that Manning struggles mightily in cold weather. After all, I am a Patriots fan.
The injury sheet too favors Seattle. Denver will be without their best defensive player in Von Miller as well as their best cornerback in Chris Harris. The Broncos also miss their All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, and center Dan Koppen never even played a down this season. Seattle, meanwhile, has made it to pro football’s biggest game practically unscathed in comparison.
You can think about those three things if you want, but then you have to remember that this is the Year of Manning, and that there’s no way that the Broncos will lose this game.
How will Seattle match up against the Broncos’ other weapons? It’s one thing to shut down one major piece to this vaunted Denver passing attack. It’s another problem entirely to stop every piece. If Manning can stay upright on Sunday, he will have time to dissect whatever coverage Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn might throw at him and find whatever Pro Bowl caliber receiver is open, be it Thomas, Welker, Eric Decker, tight end Julius Thomas or even running back Knowshon Moreno out of the backfield. The Seahawks have a terrific defense, but Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick are not Peyton Manning.
Seattle will also be a long way away from CenturyLink Field, rendering the strange voodoo power of the 12th Man irrelevant. Seattle was 7-1 at home this season, outscoring their opponents by an average of 15.4 points per game.
On the road, Seattle was still a stellar 6-2, however they only outscored their opponents by a more mortal average of 7.9 points per game. That’s a performance drop off of over a touchdown.
While the Super Bowl is on a neutral field, meaning neither team is supposed to have a home field advantage, I have a feeling that the Seahawks are going to suffer the ill side-effects of being away from home more so than the Broncos.
I’m also not sure what to make of the Seattle offense. Marshawn Lynch is a tremendous power back who is the toughest player to tackle one-on-one in the entire league, but the Broncos defense has improved as the season has gone on and has looked pretty solid in the postseason so far, especially against the run. The Chargers and Patriots mustered only 65 and 64 yards on the ground, respectively.
If Terrence “Pot Roast” Knighton and this Denver front seven can hold its own and slow down Lynch, the pressure will shift to quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson has been excellent in his short career, but it is hard to imagine him matching points with Manning, should the game turn into a shootout, especially with a receiving core lacking Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin.
Seattle is the best team in the NFC and a worthy challenger to the offensive juggernaut from Mile High. But this has been Peyton Manning’s year from the beginning, and what better way for number 18 to cement his place as the greatest quarterback of all time than in his little brother’s stadium, two weeks after slaying his arch nemesis?
We all should have seen this coming a long time ago.
Broncos 24 Seahawks 20