Thursday, January 30, 2014

Super Bowl 48 Prediction

Super Bowl 48 (I hate Roman numerals, Arabic numbering is where it's at) is right around the corner, but it seems to have built up without much build-up. Everyone knew there would be a lot of talk about Peyton Manning's legacy and what the game means to him, but most of the Media Day stuff that I've seen has been grasping at straws.  Since Marshawn Lynch doesn't want to talk to the media much and someone needs to write something about him and the game, then the story is about how he's not talking and what ramifications there should be. Richard Sherman was a huge story right after the NFC Championship game, but a lot of that died down once they realized he's pretty boring when he has time to prepare for an interview (and he wasn't just coming off making a huge play that sent his team to the Super Bowl). Even the weather doesn't seem to want to add to the drama. Sure, it'll be pretty cold out, but they're not calling for precipitation. At 39 degrees and cloudy with moderate wind, the players probably prefer it. It's actually shaping up to be better football weather than it was for Super Bowl 41, which also involved Manning. (That was the first Super Bowl I watched on an HD TV and I was amazed by the detail you could see in each little raindrop on the camera lens. So, it rained a lot for that game.)

What I find interesting is that most of the storylines I've seen are actually about the game. Number 1 defense vs. Number 1 offense. Manning vs. Sherman. Manning vs. the league's best secondary. Russell Wilson vs. inexperience. How does adding Percy Harvin to the mix affect the outcome of the game? A lot of it seems to be about match-ups and how there are a ton of talented guys on both sides of the ball on both teams.

That means it's gotta come down to intangibles, right? Each side has a lot of those, too. Wilson is playing like a ten year veteran, is tough under pressure and throws a mean deep ball, which shoots holes in any argument that says he's just a game manager. Even though Manning threw a highly questionable interception in last year's Divisional round, he's beginning to shake off his "choke artist" image. He's still extremely dangerous in the two minute drill, is highly competitive, and has the respect and admiration of his teammates. Having won a Super Bowl and lost one, he knows how important and difficult it is to just get to the game, so he has no doubt impressed upon everyone that they can't get overwhelmed by the enormity of the game itself. Pete Carroll -- God help me -- is coaching out of his mind and has provided tremendous energy and inspiration to his team. John Fox knows what it's like to coach in the Big Game and lose.

Both teams have overcome injury and adversity to get to this point. Hell, Fox had heart surgery during the season and came back to the sidelines. The fact that Manning and Fox have been here before gives the Broncos a slight advantage. I wrote in the preview for Super Bowl 45 that having previous Super Bowl experience gives you a minor edge in the first five minutes and the last five minutes of game time. For the first five minutes, players who haven't been there before will probably be too hyped up and are more likely to make a mistake. Wilson certainly looked jittery at the outset of the NFC Championship game, but he and the Seahawks were able to overcome it. If he makes another mistake and the Broncos are able to capitalize on it, Seattle is in real trouble. They're not really built to overcome a big deficit without a huge play like a kick return or defensive touchdown. For the last five minutes, you're able to draw from personal experience what you did -- or didn't do -- to win. You certainly remember how you felt when that last five minutes was over and that can be used to focus and motivate.

Ultimately, I don't think it comes down to Manning vs. anyone. I think it comes down to how the Denver receivers match up against the Seahawks cornerbacks. Seattle had the best pass defense in the league throughout the regular season. They have a phenomenal secondary. Their cornerbacks are big and physical and have had their way with opposing wide receivers -- two talented groups in New Orleans and San Francisco -- thus far in the playoffs.

Where I think the Broncos have the advantage is that three of Manning's top targets -- Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Julius Thomas -- are all big, physical guys. While I don't think that their physical stature gives them carte blanche to win every battle and get an easy release on every play, I think they're going to win more battles than they lose. When those guys win those match-ups, Manning will get them the ball. I think this is going to be a fairly boring, very well-executed game. I don't think there are going to be a lot of big plays and momentum shifts. I think Manning is going to do what he did for most of Super Bowl 41: Take what the defense gives him, win several small battles, and hope to catch them sleeping deep. He picked his spots and wore the Bears defense down. He won the battle of mental attrition and kept his focus. I think he's going to do the same thing on Sunday to the Seahawks.

I think Denver's defense matches up well against Seattle's offense. I think they have the speed to stay with the Seahawks' playmakers and the edge rushers to keep Wilson honest and in the pocket. Their secondary has some big holes in it, but a lot of secondary issues can be covered up by a solid pass rush.

The Wildcard here is Marshawn Lynch. For all their athleticism, the Broncos can be undisciplined and take bad angles to the ball. They also don't tackle that well. If someone on Denver's defense takes a bad angle and/or misses a tackle, then Lynch can do a lot of damage in a hurry. If he has a big game, that swings things in Seattle's favor. I don't think that's going to happen, I think the Broncos will contain him as long as they need to and the Seahawks will eventually need to abandon the run and go into "comeback mode" which takes Lynch out of the game. But, that's why he's the Wildcard: Because I think that, but I'm not feeling really confident about it.

To quote the great John Madden, "The team that's able to score the most points is the team that's going to be able to win this game." To put a finer point on that obvious statement, both these teams are going to need to be able to score touchdowns when it counts: Inside the red zone. During the regular season, Denver had the best red zone offense (72% touchdown conversion rate) and Seattle had the best (39% touchdown allowed percentage). Denver was 28th on defense (62% allowed) and Seattle was 14th on offense (53% converted). The last three games, both teams have been trending in the wrong direction. The Seahawks have yielded 57% on defense and converted only 25% of the time on defense. The Broncos are giving up 75% on defense and converting 57% on offense.

The big difference is that Denver takes a lot of trips inside the red zone: 4.3 per game this season and 4.7 per game in their last three games. The numbers for Seattle are 3.4 and a very distressing 2.7. Both teams have a lot of weapons and a lot of options when they get inside the 20. The Seahawks will most likely be challenged more often. Are they up to that challenge and can they continue to hold the Broncos to field goals? My gut says that they will eventually fade, or at least they'll fail more often than they succeed.

That's why I'm taking the Broncos.

Denver 27, Seattle 20

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