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Super Bowl XLVIII Preview: Denver’s Offense or Seattle’s Defense
By Matt Horkman

For the fifth time in Super Bowl history, the No. 1 scoring offense meets the No. 1 scoring defense.

The Broncos enter the big game having had an historic season. They won an AFC best 13 regular-season games, in large part because of quarterback Peyton Manning. In 18 games this season, Manning has 59 touchdown passes and 6,107 yards. That’s an average of about 339 yards and three touchdowns per game. The Broncos are the first team in league history to have five players to score 10 or more touchdowns. They’re also the only team in league history to score over 600 points.

As football fans, we tend to flock toward high-octane offenses. The Broncos certainly fit that mold. History, however, shows that defense reigns supreme. The No. 1 scoring defense is 3-1 in Super Bowls against the No. 1 scoring offense with wins from the '90 Giants, '84 49ers, and '78 Steelers. Only the '89 49ers -- who may have been the greatest team in history -- proved to be an exception, as they defeated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. Like the '89 49ers before them, this year’s Broncos hope they’re also an exception.

Timing is crucial to Denver’s success. It’s one of the reasons why Manning’s arguably the most successful quarterback in history. As a player, Manning isn’t the most physically gifted quarterback in the game. There has never been once in his career where he has had the game’s strongest arm. He also lacks the mobility to extend plays out of the pocket, but he has maxed out his skills through dedication, intelligence, and preparation. Throughout the season and during the off-season, Manning works extensively with his receivers on establishing their timing. This makes it easier for Denver’s passing game to get into a rhythm, but it also plays right into Seattle’s strength. 

The Seahawks pride themselves on disrupting timing patterns. They’re constantly harassing receivers downfield. What makes them dangerous, especially in the secondary, is their attitude. They don’t care about their reputation or about penalties. They actually led the league with 13 pass interferences. Their theory is that the officials won’t call holding or pass interference on every play no matter how much they commit these fouls.
Peyton Manning
What makes Denver tricky to defend, though, is their lack of a primary receiver. They have players talented enough to fill the role, to be sure, but Manning’s No. 1 receiver is the open receiver. Unlike San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, I don’t expect Manning to test Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. He’ll also probably try to avoid safety Earl Thomas, who will look to takeaway the middle of the field from Denver tight end Julius Thomas. Manning’s decision-making will have a profound impact on this game. Many praised his quick decisions against New England in the AFC championship. Denver’s offensive line also received its share of praise for giving their quarterback a clean pocket.

The Seahawks aren’t the Patriots, though. In fact, no AFC team can compete with Seattle’s talent on the defensive side of the ball. The Seahawks' front seven is big, powerful, and fast. Unlike most teams, they don’t depend too much on a variety of looks to generate pressure. Simply put, their guys are going to lineup and beat the opponent across from them. They’re about as throwback as it gets in today’s NFL.

Because of Seattle‘s talent, the onus is on the offense to adjust. One way to keep the Seahawks' pass rush at bay is to attack them with short passes. Another way is to run the football, though Seattle allowing just 3.9 yards per carry during the regular-season. Two weeks ago, against San Francisco, they allowed 161 yards on 28 carries. However, Kaepernick accounted for 130 of those yards on 11 runs. San Francisco’s running backs finished the game with 17 carries for 31 yards. Unless Manning has been hiding a hidden running ability his entire career, Denver’s running backs are going to need to outperform San Francisco’s in order for the Broncos to produce on the ground.

The matchup looks enticing. You have a legendary quarterback facing the best defense in football. You also have the game’s best receiving corps going up against the best secondary. Still, not many people -- especially the NFL -- want to acknowledge the x-factor in this game.

The officiating.

Seattle fans recall the atrocious officiating in Super Bowl XL, which contributed to their loss to Pittsburgh. How will the officials react to the aggressiveness from Seattle‘s secondary? Will they allow Denver to get away with illegal picks?

Teams have been running illegal picks for decades now. For the most part, the NFL doesn’t care, so Denver’s pick plays are mostly inconsequential to the game’s outcome. You don’t win or lose a game on those route concepts. You may win a play. You may win several plays, but it’s never enough to carry you to victory by itself, so there’s never much fuss about it.

You do win or lose base on your defensive philosophy, though. Seattle's not going to change their style for one game, so you can expect a lot of complaining from Denver’s receivers throughout the course of the evening. I suspect the Broncos' coaching staff will work the officials before and during the game.

If the officials aggressively call penalties on Seattle’s secondary, the advantage goes to Denver. This postseason, though, the officials have done the opposite. They’ve kept their flags in their pocket. The script says the officials will call this game like this year’s 10 postseason games. If the officials are true to the script on Sunday, then Seattle’s defense has the advantage in this matchup.

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