In an age of NFL parity, two epic heavyweights ready for the Super Bowl

It is only the second time in 20 years that the two No. 1 seeds are set to collide in the Super Bowl. The matchup also features the league’s best offense versus the league’s best defense – something that has happened only six times in Super Bowl history.

Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson stretches at their NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football practice in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Friday. The Seahawks will play against the Denver Broncos in the game on Sunday, February 2.

Even beyond the predictable hype and “Super Sunday” hyperbole, on proverbial paper this weekend’s Super Bowl matchup – a clash between two No. 1 seeds, featuring a record-smashing offense against a defense among the best in NFL history – just may be one of the greatest ever.

In an era that values parity, with the strictest salary-cap and revenue-sharing formulas in American sports, such epic heavyweight NFL clashes don’t happen very often.

Call it the NFL’s answer to income inequality: Under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, it distributes at least half of the $27 billion it expects from television revenues over the next decade to each of its 32 teams equally. Each team, too, has to cap its salaries at $123 million a year, though some teams are allowed to carry over cap space from years before.

That arrangement has hardly had a negative effect on viewership. While the television ratings of sports like baseball and basketball depend on annual superteam matchups, football gets by on its brand alone: Nearly every year, the Super Bowl ranks as the most-watched show of the year. The last four Super Bowls, in fact, are the top four programs in US history, in terms of most viewers.

“I think it works much better than virtually any other league,” says Jon Najarian, a former linebacker with the Chicago Bears who is now a senior economic analyst at the Chicago office of Capital Gold Group. “Everybody does some kind of attempt for parity ... but only the NFL has such a rich profit-sharing plan with the TV contract, so before you even open the doors, you’re guaranteed a profit as an NFL owner. And then it’s just a question of whether you screw it up.”

But even if an NFL team did “screw it up” – breaking the bank on Albert Haynesworth, say – the NFL’s wealth redistribution plan has been central in making NFL franchises the most valuable sports franchises in the world. Every single NFL team, in fact, is among the top 52 worldwide, according to Forbes. (The magazine lists the 50 most valuable, but points out that the St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars would be No. 51 and No. 52, respectively.)

Still, for fans, the Super Bowl doesn’t always feature what would be the equivalent of a Manchester United vs. Barcelona Champions League final, or a Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics final, or just having the Yankees in the World Series. In many ways, each of these sports relies on their dynasties and heavyweight rivals to fuel their championship frenzies.

For the NFL, however, the Super Bowl sells itself, year after year, no matter who plays.

Even so, when the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks (15-3) battle the AFC champion Denver Broncos (15-3) at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., this Sunday, fans hoping for a planet-shaking clash of football titans (though not the ones from Tennessee) are getting their wish.

And how. Never mind that it is only the second time in 20 years that the two No. 1 seeds are set to collide.

Never mind that the undisputedly best teams of the NFL this year also feature the league’s best offense versus the league’s best defense – something that has happened only six times in almost a half century of Super Bowl history. The last time was in 1991, when the top defense of the New York Giants defeated the top offense of the Buffalo Bills, 20-19, in Super Bowl XXV. (Somewhere, Scott Norwood is still shuddering.)

The Denver Broncos scored 38 points per game this season – an NFL record. And their indomitable quarterback, the ageless Peyton Manning, threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns – again, NFL records both.

The Seattle Seahawks have allowed just over 14 points per game this season, and their brash young cornerback, Richard Sherman, has collected more intercepted passes (20) in the past four years than any other player. His nearest CB competitor has 15. Sherman, however, has been playing only three years, making him the best interceptor by far.

“I think these are the two best teams in the NFL, and the best quarterback in maybe NFL history,” Sherman said Thursday. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for both sides, and I think that’s what makes the game so big.”

The Seattle defense not only allowed the fewest number of points this season, but it also ranked first in pass defense, with a cadre of enormous pass defenders known as the “Legion of Boom.” (Sherman and his fellow cornerback Kam Chancellor are both 6-foot-3.) Seattle has also forced the most turnovers in the league.

“I haven’t played against these guys in the regular season,” Manning said Thursday. “We just played them twice in the preseason, in the first half of both games, and I’m not sure how much weight that carries. Their intelligence, their ability to play together and communicate – that shows up just on the game film alone. I certainly know that will carry over when you actually get to play against them. You are playing against a smart, athletic defense.”

But don’t expect any dynasties quite yet. Both Seattle and Denver had two of the top three salary caps this year, since they were both able to carry more than $11 million in cap space from the year before. Most of that space was spent this season, however.

This doesn’t bode well for Seattle, especially, with its young, budding superstars like quarterback Russell Wilson, who is making just over $500,000 this year – a base salary that ranks 85th out of 120 active quarterbacks this year. Also, fellow budding superstar Sherman made a base salary of only $555,000, with another $600,000 cap bonus. More than 100 NFL cornerbacks make more than Sherman’s base salary, including two who make more in a week than he does all year.

Both will be in for huge raises in the next two years, but Seattle only has a little more than $2 million in extra cap space to carry over into next year.

“If we looked at Seattle, you would not have picked them to be where they are,” says Mr. Najarian, “because, gosh, you know, Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman were both taken in the mid rounds – they weren’t stars. And yet they are stars now, and they will be stars in the future, so someone is going to pay them.”

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