The grand finale of the National Football League season, Super Bowl XLVIII, will be decided this Sunday night when the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos meet at chilly MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. In a dream match-up, the championship will pit the league’s most potent offense ever in Denver against Seattle’s hard-hitting, number-one ranked defense. Legacies will be cemented, superstars created, and plays immortalized as the final seconds tick off the clock and a champion is crowned.
The two players who have the most to lose and yet far more to gain this Sunday are undoubtedly the two quarterbacks. Polar opposites in many ways, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson put to rest theories that one style of quarterback is necessary to be successful in the NFL.
Broncos quarterback Manning, who is entering the twilight of his career and certainly fits the prototypical mold, may only be a win away from establishing himself as the greatest quarterback to ever play. This season, his 14th , saw him set the all-time single season record for passing touchdowns and yards, and for his entire career, Manning ranks second in yards and touchdowns. Another Super Bowl championship, his second, would cement his legacy as one of the greatest to ever play.
Do not expect to get Manning to talk legacy just yet though, as the quarterback deflected questions on Media Day Tuesday concerning this subject, telling reporters at ESPN, "I'm down the homestretch of my career, but I'm still in it. It's not over yet. And so it's still playing out. This has been the second chapter of my career.” Adding further, “I'm not even 100 percent sure what the word [legacy] even means."
Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson is only in his second season as a pro and defies the traditional mold. Along with his diminutive stature, Wilson is a scrambling quarterback with excellent accuracy. He avoids turning the ball over and allows his running game to open up big plays in the secondary. A Super Bowl victory for Wilson would launch the young player into super stardom immediately and draw comparisons to another legend who won young, Tom Brady. Although at the onset the two may not seem to share much in common, digging deeper uncovers their similarities.
With a win, Wilson and Brady would both find themselves on a short list of players who have won Super Bowls in their first two seasons and would have done so due to a terrific defense and a strong rushing attack. Statistically, Brady’s first two seasons saw the quarterback throw for over 6,600 yards on a 63% pass completion rate with 46 touchdowns to 26 interceptions, all while leading his team to a 20-10 record. Wilson has started his career throwing for 6,475 yards on 64% passing, throwing 52 touchdowns to 19 interceptions and producing a 24-8 record in that time. If Wilson is able to pull out a victory, fans can expect to hear this comparison for years to come.
A story line that has followed Denver and specifically Wes Welker since their conference championship win is the Broncos propensity to use “pick” plays to free up space for their wide receivers. Instead of discussing this further, we are better off using it as a launch point to discuss what should be the most important stat of the game, yards after catch (YAC).
It is well known that the Broncos employ a variety of different looks before the ball is snapped and various chips and hedges to create space for their wide receivers. This year’s Broncos team led all of football in YAC with 2,751, amounting to 172 yards per game. Just looking at total YAC, the Broncos gained only 69 yards fewer than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers threw for all season.
What is probably less well known is that the Seahawks defense gave up far and away the fewest total YAC, surrendering only 85 yards per game, 12 less than the second place New Orleans Saints. When safety Earl Thomas III was asked to comment on the Denver pick plays, he told NFL.com reporters that the Seahawks would be ready.
"They don't want our big corners to press or they don't want us to mess up the timing, so getting us in condensed formations ... bunch formations, but we know that,” Thomas said. “We understand how teams want to attack us. That’s the beauty of it.” The Seattle secondary will have its hands full with Denver, and depending on which way the advantage goes in YAC could play largely into the outcome of the game.
The other key stat to this affair, which will have its biggest impact in the first half while the score is likely to stay close, is the nearly 10% gap between Denver’s offensive and Seattle’s defensive efficiency on third down. Denver’s 46% conversion rate ranks second in the NFL and the offense’s ability to stay on the field and convert third downs early in games allows the team to get out to big leads.
Seattle, on the other hand, can stomach early rust from its quarterback or running game with a defense that only allows opposing offenses to convert 35% of the time. If the offense is not clicking right away, the Seahawks defense will need to be as stingy as ever on third downs against Manning in order to keep the game tight.
As with the key stats, the crucial matchup of this game features Seattle’s defense and Denver’s offense, specifically the middle of the Seahawks defense and the interior weapons of the Broncos offense. Denver relies heavily on completing passes in the middle of the field to draw safeties in and open up options along the sidelines. Running back Knowshon Moreno, tight end Julius Thomas and slot receiver Welker make a living 0-10 yards from the line of scrimmage where the three combined for 198 catches and 25 touchdowns this season. Manning himself threw 37 of his 55 touchdowns from behind the line of scrimmage up to 10 yards, clearly showing a propensity to throw short and give his players a chance to run.
Up the middle, Seattle is the fastest and hardest-hitting team in football. Anchored by middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas III, the Seahawks consistently break up plays in the middle of the field and force turnovers when the quarterback is only slightly off the mark. Wagner, Thomas and Chancellor combined for 324 tackles, 10 interceptions, 20 pass defenses and 3 forced fumbles this season. Factor in the speed of Wagner and Thomas to make up ground and the hard hits from Kam Chancellor and you can imagine why quarterbacks and wide receivers hate playing through the middle against the Seahawks.
The storylines, metrics and matchups for Super Bowl XLVIII come together to create the potential for a truly fascinating game, and if this contest is able to live up to the hype, this Super Bowl might be one we never forget.