Call Off the Season: The Super Bowl Is Set
Four long months from today, the intriguing cold-weather Super Bowl that everybody has an opinion about will finally unfold at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. The real drama, of course, will be the historic wintry setting and the elements the game is played in, since we already know which teams will be vying for the Lombardi Trophy that night on the game’s grandest stage.
What’s that? Have you not been paying attention? Of course it’s going to be Denver versus Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII. Duh. That Super pairing has been obvious for days now, ever since both the Broncos and Seahawks posted perfect 4-0 Septembers and proved in their own separate way that no opponent will be able to block their path to the big party in the Garden State.
If this saves everyone some time for planning purposes, you’re welcome. I’m here to help. Consider it the 120-day (or so) warning.
I know, I know, there are three other undefeated 4-0s out there (New Orleans, New England and Kansas City), and in recent years, the Super Bowl always features at least one lower seed that gets hot late and rides that momentum all the way to the big game (see the Ravens last year, the Giants in 2011, the Packers in 2010, the Cardinals in 2008, etc.). And besides, the NFL is always unpredictable and makes that “Any Given Sunday’’ mantra come true every year, as it has for decades now.
Alas, we can all stash that little chestnut away for 2014’s regular season. For a change, the two best teams in the league in the season’s first month will also be the last two teams standing on Feb. 2. Book it. Oh, and someone should remember to call Vegas and break the news.
If you’ve been watching the season’s first four weeks play out, I should scarcely have to explain much of anything. Denver, with its so-good-it’s-ridiculous offense, has been scoring at a breathtaking pace and has the record-breaking Peyton Manning playing in shockingly career-best form. Seattle, with its intimidating and brash-talking defense, has risen to every challenge and features the NFL’s finest defensive play-maker in cornerback Richard Sherman.
One of them is headed for the league’s MVP award and the other is going to take home the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year trophy. And I don’t know about you, but the theater of Manning testing his arm in Sherman’s direction a dozen times or so on Super Bowl Sunday in the Meadowlands might make me tune in for more than all those clever new commercials.
But it’s not just Manning and Sherman who render the Broncos and Seahawks mortal locks. Far from it. Both Denver and Seattle have supremely talented and deep rosters, with play-makers galore and no shortage of motivation or confidence in their superiority. The Broncos burn with a sense of urgency brought on by Manning’s dwindling window of Super Bowl opportunity, while the more youthful Seahawks thrive on the belief and conviction that they are the team of now, with no time to waste before they scale the NFL summit.
You want numbers? Okay, I’ll give you numbers.
Denver is simply destroying opponents at home or on the road, winning its four games by a league-best average of 22 points per outing. Seattle is second in victory margin, at 15.5 points per game. The Broncos have scored in all but two of their 16 quarters this season, hitting double digits in points in 11 of those quarters. Denver has racked up at least 37 points in every game, and its 52-point mauling of the Eagles on Sunday at home represented the highest point total in the 54-season history of the franchise.
According to Tuesday’s New York Times, the Broncos’ 179 points are the second-most ever by a team in its first four games, trailing only the 1966 Cowboys, who scored 183 en route to a 10-3-1 first-place finish in the NFL’s eight-team Eastern Conference.
But Denver’s most absurd set of statistics, of course, belong to Manning, who is somehow better at 37, after 2011’s career-threatening neck issues, than he was at 27. Manning’s 16 touchdown passes with zero interceptions has never been done in a team’s first four games, and his seven-touchdown showing in Denver’s 49-27 humiliation of defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore in Week 1 established a career high and made him the first NFL quarterback in 44 years to throw that many in a game.
Statistically, the case for Seattle’s defense as the league’s best isn’t as overwhelming as it is for Denver’s offense. But you want to try telling the Seahawks that? By the eyeball test, nobody in the NFL is bringing it on defense like Seattle.
The Seahawks rank fifth overall in yards allowed (300.2 per game), but their 11.8 points per game given up is second only to Kansas City’s 10.3, and even that number is a bit deceiving. Up 38-7 at home against hapless Jacksonville in Week 3, the Seahawks called off the dogs against former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s team and gave up 10 meaningless second-half points in a 45-17 win.
Only Houston has really dented Seattle’s defense to any degree, but the Seahawks—who still showed the resiliency and resourcefulness to rally to a 23-20 win in overtime—actually shut out the Texans for three of the game’s four quarters, plus two overtime possessions, with Sherman making the game-turning 58-yard interception return for a touchdown with less than three minutes to go, forcing overtime. Just as Seattle safety Earl Thomas had done in Week 1 at Carolina, when he helped force a DeAngelo Williams fumble deep in the Panthers red zone with less than five minutes remaining in the five-point Seahawks victory.
But this Seattle team can beat you with offense too, and no team has the suffocating home-field advantage that Seattle currently wields at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks haven’t lost at home since Week 16 of 2011, with second-year quarterback Russell Wilson having never been defeated at the CLink (10-0 in the regular season, and 4-0 in the preseason). Who in their right mind would welcome a trip to Seattle in the playoffs?
And believe it or not, in news the rest of the NFL is not going to want to hear, the Seahawks and Broncos are about to get stronger and deeper. Denver will welcome leading pass rusher Von Miller back after the outside linebacker’s six-game NFL suspension ends in two weeks. And the Broncos’ best cornerback, veteran Champ Bailey, is getting closer to returning from the preseason foot injury that has cost him the season’s first four games.
In Seattle, speed rusher Bruce Irvin returned this week after his own four-game league suspension. He led all NFL rookies last season with eight sacks, and should boost a Seattle pass rush from his new role at outside linebacker. With the Seahawks' 2012 top pass rusher Chris Clemons (11.5 sacks last year) returning to the lineup in recent weeks and starting to round into form, Seattle should be able to do even better than its 11 sacks over the season’s first four games.
Two challenging road tests await this week for Denver and Seattle. The Broncos travel to Dallas, where the Cowboys are 2-0 at home, and the Seahawks are at 3-1 Indianapolis, where the Colts are 8-2 in front of their fans under Andrew Luck. But Seattle’s Wilson has yet to play on a stage that looked too big for him, and Manning continues to perform at the peak of his powers.
Truly, Denver's and Seattle’s toughest game is still four months away, when they reach the Super Bowl. It’s a long way off, but you can already see it coming. And this time, in a rarity for the NFL, what you see is what you get. The rest of the season? Just needless buildup and window dressing. Good thing we cut to the chase and saved you the trouble.