Super Bowl XLVIII set to be battle of league's finest; more Snaps

Monday January 20th, 2014

Peyton Manning (top) and his record-setting offense will face Seattle's league-best D in the Super Bowl.
Elaine Thompson/AP

SEATTLE -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from the NFL's western-based Championship Sunday. ...

• The novelty may be that for once this Super Bowl matchup doesn't even require the hype. What more really needs to be sold or said than it'll be the No. 1-seeded Seattle Seahawks against the No. 1-seeded Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey two weeks from tonight? It'll be the league's finest offense (the record-setting Broncos) against the league's finest defense (those big-talking Seahawks), in a classic showdown of clubs that have compiled NFL-best 15-3 records and set the pace in their respective conferences all season long.

This is a game we've been eyeing for months now, and the kind of pairing we so rarely get. Only one of the past 20 Super Bowl matchups has given us a collision of two No. 1 seeds, with that coming four years ago in South Florida, when the Saints upset the Colts and won the first NFL championship in New Orleans franchise history.

This time around, it'll be the Seahawks who will be the slight underdogs, trying to win their first Super Bowl title against the same Hall of Fame-bound quarterback that the Saints vanquished four years ago: Peyton Manning. He's a second-year Bronco now instead of a long-time Colt, but the sight of Manning matching wits with Seattle's star-studded secondary is reason enough to watch what unfolds at MetLife Stadium on the night of Feb. 2.

MORE AFC COVERAGE: Peyton flips script on Brady | Highs, lows | SI's best photographs

Both teams tuned up on Sunday doing what they do best. The Broncos racked up a ridiculous 507 yards of offense and scored on six consecutive possessions in their 26-16 defeat of visiting New England in the AFC Championship Game. The Seahawks had a tougher struggle, but prevailed 23-17 over defending NFC champion San Francisco thanks to three clutch fourth-quarter takeaways, the last of which came on linebacker Malcolm Smith's game-clinching interception in the end zone with 22 seconds remaining. That play, which was made possible by cornerback Richard Sherman's remarkable pass deflection, proved again how clutch Seattle's defense has been this season. Defense is how Seattle got here, and it saved the day on Sunday.

Here's what should do most of the talking for the coming weeks: The measure of excellence these two teams have achieved for the past 20 weeks. Seattle's defense gave up a league-low 14.4 points and 273.6 yards per game this season. Denver scored an NFL-record 37.9 points per game, becoming the first team to top 600 points, and rolled to a league-high 457.3 yards per game.

MORE NFC COVERAGE: Harbaugh humble in defeat | Highs, lows | Sherman's epic rant

"It's an extraordinary opportunity to go against a guy that set all the records in the history of the game, and the incredible production that they put up this year,'' said Seattle's Pete Carroll, who will be making his first Super Bowl trip in eight years of NFL head coaching. "What a great challenge. [Manning] deserves to be there because of what he's done this year with his team and that whole club, but we're not going to take the challenge lightly. We're going to go after this thing. These guys don't know any other way. But what a great matchup to go to New York.''

Indeed. Form doesn't hold very often in the NFL, but it did this time, and football fans should be rewarded with a strength against strength type of game of which the league has rarely been treated. If anything was going to counterbalance all the hand-ringing about the weather that might await in the first outdoor Northern Super Bowl, it was going to be a great matchup like Seahawks-Broncos, putting the focus back on the field instead of what the elements might be on gameday.

Both the Broncos and Seahawks -- who were onetime AFC West rivals -- have won once already this season in the Meadowlands, with Denver trouncing the Giants 41-23 on a Sunday night Manning Bowl showdown in Week 2, and Seattle dominating the Giants 23-0 in Week 15. A return trip has seemed a distinct possibility for these clubs for a while now, with Manning vying for his second Super Bowl ring in his third shot at the game's grandest sage, and Seattle's Russell Wilson becoming just the sixth quarterback to reach the Super Bowl in either his first or second season.

It's a Super Bowl that on paper has it all. And for a change, the over-the-top fanfare may not be needed. A Broncos-Seahawks matchup shapes up to be as good as it gets. All we can go on is that for the past five months in the NFL, nobody has done it better.

• I'm really not in favor of anything that makes the game more complicated from a rules standpoint, but it's clear the NFL has to find a way to review and correct a fumble play like the one that involved 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman in the fourth quarter of Sunday's NFC title game.

The league got lucky in that the call didn't cost San Francisco the game and spark days of controversy and debate, but Bowman clearly recovered the fumble by Seattle receiver Jermaine Kearse near the goal line and was on the field with possession of the ball. Then somehow he lost the ball in a scrum after his left leg was grotesquely bent beneath him, causing what the 49ers say is a likely ACL tear.

Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch came away with the ball, which the Gene Steratore-led crew of officials awarded the Seahawks, with the play not being reviewable. Fumble recoveries aren't reviewable unless they involve a boundary line or the end zone.

Only because Seattle went for it on fourth down on the following play -- with Lynch and Wilson botching the handoff and fumbling -- did the non-call on the Bowman recovery not become more glaring and an embarrassment to the league. The replay rules currently don't allow for fixing that kind of glaring error, but they should.

• Weird that two consecutive 49ers seasons basically have now ended on plays involving receiver Michael Crabtree in the back right corner of the end zone. In last year's Super Bowl, San Francisco thought Crabtree was interfered with by Baltimore on the game-deciding fourth-down incompletion. But no flag was thrown, and the Ravens got the big confetti shower.

Then, in Sunday night's thrilling conclusion to the NFC Championship Game, Crabtree was the intended receiver on the interception that Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith made in the 49ers end zone, with 22 seconds remaining.

In some respects, Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco club is establishing a reputation of sorts of coming up just short in big-game settings. From the three-point overtime loss to the visiting New York Giants in the 2011 NFC title game, to last year's Super Bowl near-miss, to the bitter defeat in Seattle, the 49ers have experienced a close-but-not-quite ending far too often of late.

I wonder what hurt worse for Harbaugh: Losing the NFC title game to his coaching rival, Pete Carroll, or dropping last year's Super Bowl against his brother, John?

• New England's loss at Denver shouldn't have been a huge surprise. From 2005 on, the Patriots are now 4-8 against teams in the playoffs that they also faced in the regular season. New England beat Denver 34-31 in overtime in Week 12. On top of that, Peyton Manning since 2008 is now 7-0 in rematch games against teams he lost to earlier in the season.

Teams that the Patriots beat in the regular season and then had their playoff run ended by includes this year's Broncos, the Ravens in 2010, the Jets in '09, the Giants in '07 and the Colts in '06.

• The book on beating Peyton Manning says you keep the ball away from him as much as possible and limit his time of possession, but the Patriots failed miserably following that guideline. Instead, the Broncos kept it away from Tom Brady. Denver won the time of possession stat by a gaudy 35:44 to 24:16, and the Patriots didn't launch their second drive of the second half until there were 12 minutes left in the game. The Broncos ran 71 plays to the Patriots' 56.

Making matters much worse, New England barely touched Manning all game long. He was knocked down once and hurried once, but he wasn't sacked and at one point completed 19-of-21 passes. New England just never flashed the speed needed in its pass rush to get to Manning, and he wound up picking apart the Patriots' over-matched secondary.

In his 14-season stay in New England, Bill Belichick's Patriots have never given up more yards (507) yards in a game, and Manning's 400 yards passing was the first time Belichick's New England defense has surrendered that many. The Broncos didn't commit a turnover, and punted just once -- their only punt so far of the postseason.

• John Fox one of only six coaches to take two different teams to the Super Bowl? I'm going to have to get used to that idea. But only one NFL coach has ever had a longer gap between Super Bowl trips, with Fox taking the 2003 Carolina Panthers to the Big Game, and then not repeating the feat for a whole decade, until his 2013 Broncos made the journey.

Dick Vermeil took the 1980 Eagles to the Super Bowl, then waited 19 years for the return trip with the 1999 St. Louis Rams -- with Vermeil out of the NFL and working in broadcasting for most of that interim. Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher, like Fox, had 10 years between his Super Bowl seasons. He led the 1995 Steelers and the 2005 Steelers to the game's grandest stage.

And here's a good omen for Denver fans: Both Vermeil and Cowher lost their first Super Bowl, but won a ring on their second shot. Fox and his Panthers lost narrowly to New England 10 years ago. Besides Fox, the other five members of the club are Bill Parcells, Mike Holmgren, Don Shula, Dan Reeves and Vermeil.

• Everybody knows the not-so-difficult decision to transition from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning at quarterback in 2012 was the biggest piece of the puzzle in Denver's drive to the Super Bowl. But Broncos football czar John Elway also had a supremely productive two days of free agency on March 12-13 of last year.

In that 48-hour span, Denver locked up some key components on this Super Bowl-bound 2013 club: starting guard Louis Vasquez (from San Diego); receiver Wes Welker (from New England); defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (from Jacksonville); and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (from Philadelphia). All of them showed up on Sunday against New England, and I'm not sure anyone made more of an impact than the underrated and disruptive Knighton, who had a key third-quarter sack, with two tackles for loss, four tackles and a quarterback hit. Time to give it up for Elway's work in free agency.

• Pretty cool little story that Manning raised $24,800 for his own charity by evoking the "Omaha'' call at the line of scrimmage 31 times against the Patriots in the AFC title game. Eight Omaha, Neb., businesses combined to donate $800 every time Manning said his favorite indicator word as part of his cadence calls. The "Peyback Foundation'' focuses on helping at-risk youth.

Commendable use of an odd little slice of Manning's always quirky line of scrimmage behavior. But I really don't want to read two more weeks' worth of stories about Manning shouting "Omaha.'' Who's with me on this one?

• Another year and another AFC title game that Patriots top cornerback Aqib Talib had to leave prematurely because of injury. Talib exited after a first-half knee injury, with Denver holding just a 3-0 lead at that point. It was very reminiscent of last January, when New England's chances to beat visiting Baltimore in Foxboro seemed to evaporate after Talib left the game in the first quarter with a thigh injury. The Ravens defeated the Patriots 28-13, with Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco exploiting Talib's absence.

Without a doubt, New England had a better shot at beating Denver with Talib on the field Sunday, but it's a stretch to call his injury the turning point. Even if Broncos receiver Wes Welker might have pulled off an illegal pick on the play Talib was hurt on. Talib's good, but he's not so good that he would have made all the difference against Manning and Co.

Denver pretty much moved the ball at will against New England, scoring on six successive possessions after a first-drive punt. Talib might have helped slow down the Broncos, but he wouldn't have stopped them. This was a game that Denver won decisively, and one injured player, no matter how important, wasn't going to change the outcome.

• So much for LeGarrette Blount becoming Mr. January in this year's Super Bowl tournament. A week after he almost single-handedly eliminated the Colts with his 166-yard, four-touchdown rushing performance, Blount disappeared in Denver. Almost totally. He finished with six yards on five carries, good for 1.2 yards per carry.

And don't blame the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Blame a Broncos' run defense that determined first and foremost that it would not be shredded the same way Blount had abused the Bills and Colts in New England's past two games. Denver's defenders were all over Blount before he could ever get a head of steam gathered on Sunday, and his long gain of three yards ranked him fourth among four Patriots rushers, with New England gaining just 64 yards on 16 carries overall.

• If you're not scoring at home, this is the fifth time in an eight-season span the Super Bowl will have a Manning starting at quarterback. It's becoming a rite of winter in the NFL.

Team Peyton went in 2006 and '09 with the Colts, going 1-1, and now Manning joins Kurt Warner and Craig Morton as the only starting quarterbacks to lead two different teams onto the big stage. Team Eli made Super Bowl trips in 2007 and '11, winning a pair of rings and beating New England both times.

The Mannings take a 3-1 overall Super Bowl record into the game against the Seahawks, with Peyton trying to win his second ring seven years after he won his first one. That would be the longest wait among winning starting quarterbacks in the game's history.

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