Rugged NFC West clearly prepared Seahawks for Super Bowl XLVIII

Tuesday February 4th, 2014

Teams in the NFC West combined to go a gaudy 42-22, five games better than the next best division.
Rod Mar/SI

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take one last look at Super Bowl XLVIII and it's aftermath. ...

• The blowout in Jersey may not have remotely lived up to its No. 1 versus No. 1 billing, but form definitely held in the Super Bowl in a way that was perhaps most telling in its outcome: The NFC West was best this season. And like Sunday night's game itself, it wasn't even close.

In retrospect, surviving and conquering the rugged and highly competitive NFC West clearly left Seattle well-prepared for a successful Super Bowl run in a way Denver was not coming out of the less-powerful AFC West. The outclassed Broncos (15-4) simply looked as if they had never seen a team quite as complete and dominant as the NFC champion Seahawks (16-3), with their young, athletic and aggressive defense, and that efficient, mistake-free offense.

Seattle owes at least a word of thanks to the rest of the NFC West for its readiness. The four teams in the NFC West this season combined to go a gaudy 42-22 (.656), a full five games better than the next best division, that being the AFC West (37-27, .578), won by Denver. The NFC West was the only division with three clubs reaching double-digits in wins (Seattle 13-3, San Francisco 12-4 and Arizona 10-6), and the lone division that featured four teams with winning records at home, with even 7-9 last-place St. Louis going 5-3 in its stadium. The Rams were the only team in the division to finish with a losing road record, at 2-6.

Sorry, Broncos, but Richard Sherman was telling the unvarnished truth when he said the NFC title-game victory over the 49ers was Seattle's Super Bowl. It was the only game in the playoffs in which the Seahawks ever trailed, or that truly tested Seattle's mettle. Two of Seattle's three losses this season came via division teams -- at San Francisco and against Arizona -- and it's no overstatement to claim the brand of ball being played in the NFC West today is clearly superior to elsewhere.

The Seahawks, 49ers, Cardinals and Rams play tenacious, hard-nosed defense, and feature some of the most athletic and aggressive defenders in the league. As a general rule, the NFC West tackles well, covers tightly and is studded with young defensive stars like those who populate Seattle's secondary (Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas), San Francisco's linebacking corps (Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith), Arizona's top-ranked run-stuffing defensive line (Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell), and St. Louis' sack-happy defensive front (Robert Quinn, Chris Long and Michael Brockers).

All four defenses ranked in the top nine in the league in stopping the run, in the top 13 in scoring defense, and three of the NFC's West four teams (all but St. Louis) were in the NFL's top 14 against the pass. They know how to play defense in this division, and that defensive dominance helped decide the Super Bowl.

Offensively, the NFC West isn't known for its dynamic passing games. Only Arizona, at No. 13, finished in the top half of the league in terms of yards through the air. But the division can run the ball effectively, with San Francisco and Seattle ranked Nos. 3-4 on the ground, respectively, thanks to the work of Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick for the 49ers, and Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson for the Seahawks.

Arizona and St. Louis found improved running games this season thanks to a pair of rookies in the Cardinals' Andre Ellington and the Rams' Zac Stacy. And the division isn't exactly devoid of receiving playmakers with the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, Tavon Austin, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Percy Harvin on hand.

What a deep and talented division the triumphant Seahawks sit atop. The NFC West has come an astonishingly long way since the dark days of 2010, when Seattle became the first division winner in league history with a losing record (7-9). But clearly it is now the NFL's elite address. The NFC West played the best football all season in 2013, and then the division's battle-tested champion team blew out the best of the rest in the Super Bowl. Now that we take a closer look at it, maybe Seattle's dominance was on display all year long, and Sunday night's outcome shouldn't have shocked us quite as much as it did.

• We seemingly always fall in love with our new Super Bowl champion every year, but dynasty talk does seem pure folly in today's NFL. I would remind you that no NFC champion has repeated since the 1996-97 Green Bay Packers, with a whopping 12 NFC teams winning the 16 conference titles since then. In that span, only Detroit, Dallas, Minnesota and Washington haven't made a Super Bowl trip out of the NFC.

By comparison, over that same span of 16 seasons, only seven AFC teams have won conference titles, with nine of the AFC's 16 teams failing to reach the Super Bowl. Statistically speaking, I suppose that means the Broncos have a better chance to return to the Super Bowl than the Seahawks. From 1998 on, only the Patriots, Colts, Steelers, Ravens, Broncos, Raiders and Titans have reached the Super Bowl from the AFC, with the last repeat champion being the 2003-04 Patriots.

That caveat offered, I do love Seattle's blend of youthful talent, its recent record of finding players throughout the draft and among the collegiate free-agent ranks, and the vibe established by the management tandem of head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. The Seahawks certainly seem built to have a long and sustained Super Bowl window of opportunity. But I do remember most of us thinking and saying the same thing about the young and talented Packers after their Super Bowl victory three years ago, and Green Bay is still waiting for that return to the Big Game.

Bottom line? Stuff happens in the NFL, and you can't predict it. Seattle looks loaded. But the Seahawks are also in a very tough division, and only one game separated them and the 49ers this season, meaning it could easily have been Seattle taking entirely to the road in the playoffs while San Francisco stayed home. The playoffs could have played out entirely differently in that scenario.

• I did think of one Super comparison, however, that Seattle fans will like. Here goes:

They had a re-tread hire as a head coach who had failed in his first NFL opportunity to call the shots, and had to go back to the defensive coordinator level to help rebuild his reputation. Both men briefly -- and we do mean briefly -- coached the Jets.

They had an undervalued starting quarterback who had a chip on his shoulder because of how long he lasted in the draft, and wound up using that as motivation to overachieve.

And they had a largely no-name defense built around players who were either overlooked elsewhere or went lightly regarded in the draft. But they meshed into a cohesive and productive unit, perfectly complementing an offense that was built around a power running game and an efficient passing game.

The 2013 Seahawks? I was thinking the 2001 New England Patriots. And maybe that's the best possible case to make for a coming Seattle dynasty.

• So, what happens if Peyton Manning and the Broncos push the rock back up the hill and wind up winning the Super Bowl next season? I'm not predicting it, but it's not that far-fetched a notion. Will everyone who made the argument that he tarnished his legacy in Sunday night's debacle of a loss to Seattle then pivot and opine that he secured his legacy with that slightly-delayed second Super Bowl ring, earned in the twilight of his career?

You bet they will, and for me that's why it seems sillier all the time to have a legacy tracker running in real time. If it takes two Super Bowl wins to get him on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks, no matter what else he accomplishes, a lot of folks are going to have to eat some pronouncements they made this year when he's on the victory podium next year in Arizona.

• And while we're on the never-ending legacy issue, what about John Elway's legacy? Did it get impacted in any way by the Broncos' meltdown? I mean, the Denver football czar is now 2-4 in Super Bowls with the Broncos, with this one being his first as an executive in charge of the team he once quarterbacked.

Manning is 1-2 in Super Bowls, and if he had some legacy on the line Sunday night, so did Elway to a degree. He's the one who went out and signed Manning.

Not that I'm taking this discussion seriously.

• Hey, who knew Denver's 40-10 loss to Seattle in Week 2 of the preseason would wind up being its best effort of the year against the Seahawks? That was only a 30-point blowout, not 43-8. Elway reportedly let his team have it in August after the loss in Seattle, challenging its focus and desire to be great. But maybe that outcome wasn't so flukey.

• This was the second year in a row the Broncos have had their season ended by the Super Bowl champions. So there's that. And for three years running, Denver has lost to a team that made the Super Bowl. The Broncos got knocked off by Baltimore in that double-overtime AFC divisional round classic last season, and lost to eventual AFC champion New England in 2011.

The Ravens are the only AFC Super Bowl winner of recent vintage. The NFC has won four of the past five Super Bowls and five out of seven dating from the Giants' upset of the undefeated Patriots after the 2007 season.

• That settles it. The next time the Super Bowl features a newbie QB starter against an experienced Super Bowl starter, I'm taking the fresh face. Russell Wilson beating Peyton Manning made it four wins in a row over the guy with Super Bowl experience. The Giants' Eli Manning started the trend by besting Tom Brady in 2007; the Saints' Drew Brees beat Peyton Manning in 2009; and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers defeated Ben Roethlisberger in 2010.

And this stat is an eye-opener: In the past seven seasons, the tandem of Brady and Peyton Manning have made the Super Bowl four times, and are 0-4.

• Wilson is now a remarkable 28-9 in his first two NFL seasons, including 4-1 in the playoffs. No NFL quarterback has more wins in 2012-13, and he just won the mother of all tiebreakers with Peyton Manning, who is 28-8 in his two-year Denver tenure.

And Wilson, 25, joined a pretty select five-man club with a Super Bowl victory at age 25 or younger. The others? Joe Montana and Joe Namath were 25, Brady was 24, and Roethlisberger was 23. Those five quarterbacks have won a combined 11 rings.

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