SEATTLE -- As it was in Super Bowl XLVIII, the first snap of this rematch of February's blowout was not good for the Denver Broncos. And as it was in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seahawks and Broncos took time to feel each other out on both sides of the ball before any fireworks happened. And there was a safety in this game, though this time, it went in the Broncos' favor. The eventual result, a 26-20 overtime win for Seattle at its home stadium, surely felt the same to the Broncos, no matter how much more competitive the losing team may have been this time.
To a man, the Broncos said that they didn't feel the pangs of what happened in the Super Bowl in preparation for this matchup. But it was the first time the two conference championship teams faced each other in the following regular season since the Packers and Patriots did it in 1997, and there were those old familiar stories. Seattle was up 17-3 at the half, and for a little while, it appeared that the Broncos would be mulch for the Seahawks again.
And then, though it took nearly the entire game for them to do it, the Broncos wrestled those Super Bowl demons to a draw and showed that even when playing at CenturyLink field, normally the toughest away draw for any NFL team, they had more than enough desire to rewrite the story once told. The Seahawks thought they had the game wrapped up with 2:25 remaining in regulation when safety Kam Chancellor picked off a Peyton Manning pass at the Seattle 24-yard line and kicker Steven Hauschka kicked a 28-yard field goal on the subsequent drive to make it 20-12 with 59 seconds left. But Manning and the Broncos wouldn't go away.
Down eight points and starting at his own 20-yard line without any timeouts and only 59 seconds left, Manning took the Broncos on a thrill-ride of a drive in which he completed passes of 42, 12 and 26 yards to vaporize the Seahawks' vaunted defense in microwave time. One successful two-point conversion try later, and the Broncos were in business with a 20-20 tie game. However, Denver's dreams of revenge didn't last too long at all -- as long as it took Russell Wilson to drive the Seahawks down the field in overtime, and for Lynch to bull his way through to the end zone to end the game with 9:19 left in overtime.
"We knew this was going to be a prize fight type of environment," Denver head coach John Fox said after the game. "They are a very, very good football team, defending world champs. This is a very tough place to play."
Fox said that his defense kept the Broncos in the game, and this Denver defense certainly looked to be a major improvement over the previous version. But more than one Seahawks player said after the game that they were surprised by the conservative nature of Denver's offensive gameplan. Manning threw for 303 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on 31 completions and 49 attempts, but 80 yards came on that aforementioned drive, and as the second half mustered on, there were large stretches of time where Manning was looking balky in and out of the pocket, missing open targets and perhaps seeing the same ghosts he'd seen last February.
More and more as the game went on, Manning's throws, even when they were complete, weren't enough to hit first downs or sustain drives. The young Seattle secondary seemed to grow and gain confidence as this continued, playing at a higher speed and with more aggression. Seattle's linebackers closed up the gaps they left in coverage against the Chargers, and once again, every Denver completion was met with the same defensive response -- you can catch this, but it won't go very far, and it's going to hurt.
"Oh, sure -- he had happy feet," defensive end Michael Bennett said of Manning. "Any quarterback who gets hit like that, they're going to get a little bit of happy feet. But he came back and bounced back and made some good throws on that last drive to tie the game."
And those good throws, coming as they did one week after the normally stern Seattle defense allowed three touchdowns to San Diego tight end Antonio Gates, raised cause for concern. Cornerback Byron Maxwell, the same bookend for Richard Sherman he was in the Super Bowl, was targeted and exploited to a point in this game. He said that he missed the coverage on the 42-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders that took the ball from the Denver 20-yard line to the Seattle 38, and other Seattle defenders broke down concepts that they hadn't specifically seen and practiced against.
"Yeah, it was stuff we hadn't gone over -- it's a really tough route versus the defense we run, and between the busted play and the corner, we've got to be able to see that and get really good depth," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "That was me on that side on the second one. We've just got to get good depth and know that those are [coverage] beaters, especially in two-minute situations."
On offense, the Seahawks tried multiple little wrinkles with interesting results. Multiple fake sweeps to receiver Percy Harvin were simply decoys to take a Denver defense seemingly obsessed with running back Marshawn Lynch away from that primary target; receiver Jermaine Kearse completed a pass to quarterback Wilson early in the game; and Lynch himself was lined up as a flanker on one play, catching a pass on a slant route.
And when it was all said and done, it was Wilson who maintained the action, kept the drives going, kept his poise even after a howlingly bad fourth-quarter interception started to let Denver back in the game. While Manning the veteran moved between boom and bust, Wilson was the quarterback on a even keel. His 24 completions on 34 attempts for 258 yards and two touchdowns, plus 40 rushing yards on nine carries, told only part of the story.
"He's an amazing football player," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said of his quarterback. "He has the sense when to get out, when to go, and also the savvy about making the first downs. It's really hard to stop us in that situation when we have it going, because he's so good at it. We were in semi-hurry up mode right there [in overtime] to put us in that situation, and when you give him those spread field opportunities, he has the open-field awareness to make something happen."
Broncos receiver Wes Welker, returning from a league suspension for violation of the NFL's policies on performance-enhancing substances (and perhaps wishing he was still suspended after safety Earl Thomas poleaxed him on Chancellor's interception return), may have summed it up most simply and succinctly.
"I just tried to help out where I could. There are definitely plays you wish you could have back, but we didn't play at our best today. We came up short because of it."
It was a very different Broncos team facing a fairly similar Seahawks squad this time around, but one thing has been constant when it counts: Whatever Denver's best has been, it hasn't been good enough.