Super Bowl XLVIII preview: An early look ahead to Seahawks vs. Broncos
Considering how much effort teams expend during the regular season chasing the No. 1 playoff seed, the results do not often reward that pursuit. The last time both top seeds made the Super Bowl? During the 2009 season, when the Colts and Saints met. Before that? 1993, Buffalo and Dallas.
That's just twice in the past two-plus decades.
Denver and Seattle are the latest tandem into that group -- the best teams during the regular season and the best teams through the conference playoffs. It sets up what could be a captivating Super Bowl XLVIII, albeit one that will have a tough time matching Super Bowl XLVII or even this year's NFC title game between the Seahawks and 49ers.
What storylines will be picked apart over the coming weeks in the build up to that game? Audibles presents an early primer:
AFC champion: Denver Broncos
The Broncos may wish they were closing games with a little greater sense of urgency, but it's hard to nitpick their playoff efforts over the first three quarters. In two postseason games thus far, Denver has outscored its foes (San Diego and New England) by a combined 37-3 over the opening 45 minutes.
The offense, as we've all come to expect, has been potent: Peyton Manning threw for 400 yards and two TDs with a QB rating of 118.4 in Sunday's 26-16 win over New England. It is the defense, though, that may push the Broncos over the top for their first Super Bowl victory since Super Bowl XXXIII. Even down Von Miller and Chris Harris, among others, the Broncos flummoxed Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game.
Terrance Knighton has led the way up front, playing a huge role in Denver's suddenly potent rush D -- the Chargers and Patriots averaged just 64.5 yards on the ground. In the secondary, the resurgent Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the linchpin, even more so with Harris out of the lineup. Veterans like Shaun Phillips plus rising stars such as Danny Trevathan and Duke Ihenacho have helped transform what was the league's 22nd-ranked defense during the regular season into a reliable force.
All those names still take a distant backseat to Manning, who is now one win away from his second Super Bowl crown ... and his first with the Broncos. His lasting legacy -- specifically, how badly he needs Vince Lombardi Trophy No. 2 on his resume -- will be a talking point that's beaten to a pulp over the coming days.
To nail down that accomplishment, he will need his talented group of receivers to solve Seattle's aggressive "Legion of Boom" secondary. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas give Manning arguably the best set of pass-catchers in the league, and they'll need to play like it on Super Bowl Sunday. Continuing to enjoy some balance from running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball unquestionably would take a little pressure off of Manning in the pocket.
NFC champion: Seattle Seahawks
What the Broncos bring to the table offensively, the Seahawks add on the defensive side of the football, which is why this matchup sets up so beautifully. Denver broke all sorts of scoring and yardage records this season, both as a team and Manning himself; the Seahawks led the league in several categories on defense, including points and yards allowed.
The defense saved Seattle's bacon on Sunday, too. The secondary produced two critical interceptions off Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter -- one by Kam Chancellor after a Marshawn Lynch fumble opened the door for the 49ers, and another in the final 30 seconds on a jaw-dropping play from Richard Sherman. Seattle's secondary has struggled with injuries and suspensions all season, but there may not be a better collection of talent across the league.
Earl Thomas often plays second fiddle to Sherman, but his sideline-to-sideline range at safety allows the Seahawks to play as charged as they do near the line of scrimmage. Thomas will be a key element against the Broncos' varied attack, as he draws responsibilities deep as well as helping to close down the run.
Quarterback Russell Wilson's ability to keep pace with Manning, should it come to that, will be a mystery until gameday arrives. Despite throwing what stood as the game-winning TD pass Sunday versus San Francisco, Wilson has been up and down for the past six Seattle games. Luckily for him, he has the option to hand off to Marshawn Lynch. The 27-year-old Lynch remains one of the NFL's most feared running backs; his 40-yard TD run helped swing the NFC championship in Seattle's favor.
Denver could be susceptible defensively to a few plays downfield. The Seahawks may not have a Thomas/Welker/Decker trio to run out there, but Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and Jermaine Kearse are dangerous in their own right.
Hard to ask for much more than Manning's record-setting offense against the brash Seattle defense. This should be a game of strength versus strength, though how both teams perform when the roles are flipped -- the Seahawks' inconsistent offense against the Broncos' average defense -- may determine the outcome.
And, of course, a lingering X-factor: the weather. Early forecasts project decent conditions on Feb. 2, but those expectations could switch in a flash. The worse the weather gets on Super Bowl Sunday, the more it should favor Seattle, given how reliant Denver is on its passing attack.
Whether cold and snowy or mild and clear, the Broncos must find some way to protect Manning against a Seattle front that finds ways to the quarterback. Kaepernick was able to avoid major issues (prior to a fourth-quarter sack and fumble) because of his mobility. Manning will not have that same option, so countering the rush with quick passes should be the name of the game.
Expect Seattle's offense to continue to roll with its usual strategy. That means hammering Lynch between the tackles early and often, then giving Wilson some shots to get out of the pocket to stretch the field.