Super Bowl XLIX Preview

I have been on the “Seattle will repeat” bandwagon seemingly ever since last year’s Super Bowl ended. I picked the Seahawks to beat Denver in a rematch, but it’s New England instead. That makes some of the storylines similar, but hopefully the game will be much more competitive.

It’s hard to imagine anything else. This is the closest Super Bowl I’ve ever seen heading into the game. The lack of a real spread from Vegas is further proof of how close this thing is. These are the two best teams in the league and they match up pretty well with each other.

I spent a whole week crafting this study on Russell Wilson’s mobility, so please read that if you haven’t.

I’ll save my conspiracy theory for close to the end, but let’s run through many of the matchups and interesting stats from this game.

Key to the Game: Run to Win

I’m not going to cite any carries-to-wins statistics that lack context or understanding of correlation. I hate to even type this next statement, but I think the team that runs the ball better wins this game. Both teams have too much talent in the secondary and not enough at wide receiver. LeGarrette Blount is a poor man’s version of Marshawn Lynch, but they are similar backs capable of many yards after contact. Both teams like to use play-action passing a lot and not a ton of shotgun. This should be an old-school kind of game.

Statistics certainly favor Seattle to run the ball better. This is the best rushing offense in the league and one of the best since 1989. As Aaron Schatz points out, the Seahawks run the ball most effectively in the directions the Patriots defend the run the worst (middle and off right tackle/end). The Seahawks are also great in short-yardage runs while the Patriots are lousy at getting those stops.

However, the Patriots have improved on the ground since the Jonas Gray game against the Colts and since getting Blount back. The run defense has also improved, though the postseason has done nothing to show that. Baltimore, with injuries to both tackles, ran all over the Patriots with Justin Forsett a week after doing nothing on the ground in Pittsburgh. The Colts even had some decent rushing success, but fell too far behind to stick with it.

I always believe that teams committed to running the ball will find a way to get it done. The Chiefs and Cowboys ran all over the Seahawks in wins, but those two offenses were built for and committed to the run this year. The Patriots tend to have an off/on switch with this year’s running game, and it’s always turned way on against the Colts, but they haven’t gashed many other teams on the ground. They shredded the Bengals good, but that was one of the worst rush defenses in the league. The Seahawks are quite solid in this area, holding nine teams to under 65 rushing yards. They’re even better since getting Bobby Wagner back and adjusting to life without Brandon Mebane. Blount’s going to have to create some yardage himself with broken tackles and cuts like he showed against the Colts.

If Tom Brady has to throw 50 passes, the Seahawks might win by double digits. Seattle usually eats up that dink-and-dunk attack. This postseason, Brady is just 7-of-19 on passes thrown more than 10 yards. He’s not stretching the field, so Seattle needs to pounce on that.

You have to use your backs against this defense even if the carries aren’t overly effective (see San Diego game in Week 2). I also think short passes to backs over the middle work well against this defense as run substitutes, though Blount’s not much of a receiver and they tend to use Shane Vereen out wide where I don’t think he has a great matchup this week.

Will Seattle’s Lack of Weapons Come Home to Roost?

Believe it or not, Dallas was the only defense to keep Seattle under 100 rushing yards this year. Russell Wilson had a really bad day, though I remember highlighting how close the receivers were to several big catches. The offense just had an off day, which they can’t afford to have on Sunday of course.

I’m probably grossly overrating the wide receiver position, but I feel if the Seahawks had Golden Tate, they would be favored by at least four points.

Bill Belichick is going to look at this offense and see that it’s Lynch and Wilson running, then it’s just Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Luke Willson. There really isn’t a No. 3 WR after Paul Richardson went on IR. Baldwin, the Deion Branch of his era, is good and can play in the slot and get away from Revis Island, but he’s not likely to dominate the game. Kearse makes big plays and maybe he can beat a Brandon Browner or Kyle Arrington deep, but he has four career games with 4-5 catches. He’s not going to make a lot of plays. I really like what Willson has done down the stretch, and maybe he can attack a Pats defense that ranks 30th in DVOA against tight ends. Then again, I thought Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener would have success last time out and they did next to nothing. Again, my faith in numbers gets tested greatly this time of year.

Remember, this is a season where offenses led by Geno Smith and Alex Smith had more success against the Patriots than Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck did. That pisses me off for some reason, but I guess it makes sense. You can’t put everything on the quarterback against a great defensive mind and talented secondary, so the run-based offense is key. In Week 1, it was Knowshon Moreno carrying Miami to victory over the Patriots. So why can’t Lynch play well this week? And we know Seattle won’t shy away from who they are.

And even with the limited number of weapons, this Seattle offense tends to produce anyway. When they played in Arizona in Week 16, this offense piled up 596 yards against a defense with a talented secondary and aggressive play-calling. It was one of the best offensive performances of the season.

Pete Carroll considers any pass that gains 16+ yards and any run that gains 12+ yards to be an Explosive Play. The Seattle offense led the league with 135 Explosive Plays and the defense allowed the fewest Explosive Plays (76).

If the running game’s working, then Seattle has a chance to shrink the game and minimize the number of possessions, which means Brady’s offense has to play even more efficiently against a great defense.

Yeah, it’s nice to be strong on both sides of the ball. Let’s not forget Seattle’s offense is 5th in DVOA this year (10th at passing even) and got better after dumping Percy Harvin and his Screens to Nowhere.

The X-Factor: The Gronk

I’m not sure any individual can have a bigger impact on this Super Bowl than Rob Gronkowski. This is moment the Patriots have been waiting for. They have a healthy Gronk in the Super Bowl and he can play like there’s no tomorrow. He only had three targets in Super Bowl XLVI, because he wasn’t 100 percent. I actually think some of his low-production games this year were just a result of the Patriots saving Gronk for this game. I expect a minimum 12 targets in this one as he’s the only receiver that really can threaten this defense. He can also open things up for someone like Julian Edelman.

Gronk is like that recurring boss in a video game with the monster life bar that you just have to chip away at. However, he never makes it to the final battle because something lame takes him out early like a one-shot RPG, or getting hurt on an extra-point attempt. But he’s in the final battle this year and the Seahawks have to find a way for him not to take over this game. You only get one life in a Super Bowl.

I think the so-called weakness of the Seattle defense against tight ends is a bit overblown since it hasn’t been a problem lately, but we’re talking about the best tight end in the league. Guys like Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham were flat out soft against this defense. The Gronk only knows hard. Yeah, start the next erotica chapter right here.

The Seahawks have the safeties to deal with him, but they’re not at full health right now. Inside the red zone, I’m not sure any defense can stop this guy, and that’s where he really has a chance to score. Most of the touchdowns against Seattle are from inside the 10-yard line and that’s where Brady usually throws his scores anyway.

No tight end has ever won a Super Bowl MVP, though I think Gronkowski is a guy we can look back on one day as the best to ever play the position. Here’s his opportunity for a career highlight.

Pressure vs. Sacks

You have to get after the quarterback, but success for Seattle should be measured in pressures and not sacks. Brady gets rid of the ball very fast and has only taken 15 sacks since October. I wasn’t impressed with Seattle’s rush against Green Bay, but thankfully the coverage is good-to-great. This Seattle defense has to blitz more than last year’s team to get pressure, which could be a problem if they’re not getting to Brady.

Just look at last year’s Super Bowl for a sign of what Seattle needs. Peyton Manning was getting rid of the ball fast, but two quick edge pressures from Cliff Avril on third down basically decided the game. Both led to interceptions, including the pick-six that made it 22-0. That’s two plays to completely turn the game around with pressure. Out of Avril, Michael Bennett, Kevin Williams and Bruce Irvin, they have to get some big pressures.

On the other side, this isn’t a strong New England pass rush and so far it has zero sacks in the playoffs. No team has ever won a Super Bowl with zero sacks in the postseason. I think they have to sack Wilson a couple of times in this game. You can pressure Wilson into bad plays, but taking him down for a sack is a good way to derail a drive for a run-heavy offense.

The Seahawks have allowed a sack in 52 of Wilson’s 55 games. Interestingly enough, he was not sacked in last year’s Super Bowl against Denver.

Unfamiliar Opponent and Playoff Consistency

I don’t really want to draw much of anything from the last meeting between these teams in 2012. I mean, Aaron Hernandez caught a touchdown that day. That’s how far back we’re talking. I also think that New England offense was better, the defense was worse, and the Seahawks weren’t a juggernaut yet and are better on defense.

But then you have this stat: since 2001 the Patriots are 10-0 against new playoff opponents and 10-8 in rematches. So they prepare quite well for a new team, though we know that includes a share of close calls against teams like the 2001 Raiders (Tuck Rule), 2003 Panthers, 2006 Chargers (Choke Fest) and 2011 Ravens (Evans/Cundiff). Also this year’s Ravens.

The Seahawks are 6-1 in the playoffs with Wilson and I still say his best playoff game is the only one he lost. They were down 27-7 in the fourth quarter on the road and still came back to take a late lead. They have come back from 14-0 in Washington, 10-0 against San Francisco and of course the incredible comeback against Green Bay in this year’s NFC Championship Game. This team is hard to kill.

Expect a Competitive Game

Seattle has led or been within one score in the fourth quarter in 69 consecutive games, tying the NFL record.

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The Patriots have only had two games in their last 82 games where they trailed by double-digits for the entire second half, though two of those games are recent (2013 AFC Championship and in Kansas City this year).

These are arguably the two most competitive teams in the NFL. They just don’t come out with dud performances, and even if you get them down by 21+ points, they can still make a game of it by the fourth quarter.

Don’t forget: all Russell Wilson games end up close eventually. And apparently every New England Super Bowl this century goes down to the wire. So even if it’s a lopsided start, believe in the close finish.

The Comebacks

Both of these teams are fortunate to be here as this is the first ever Super Bowl between teams that trailed by 14+ points in the postseason. Baltimore led New England 14-0 and 28-14. Green Bay led Seattle 16-0. In fact, Sunday’s winner will have the second-largest playoff comeback ever for a Super Bowl champion.

Big comebacks in the Super Bowl are very uncommon, but I think much like last year I would sooner trust Seattle to make the big comeback than the pocket passing team. Belichick’s defenses have surrendered some of the biggest leads in Super Bowl history.

SBDEF

Seattle is 46-7 (.868) under Pete Carroll when leading by 7+ points at any time in the game. Dallas erased a 10-0 deficit this season in its win, but the Seahawks are really tough to come back against since that usually requires a lot of passing.

That’s where Seattle is unique. This team will almost never abandon the run regardless of the score. Lynch is still part of the offense and Wilson’s rushing can produce chunk plays. Through 55 games (including playoffs), Wilson has yet to throw more than 37 passes in a game. I’ve looked at that as far as the regular season goes and it’s downright historic.

RW37update

Wilson had 45 dropbacks in his career debut in 2012 — just so happens that game was in Arizona, site of Super Bowl XLIX. He’s only had seven games total with at least 45 dropbacks, and none with more than 48. He averages 33.9 dropbacks per game (excluding spikes and kneeldowns).

Seattle should feel confident with a close first half. In the second half, they have the No. 1 ranked offense and No. 1 ranked defense in DVOA. That’s pretty crazy if you think about it.

Home-field vs. Neutral Field

I think the toughest places to win in the NFL are Seattle and New England. Both teams are more vulnerable away from home, but I think the Patriots lose a bit more here. Teams just don’t come back when they fall behind in New England, yet we see it more frequently on the road, including Seattle’s 13-point 4QC in 2012. This is supposed to be a neutral crowd, though Arizona is a rival of Seattle’s and the locals probably won’t give them a warm welcome. Then again, I like to think the other 31 fanbases hate the Patriots, so the crowd might be a little pro-Seattle.

Seattle’s Points Allowed

The Patriots are not likely to score a lot of points on Seattle. At least not without major contributions from defense/special teams (returns and takeaways).

The Seahawks have led the league in scoring defense three years in a row, but there are even more impressive feats than that.

I’m sick and tired of hearing about Wilson’s 10-0 record against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. The part that matters is the defense held those quarterbacks to 13.8 offensive points per game. None scored more than 23 points, though Brady is the high-point man with 23 in that 2012 loss. That’s incredible work to shut down the best in the game (yeah, Eli aside).

In 71 games since 2011, the Seattle defense has only allowed 30 offensive points four times:

  • 10/2/2011 vs. Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 loss
  • 1/13/2013 at Atlanta: 30 points allowed in 30-28 playoff loss, but Matt Ryan needed a GWD in last 31 seconds to get to 30
  • 9/14/2014 at San Diego: 30 points allowed in 30-21 loss, but San Diego got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 5
  • 10/12/2014 vs. Dallas: 30 points allowed in 30-23 loss, but Dallas got to 30 with late field goal on drive that started at Seattle 23

Seattle’s offense turning the ball over on downs deep in its own end is really the reason San Diego and Dallas hit 30 this year.

The good news for New England is you shouldn’t have to score 30+ to win this game. Wilson is 0-6 when the Seahawks allow more than 24 points. He’s 5-8 when Seattle allows more than 20 points.

Super Bowl Windows

It was nearly 10 years ago to the date when the Patriots became the last repeat champion in the NFL. That makes this the longest stretch ever without a repeat champion in the NFL, including even the pre-Super Bowl days. I’m just saying…

Every decade since the 1950’s had a team emerge as a dynasty. Sometimes we didn’t know for sure who that team was until the end of the decade, but it happened. The Seahawks best fit the traits of the next dynasty, but they have to win this game to stay on course.

We know that multiple titles come in small windows.

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Joe Montana won his titles over the span of nine seasons. Brady is trying to get his fourth over a span of 14 years, which would easily be a record. That sounds hard, though just think of the 49ers winning five titles from 1981-1994, the same 14-year window. The only difference is the 49ers switched over to George Seifert and Steve Young, while Brady and Belichick have been the constants in New England. If you keep building good teams that compete for Super Bowls every year then it’s not that unlikely to stretch out a title window, though history favors Seattle here.

Teams trying to repeat are 8-3 in the Super Bowl. The 1978 Cowboys, 1983 Redskins and 1997 Packers lost.

There’s also the young quarterback vs. old quarterback thing where 14 of the last 15 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were age 30 or younger. In this era that matters more because of the salary cap and the flexibility to build a deeper roster.

Wilson is 26, Brady is 37, and again I’m just saying…

Tom Brady’s “GOAT” Legacy Game, Take Three

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I probably could have stopped at the picture, but really, what we’re talking about here is that level of silly.

Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time if he wins this game?

So his performance in said game doesn’t even matter? Either way, one game should not decide if you think a player is the greatest of all time or not. The body of work should tell you that. How many chances do we give a player to underperform and lose that big game before we stop asking the question? The same question was out there in 2007 when Brady could have capped off 19-0, then “we’re only going to score 17 points?” happened. The same question was out there in 2011 when the Giants again held Brady in check in another Super Bowl.

If Eli Manning doesn’t engineer two great drives, am I supposed to believe Brady is the best QB ever for leading his offense to 13 points against the 2001 Rams, outdueling Jake Delhomme, watching Donovan McNabb puke and then getting two 14-10 and 17-15 wins over the Giants for his rings? Really?

And has anything changed this year with Brady? I don’t see a better quarterback. I’m not sure 2014 would even rank in the top five of Brady seasons (2004, 2007 and 2010-12 say hello in no order but chronological). If he shreds the Seahawks, then you can likely say he had his best playoff game. He will have won his fourth ring. Congrats. Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr have nine rings between them and I don’t put either in my top 13.

You should already know before Sunday night where Brady ranks for you. A win doesn’t move him anywhere for me. A Craig Morton-caliber performance doesn’t move him out of the top five, which always puts him in that discussion for the best.

The Injuries

It wouldn’t be a Super Bowl preview without some injuries to talk about. Seattle has both of the big ones with Richard Sherman (sprained elbow) and Earl Thomas (dislocated shoulder) not at 100 percent. I think these would be bigger stories, especially Thomas, if there wasn’t so much crap surrounding this build-up with Deflategate and Marshawn Lynch’s media etiquette. We’re talking about arguably the two best defenders on this team playing as one-arm bandits.

Sherman should be fine and likely won’t see much action his way (Brandon LaFell?), but what happens if Thomas lands on that shoulder while trying to tackle an ox like Gronkowski or take down Blount? We might see a play or two go for quite a few more yards than it should have because of these injuries. Throw in a knee injury for Kam Chancellor on the next-to-last play in practice on Friday, and it’s as if the Madden Curse is coming to collect on the Legion of Boom here.

Conspiracy Theory Time

We know the footballs will be at regulation pressure this week, but what about the officiating? All season Seattle has had some interesting penalty splits: most accepted penalties (130) in the league and the beneficiary of the fewest accepted penalties on its opponents (70). Seattle has too many pre-snap penalties on offense, but what gives with the opponents not racking up many calls in their games?

Unfortunately, the NFL has assigned the Super Bowl to Bill Vinovich, one of the worst referees in the league. This guy always has the nervous look of someone that wants to take a shit in a public restroom, but needs a lookout to make sure no one’s coming.

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Just the other day Vinovich was publicly confused about the process of signaling this ineligible/eligible farce from the Patriots. Speaking of which, how hard up to win another Super Bowl was Belichick when he decided to break this stuff out down by 14 points in the playoffs? Tackle-eligible plays are nothing new, but the four-OL sets and playing around with running backs as ineligible receivers is right out of the script from 90’s kid sports movies like Little Giants and Rookie of the Year. It’s cheap and I expect the NFL to take a closer look in the offseason.

So combine a bad ref with these tricks and Seattle might allow a big play or a touchdown that shouldn’t even count. I was confused if tackle Nate Solder’s touchdown was legal or not in the AFC Championship Game. Tony Dungy said it was an illegal formation, then said it was okay. Days later, the NFL Network crew said it was illegal. Finally, the NFL’s VP of Officiating Dean Blandino said it was in fact an illegal substitution and should not have counted.  That was a third-down play with the score 17-7 in the third quarter. Would have been nice to get that one right and maybe keep the Colts in the game for another drive. Now imagine this happens in the Super Bowl in a tighter game. That’s why the NFL has to make this a point of emphasis in the offseason.

I promised a conspiracy theory, so here it goes. Put yourself in the NFL’s shoes right now. You’re investigating a team in the Super Bowl, the most watched event of the year, for possibly deflating the pressure in the footballs to gain an unfair advantage. This team has defiantly come out swinging at you in the media, asking for an apology even. The story has been the lead on the national news and everyone knows about it by now.

Can you really let this controversial season end with that team crowned the champion? The investigation will not conclude until after the Super Bowl, but if the Patriots are the champs, you almost have to clear them completely just so your champion isn’t branded a cheater. That would be another PR nightmare for the league if the investigation found wrongdoing. A big asterisk on this postseason would be good, but not enough for many people.

So I say watch the officiating closely in this game, especially in high-leverage situations like on third down. It’s not always about what gets called, but what doesn’t get called can be even bigger. I know Vinovich won’t have his usual crew around him, but whatever. Officiating failures happen under his watch frequently. Let’s look at two from this year’s Denver-Seattle game in Week 3.

Here is Wes Welker being interfered with on a 3rd-and-2 pass. Marcus Burley was all over the receiver as the ball gets there.

seawelk

On the next possession, Denver lined up for a 3rd-and-1 run. The Seahawks clearly jumped offsides and the play was stopped for no gain. A flag was thrown, a long conference took place and Vinovich said the defender did not get into the neutral zone. Are you f’n kidding me? He was lined up beyond the ball. Even CBS’ Mike Carey knew this was a penalty.

seaoffside

Both plays were in the third quarter, both on third down, and each should have been a penalty that extended Denver’s drive. Nothing was called and the Broncos punted twice. Those are big drive-enders, which can be huge against a team like Seattle that can shrink the game with its running attack and make your offense play even more efficiently against that great defense.

By the way, the Seahawks are 5-0 since 2012 when Vinovich is the referee.

Now someone’s going to confuse this for me saying the referees are going to cheat for Seattle. That’s bullshit. I am just throwing out a theory that it would be a bad thing for the NFL for the Patriots to win this game. The Seahawks do not need the referees’ help to win this game. The Seahawks can win this game with their usual officiating disadvantage. I’m just going to keep a close eye on crucial downs and how things are officiated with teams known for their aggressive play.

Special Teams

I saved this for last, because my gut tells me with all the attention on the interesting matchups in this game, special teams are an area that could be big. The Patriots had horrible field position in Super Bowl XLVI (average start: own 16) and that was a contributing factor to the loss and only 17 points. The Patriots have been better this year than Seattle on special teams. I trust Stephen Gostkowski more than Steven Hauschka at kicker. If Edelman’s bottled up at receiver, then maybe punt return is an area where he could break some big ones to give the Patriots an advantage.

The Final Prediction

I promised I wasn’t going to overanalyze another Super Bowl, but I guess I can’t help myself. After all the off-field noise associated with the last two weeks, I just wanted to look at some real football stuff.

So in the game’s simplest terms, I think the offense that achieves balance will win this game. This won’t be an aerial show. This will be an old-school game with running the ball, play-action passing and tight ends contributing big.

I rode the Seahawks all year, and I want to make this very clear: the Seahawks have a great shot of winning this game. Got it?

But I think with two weeks to prepare, Belichick has to find a way to contain Lynch and slow down this limited offensive attack. I don’t think New England’s dink-and-dunk will have a ton of success, but if it does, someone’s going to have to explain to me why it worked while other teams have failed at doing the same.

Remember, it takes some pretty special and unusual plays to beat the Seahawks. Think of the 3rd-and-20 play from Tony Romo to Terrance Williams this year. The crazy punt return touchdown and the fake punt by the Rams. The one-handed catch by Antonio Gates. If we go back to last year, the blocked field goal for a touchdown in Indianapolis and some of those wild T.Y. Hilton catches. The fluky interception kicked up into the air against Arizona.

Gronkowski is the guy that can make those plays. Think about his one-handed catch against Denver this year. He’ll have to play at that level this week and I think the Patriots will give him every opportunity to be that dominant force.

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Seahawks 20

Super Bowl MVP: Rob Gronkowski

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NFL Week 12 Predictions & Rebranding Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning

It’s Broncos vs. Patriots, Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady for the 14th time, but this actually is not that big of a game in the AFC given New England’s loss in Carolina. Even if the Broncos lose and the Chiefs win on Sunday, it’s the Week 13 game in Kansas City that those AFC teams will really need the most to control their destiny for the No. 1 seed.

Still, it’s a lot more interesting to talk Manning-Brady than Manning-Alex Smith. Last week’s outcome was predictable. This week’s may be as well given the last 13 meetings. I’m not going to do a full preview since I may be writing an article on Insider about the game for Monday, but I will preview some things relevant to Sunday night’s meeting.

While the greatest QB rivalry ever gets all the attention, the fact is there’s never been a Manning-Brady game that was a true shootout where both quarterbacks played great and moved their offenses up and down the field. In fact, there’s been a double-digit deficit in all 13 meetings and Manning’s team has trailed by 17+ points in eight games. These matchups often come down to Manning trying to make a huge comeback, Brady failing in the four-minute offense and the New England defense either holds or allows the game-winning points.

Whether it’s the first time or the 14th, the real matchup is Manning vs. Bill Belichick: the superior quarterback against the superior team/coach.

Even in those first meetings in 2001, when this rivalry didn’t exist yet, you could see that theme of “QB vs. team.” Brady opened up a 23-0 lead on Manning in their first career meeting. He was 6-of-13 passing for 52 yards at that point in the game. In the rematch in Indy, the Patriots led 28-3 in the 2nd quarter. At that point, Brady was 7/7 for 134 yards and a TD — strong numbers for sure, but 91 yards came on one play. Meanwhile, Manning was 12-of-18 for 181 yards (sacked 3 times). Does that sound like a QB mismatch worthy of a 28-3 score? Of course not. Mike Vanderjagt had two field goals blocked in the first quarter (when does that ever happen?) and Edgerrin James fumbled.

That’s the kind of stuff that repeatedly tends to happen when these QBs play each other, because the Patriots are better at forcing mistakes and stopping teams from doing what they do best. That’s great coaching.

Belichick’s been there for every meeting while Manning will go to battle with what is technically his fifth different head coach (interim Jack Del Rio). In most of the first 13 games, Manning’s teams made a plethora of mistakes that Belichick’s teams capitalize on best. Manning’s team is -13 in turnover differential against New England.

Often the strength of Manning’s team defenses is the edge rushers. That’s not the best way to attack Brady, who can step up in the pocket and pick apart the Colts/Broncos underneath, which he’s done several times over the years. The Patriots also run the ball better than Manning’s offense, so they’re not as one dimensional. Last season against Denver Brady handed it off 50 times for 253 yards — the most rushing support of his career.  That includes a back-breaking 19-yard run on 3rd-and-17 by Danny Woodhead.

Head-to-head rushing support:

  • Manning – 329 carries for 1,290 yards (3.92 YPC)
  • Brady – 356 carries for 1,641 yards (4.61 YPC)

In game 14 of the rivalry, Brady will have home-field advantage for the ninth time. Brady has the better defense for the 12th time. Manning only had the better defense, measured by points per drive, in 2005 (40-21 win) and last year even though the Patriots were better at the start of the season and certainly better than Denver on that day.

Speaking of in-game results out of the QB’s control, Brady’s had the better starting field position in eight of the games.

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For those counting at home, we have Manning with inferior coaching, less help from his running game and he has to drive longer fields, often on the road, against superior defenses. So the 4-9 record proves what exactly? Oh yeah, the Patriots have a better team and coach.

Manning has averaged at least 39.6 yards per drive in seven of his last eight games against Belichick’s defense. That’s good enough to lead the league most seasons, so that’s a great number. But in the last two games in Foxboro, his offense threw away too  many drives. Manning threw 3 interceptions in 2010. Last season with Denver, Demaryius Thomas and Willis McGahee fumbled in the red zone, Manning fumbled to put Brady in the red zone and McGahee dropped a 4th-and-1 pass. When you get the ball 10 times in a game, you can’t piss away four drives like that and expect to win. It’s the only game in Manning’s Denver career where he could not get any closer than within 10 points in the 4th quarter. His  Broncos are 22-5 despite a -5 turnover differential.

That’s a big part of the reason I like the Patriots to win this week.

New England is coming off a tough loss in Carolina and rarely ever loses two in a row. The Patriots also did not get a takeaway. You have to go back to games 4-6 of the 2005 season to find the last time the Patriots had consecutive games without a takeaway. They’re going to get some in this game, because when you throw in some cold weather, that ball’s going to be hard to control for a Denver team with poor ball security. Even Manning has career highs with 8 fumbles (6 lost) this year.

When the Patriots win the turnover battle at home, they’re 68-2 since 2001.

On the point about the cold — some forecasts have it being under 30 or so tomorrow night — I’m not worried about it in the context of Manning’s performance. He’s long overdue for a statistical letdown game, but it won’t happen because of the weather. Since some can’t get the numbers right, here’s every Manning game with a game-time temperature of 40 degrees or less:

PM40

Clearly this is a narrative built on losing a couple of playoff games (light blue) in 02-04 in New Jersey and New England. Otherwise, where’s the problem here?

Belichick is going to take away what Denver does best. He’s smart enough to know Demaryius Thomas is the key to this offense, so look for Aqib Talib (assuming he’s healthy enough to play) to lock up, some times illegally, Thomas. He won’t shut him down, but the Patriots can’t afford a huge game from him.

Wes Welker, concussion and all, probably will have a huge game for that reason. Belichick would rather give up shorter plays to Welker than the big ones to Thomas, who is the Denver skill player capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. Julius Thomas was questionable the last time I looked, so he could be slowed by injury. Eric Decker’s opportunity is huge in this one as he’s probably the healthiest and should get the most favorable coverage.

Denver made it a point to protect Manning’s ankle against the Chiefs. Without hearing much about that this week, I expect you’ll see the Patriots generate more pressure than the Chiefs did, which was almost nothing. The advantage Manning has is this New England secondary is really banged up with several DBs listed as questionable and their playing statuses up in the air. If Manning can get enough protection to have his 4-5 receiving options running routes, then he should have a big game against this defense.

However, like last year it’s not going to matter without the Denver defense and Del Rio finally showing they can slow Brady down. Del Rio never has and while I’m not worried about old Jacksonville games, the three New England wins over Denver since 2011 are troubling. Von Miller’s not as effective if the Broncos aren’t leading, which is the same problem the Colts faced with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis when they went up against the Patriots.

I’d welcome a legit shootout between the two HOF QBs for a change, but I just don’t see it happening. If I had to pick a previous Manning-Brady matchup for the one Sunday night will resemble most, I’d say last year’s game if NE wins, and 2006 regular season (27-20) if the Broncos win. It’s not likely Brady has a four-pick parade though.

So in the greatest QB rivalry, nothing’s really changed. Manning’s always been a better QB than Brady, but in the ultimate team game, I have to go with New England this week. That should give the Broncos extra motivation for their true big road game of the regular season: Week 13 in Kansas City.

Final prediction: Broncos 28, Patriots 35

NFL Week 12 Predictions

The game only had 30 total points, but the Saints came out on top as I expected.

  • Chargers at Chiefs
  • Bears at Rams
  • Jaguars at Texans
  • Buccaneers at Lions
  • Vikings at Packers
  • Panthers at Dolphins
  • Jets at Ravens
  • Steelers at Browns
  • Colts at Cardinals
  • Titans at Raiders
  • Cowboys at Giants
  • Broncos at Patriots
  • 49ers at Redskins

Season results:

  • Week 1: 11-5
  • Week 2: 12-4
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 9-6
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 11-4
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 10-3
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 8-6
  • Week 11: 9-6
  • Season: 105-57

NFL Week 11 Predictions, Backup Quarterbacks, 4th Down Failure and Writing Recap

Thought about sending in the backup to write this one, but I’m okay to start Week 11, which will hopefully feature more clutch wins and fourth-down attempts. After all, it is Colts/Patriots week.

This Week’s Articles

Captain Comeback Week 10: “Epic Comeback Failure” Limited Edition – Cold, Hard Football Facts

Find out how a game-winning punt return touchdown, rare overtime tie, and non-offensive game-winning field goal capped a bizarre week without a single fourth-quarter comeback win or game-winning drive. That has not happened since Week 13 of the 1973 season. But don’t worry, this one-shot edition covers the rarity in great detail.

Evaluating the Backup QB Plans – NBC Sports

With four injured starters, it was a good time to take a team-by-team look at the primary backup quarterback. Let’s just say the crop is not very strong when Matt Hasselbeck, Kyle Orton and Matt Moore might be your top three options. Hasselbeck has more starts than 22 backups combined.

Pittsburgh Steelers Cannot Win AFC North without Ben Roethlisberger – Bleacher Report

Without Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers can forget about winning their division, which should require at least a split with the Ravens. Find out how they can still make the playoffs with Byron Leftwich (hint: Ohio).

Following a Legend: Andrew Luck Week 10 at Jacksonville Jaguars – Colts Authority

In a game that felt like ages ago, Andrew Luck made his prime time debut and played a decent game. But despite all the praise from people likely seeing him play a full, live game in the NFL for the first time, find out why it was no better than his fifth best performance of the season.

The Thinking Man’s Guide: NFL Week 11 Predictions – Bleacher Report

Colts vs. Patriots is always interesting. Detroit might find themselves a fourth-quarter comeback against Green Bay. It should be another record-setting day for Peyton Manning against San Diego. Byron Leftwich has not won a NFL start since October 8, 2006. Find out some quarterbacks who went longer between NFL wins as starters, as well as picks for every game.

NFL Coaches Are More Gutless Than Ever on Fourth Down – Cold, Hard Football Facts

Did you know teams are converting on fourth down 55.0 percent in 2012 (highest since 1991)? Now did you know they are going for it on fourth down the lowest percentage of time since 1991 as well? A breakdown of the recent increase in risk-adverse, gutless coaching, including a distribution of when teams go for it on fourth down, and the most common decision (4th and 1), which makes up 89.4 percent of all fourth-down attempts since 2000.

2012 NFL Week 11 Predictions

A week near and dear to my heart, as we have Colts/Patriots and Ravens/Steelers. But it won’t be the same without Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger involved, which also impacts the pick.

Winners in bold:

  • Cardinals at Falcons
  • Buccaneers at Panthers
  • Browns at Cowboys
  • Packers at Lions
  • Jaguars at Texans
  • Bengals at Chiefs
  • Jets at Rams
  • Eagles at Redskins
  • Saints at Raiders
  • Chargers at Broncos
  • Colts at Patriots
  • Ravens at Steelers
  • Bears at 49ers

Season results:

  • Week 1: 12-4
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 4-12
  • Week 4: 10-5
  • Week 5: 10-4
  • Week 6: 5-9
  • Week 7: 12-1
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 11-3
  • Week 10: 9-4-1
  • Season: 94-51-1