NFL Week 9 Predictions: Relevant Oakland Edition

We’re nearly at the true halfway point of the regular season. On Friday, I wrote a piece about the lack of parity in the NFL, especially in the AFC. One team could change some of that perception with a good win this week.

Steelers at Ravens

Rare to see two teams have a bye week before their regular-season matchup, but here we are. The big question is: will he or won’t he play? We’re talking about Ben Roethlisberger of course, who I swear is contractually obligated to miss at least one Baltimore game per season. The Ravens are 6-1 against the Steelers when Ben is out, but he also has a bad history of playing in his first game back from injury too. This torn meniscus was potentially a 4-6 week injury too, so questionable in this case may truly be questionable. Overall, I think the Steelers have the better team this year, and should have enough firepower to outscore a Baltimore offense that has been very lackluster, already firing its offensive coordinator. Joe Flacco is loading up on failed completions (four weeks in a row with 10+), but I can see a motivated Mike Wallace catching a bomb in this one to stick it to his old team. Fortunately, he’s still pretty limited to showing up on one or two drives per game instead of being a true dominant threat like he was in 2010-11. I want to see if Le’Veon Bell can make it look effortless against a stingy run defense, or if he’ll struggle to gain much traction and have to rely on being a threat in the passing game instead. Last year, Roethlisberger played his worst game of the season in a classic “played down to the competition” game for the Steelers in Week 16 with the playoffs hanging in the balance. Seriously, this team was hanging 30+ on everyone, and came out with a piss-poor effort against a Baltimore team that was starting Ryan Mallett at quarterback. The Steelers made him look like Joe Montana (KC version at least). We know these teams usually play a close one, and my half-assed reason for picking Pittsburgh is that I just can’t see them losing three in a row, but it’s certainly a possibility as long as the quarterback isn’t 100 percent, which I doubt he could be so soon.

Colts at Packers

This will most likely be the second of three career meetings between Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers. The first was a classic in 2012. The Colts, just getting the news about Chuck Pagano’s cancer, rallied from 18 points down to beat the Packers 30-27. It was really the first special Luck performance in the NFL, and set up the Colts for a season of success. Luck will have to be even better on Sunday, because I think Green Bay’s offense is going to continue looking good against bad defenses, like it has against Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta this year. The Colts may be worse than all three of them, and when they go on the road, forget about it. Rodgers at home is often dynamite, and I think he gets back on track with the big play to Jordy Nelson this week. It can still certainly be a shootout or big Indy comeback if Luck is on point with T.Y. Hilton (ailing a bit this week), because we know the Green Bay secondary is very banged up too. I just don’t think the Colts have enough to slow Green Bay down, while the Packers will contain Frank Gore and make this another one of those one-dimensional games for Luck.

Broncos at Raiders

This is the big one this week. Since Sunday Night Football became the premiere prime-time game in the NFL in 2006, the Raiders have appeared on it just one time: a completely forgettable 13-3 loss in Denver over 10 years ago. You know things are moving in the right direction if Oakland is hosting Denver in a battle for first place in the tough AFC West. This is a huge statement game for Jack Del Rio’s team. So far, the Raiders have got by weak competition, often on the road (5-0), but have faltered at home to the only two contenders they have faced (Atlanta and Chiefs). That’s not a good sign for a schedule that gets much tougher starting this week. Oakland needs to show something here, because it’s first real AFC West test this season (KC) went poorly. The Broncos are a similar team with an even better defense.

On offense, Oakland has been good in the passing game with Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, but I don’t think this is a great matchup for the three, even if Aqib Talib isn’t 100% or playing. Denver has the secondary to match up with those outside receivers. Seth Roberts isn’t a bad #3 slot guy, but most of this passing game runs through those two wideouts. Cooper really struggled last year with Denver, and we know Carr has yet to have a really good game in four tries against this defense that has just terrorized some really good QBs this year.

As for Carr specifically, I don’t think he’s playing any better this year than the likes of Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger. The main difference between him and most of those guys is that he’s played an easier schedule, his team’s had better health, and he has one of the best offensive lines in the league. Denver has the talent to get through that line and put Carr under pressure. He has some gunslinger in him, so he’ll force plays from time to time and give the defense turnover opportunities. I think Carr’s first eight games last year were better than his first eight this season, and we know about his decline last year when the schedule got tougher. He needs to avoid doing that again this year so Oakland can definitely make the playoffs instead of piss away a 6-2 start. Fortunately, the AFC seems weak enough for the Raiders to at least be a wild-card team, but I honestly believe Denver and KC are better teams at this point.

The Broncos just need to stick with their brand of great defense and to not screw things up on offense/ST. Unfortunately, the offense has tried screwing things up such as the three turnovers against San Diego last week that made that a game late. This is a huge game for Trevor Siemian too, as he likes to risk some dangerous plays each week as well. If he can just play within himself, then I think Denver scores just enough for the big road win. Oakland beat the Broncos last year in Denver thanks to a dominant performance from Khalil Mack (5 sacks), which we really haven’t been getting this year. They also got their GWD after Emmanuel Sanders muffed a punt at the 11-yard line. Brandon McManus later missed a game-tying field goal in the 15-12 loss. For a team that plays so many games tightly, these mistakes are almost impossible to overcome.

I don’t see a big rushing night coming from Oakland, so it will be on Carr’s shoulders to produce against this defense. If he does so, then great, but if not, then that stigma of not being able to beat the good teams is still heavily weighing on this team and its young quarterback. This game is very important for Oakland to show that it is indeed another new year, and that the AFC isn’t just about the Patriots, Broncos and Steelers again.

(Yes, I just shafted the AFC South winner, but why wouldn’t I?)

2016 Week 9 Predictions

Felt good about the Falcons on Thursday, and they came through in a big way on a short week against a divisional foe.

Winners in bold:

  • Cowboys at Browns
  • Jets at Dolphins
  • Steelers at Ravens
  • Eagles at Giants
  • Jaguars at Chiefs
  • Lions at Vikings
  • Panthers at Rams
  • Saints at 49ers
  • Colts at Packers
  • Titans at Chargers
  • Broncos at Raiders
  • Bills at Seahawks

Definitely put the Chiefs on upset alert with so many key guys out, but this is the Jaguars. While this may not be a game for Blake “The Garbage Man” Bortles to do what he does best, I can see a failed 4QC/GWD attempt from the Jags that I’ll have to write about for Tuesday. Yay, fun.

  • Week 1: 7-9
  • Week 2: 10-6
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 8-7
  • Week 5: 7-7
  • Week 6: 12-3
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 7-6
  • Season: 69-51

Another bloody tie. I gave myself the loss again only because I said the AFC team (Bengals) would win, while the NFC team (Redskins) actually should have won. Damn kickers.

Super Bowl 50 Preview

For a change, I am not spending a big chunk of my Saturday to write a really detailed Super Bowl preview on here, because I already contributed to one on Football Outsiders yesterday with Vincent Verhei. Please read that.

I did a lot of the intro, outlook and the section on Carolina’s offense vs. Denver’s defense in that one. I also wrote three other pieces this week in preparation for Super Bowl 50:

How much more really needs to be said? A seemingly record number of people are expecting Carolina to win anyway. While last year’s Super Bowl was about as 50/50 as it gets, both in the pre-game buildup and the actual outcome itself, this year is heavily slanted towards Carolina winning its first Super Bowl.

While Carolina should be the favorite and it feels like the Panthers should win, I still can see Denver pulling it off. Defense wins championships, right? The only problem is while Denver may have the best defense, Carolina is right behind them, and the offense is better. Every version of the Denver offense this year, whether it’s with a healthy Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler, an injured Manning or a conservative Manning at QB, has not been good. Yeah, there was a great game against Green Bay, but I’m talking about the overall picture. Now when you make this offense play the best defense it has seen all season, that’s a tough task. Carolina has more flexibility in ways to win this game, but greater upsets have happened before.

Key to the Game: Turnover Battle

From my Super Bowl XLVIII preview: “Turnovers are always huge in the Super Bowl. This is an area that strongly favors Seattle, which is +20 in turnover differential this season compared to 0 for Denver.”

Welp, not much has changed two years later. Carolina is a league-best +20 in turnover differential and Denver is minus-4. I cannot see Denver winning this game without winning the turnover battle. At most, the Broncos can afford one turnover in this game (assuming it’s minimal damage), which is probably going to happen since Carolina leads the league in takeaways. Whether it’s a random fumble or forcing Cam Newton into mistakes via pressure, the Broncos have to get the ball in some good field position for the offense. The offense absolutely cannot put the defense in bad spots with turnovers. That is what Carolina feasts on as it led the league in points scored off turnovers. The Panthers had the second-best starting field position in the league. This is not a legit No. 1 offense, but it can definitely score in the red zone (one area where Denver is nothing special) and take advantage of your mistakes.

DENTO

A bad start for Denver and the turnovers could come in bunches to make this a rout, but I really think this is a different team than the 43-8 disaster from two years ago.

But the easiest way to get a repeat of that game is to have turnovers. That is why a conservative approach to start the game may not be such a bad thing. Just getting the first snap off correctly this time would help. Two years ago, the Broncos were down 2-0 before even getting to run a real play. They were down 5-0 before Manning registered his first dropback. They were down 8-0 before he threw an incomplete pass. They were down 15-0 after his first mistake of the game (interception after quick edge pressure). They were down 22-0 after the second big mistake (the pick-six play after another quick edge pressure). Throw in Percy Harvin’s kick return TD to start the third quarter and the game was already over.

Denver needs to weather the early storm here, even if it means two three-and-outs to start the game. No early turnovers.

If Denver’s Offense Has a Chance…

More often than not, your team’s weaknesses bite you in the playoffs. For Denver, that would be the offensive line getting overwhelmed, stalling the run game and hurrying Manning into mistakes and sacks.

Carolina has a fast defense with studs up front, at linebacker and Josh Norman in the secondary. This is a really tough matchup, but I do see three reasons for hope that Denver can play a decent game against this unit.

Pressure

Everyone always compares Manning with Tom Brady on everything, but pressure is one area where I think people get it wrong. “You have to get interior pressure on Brady; he hates it the most because he can sidestep edge pressure, but he can’t step up in the pocket with guys in his face.” Fair enough, but for slow-footed quarterbacks, any quick edge pressure is still going to be a problem. You saw Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware converge on Brady at times in the AFC Championship Game.

I can give you an encyclopedia-like recall of Manning’s big losses when pressure was a problem, and it was essentially always quick edge pressure. We know he can get rid of the ball quickly, but when those guys are coming off the edge, even he can get sacked, or worse, hit as he throws for an interception. That happened to him three times in 2013 alone: 4QC attempt in Indy, 4QC attempt vs. San Diego and the aforementioned pick-six in Super Bowl XLVIII. Do you want more? Try Willie McGinnest unblocked on opening night in 2004. In 2005, it was San Diego’s Shawne Merriman and Pittsburgh’s Joey Porter causing the biggest problems off the edge. In 2007, Merriman beat Tony Ugoh at LT on a crucial fourth-and-goal play in the playoffs. In 2008, Tim Dobbins got around Gijon Robinson (forgot the snap count) to sack Manning on a 3rd-and-2 that could have ended the game.

It’s always the edge pressure, but Carolina does not have that great edge rusher. Jared Allen started 12 games this year, but he only has 2 sacks. This is not vintage Jared Allen, who is expecting to play after a recent injury.

Carolina’s best rush comes from the defensive line, and it’s defensive tackle Kawann Short, who had a breakout year with 11 sacks. You saw Short and the interior force Russell Wilson into that early pick-six a few weeks ago. But Denver’s strength up front is the interior guards with Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez. If center Matt Paradis can hold up too, I don’t think Short is going to dominate this game like he could against a team like Seattle. Again, when has interior pressure owned Manning? I simply can’t recall it. It’s always the edges, which are not immune here, but that’s not where Carolina’s strength is this season. There isn’t a Julius Peppers on this defense.

Dictate Matchups in the Secondary

Josh Norman talks a big game and has backed it up with a breakout year. However, what bugs me about these corners is when they don’t shadow receivers all over the field. You move a guy into the slot and Norman treats it like a high-radiation area in Fallout 4. He stays away. That is why I think Denver can dictate its matchups against this secondary, which isn’t very good outside of Norman.

Norman can only cover one of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders at a time to begin with, but Denver should always be able to get their guy away from Norman by putting him in the slot, unless Carolina breaks tendency and has Norman shadow. On each play, I would have one of Sanders or Thomas in the slot. I don’t think Manning will challenge Norman a ton, but he’s not going to pull a 2010 Jets and just throw one pass to his main guy like he did to Reggie Wayne that night against Darrelle Revis. I think it’s a mistake to just submit to that matchup. Norman is not unbeatable, and I think Thomas’ size and Sanders’ speed can give him some problems. Thomas has been very disappointing this season, but maybe he lives up to the big contract with a memorable Super Bowl. It doesn’t even need to be 10-150-1, but just one big touchdown play like Julio Jones made in Week 16 against Carolina could be the difference. I said Denver should copy that game’s formula: shrink possessions by running a lot, do well on third downs and play great pass defense against Cam and challenge these receivers. Jones’ big play was the difference. Thomas can make that play if he plays up to his talent level.

Still, Sanders would be my main target (10+ times). If they can find ways to match Sanders up with Robert McClain (targeted like crazy since he was unemployed recently) or Cortland Finnegan, then Denver could be in good shape.

Then again, this secondary just held Arizona’s prolific trio of Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd to 9-of-23 for 90 yards. How much of that was Carson Palmer shitting the bed? Hard to say, but Wilson found some receivers wide open the week before once pressure calmed down. Manning has overthrown the deep balls all year, but he needs to hit one or two here.

Denver has tried to get everyone involved in the playoffs. Manning targeted 10 receivers against Pittsburgh and 11 against New England. I still like Bennie Fowler as the WR3, but it could be Jordan Norwood, Cody Latimer or Andre Caldwell at this point.

If there is a concern with this matchup, it would be throwing over the middle should that pressure up the middle come. Manning may get picked by Luke Kuechly, who has been great at that this year. But on the edges and seams, Denver should be able to dictate things better this week.

Bye Week and Health

Manning obviously needs all the rest he can get at this point of his career. His best game of the season was after the bye week against Green Bay. If that Manning shows up, Denver would be the favorites, but that was like a one-night thing this year. He also looked very sharp against Pittsburgh after the bye week, but 7-9 drops from his receivers hurt the stat line. If the receivers are catching what they should and Manning’s sharp again, then Gary Kubiak can open up the offense a bit more. I feel they play extra conservative at home, relying more on the crowd noise and defense.

On the other side, Thomas Davis (broken arm) is probably the big injury heading into this one. You can’t have a Super Bowl without a player trying to play with a serious injury. Those teams usually tend to lose too, because you need your best players healthy. Davis is the second-best linebacker on this team, but definitely a big part of the defense’s success. What’s going to happen if he whiffs on a tackle of C.J. Anderson or can’t pick off a pass that hits him? That arm could be a factor.

Denver should stick with the run regardless of effectiveness (target: 30 carries for 100 yards). Challenge Davis physically and see what happens if it’s still close in the fourth quarter. That’s what the Broncos need to do: get this one to the fourth quarter with a shot to win.

Close Game?

I would be a little surprised if this game was not competitive in the late stages. The only loss this year for Denver that was a blowout was Week 10 vs. Kansas City. Manning was injured and shouldn’t have played, and the same can be said for Sanders. Aqib Talib was suspended for his stupid eye poke the week before. Ware was out. Not to make excuses, but that game has no predictive power for Sunday night. It was the worst game of Manning’s career, but it was health related and KC pressured him over 50% of the time, which is unheard of. Since returning in Week 17, Manning has looked healthier and more capable of moving in the pocket, playing from under center, doing a rare bootleg, etc.. Otherwise, Denver lost to Oakland in a 15-12 game. That would not happen with a healthy Manning. He’s undefeated in games he finishes when his teams allow 0-16 points. There was the loss in Indy where the Broncos rallied from 17-0 down to a tie before losing 27-24. Then the Broncos blew a 17-point lead in Pittsburgh in a 34-27 loss. Again, not to make excuses, but Denver’s top three safeties were out and David Bruton played 70+ snaps with a broken leg. You saw the Patriots start to hit some plays down the field in the fourth quarter when Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward were both out with injuries. Their healthy returns for this SB are big. Safety play killed Arizona against Carolina, so Denver is going to need those guys to make a difference and not get fooled by watching Newton in the backfield.

Comebacks are rare in the Super Bowl, but both of these teams have erased multiple double-digit deficits this year, including three Denver wins after trailing by 14 points.

SBCB

Peyton Manning’s Legacy

I had to go back and read what I said two years ago when Denver was in the Super Bowl. I even had the same section heading before getting to my final prediction. At that time, I was definitely thinking more about what I wanted to see instead of what I expected to see from that game. I knew the only reason the Broncos were favored to beat Seattle was because of the season Manning had. The Seahawks were the better team. Denver didn’t have Von Miller or Chris Harris active. They never really breathed on Wilson that night. Manning needed to play a perfect game to win, and everything went off the rails from the first snap.

While a win and superb game that night would have been the ultimate way to retire on top, I don’t think retirement was as necessary for Manning two years ago. He could still play at a high level, as he did for the first half of the 2014 season. But watching the end of that season and this season, it is evident that Manning should retire after this game, win or lose. He hasn’t said it yet, but it just feels like such an obvious decision. His body cannot handle the grind of a full season anymore. The physical limitations are too much on the field now, and that’s why he’s needed this great defense to get to this point. I don’t think Kubiak’s done him a ton of favors by changing the offense, but Manning simply cannot do what he’s always done so well at a consistent level.

So more than ever I’m going into this game wanting to see him win, but knowing it’s an unlikely outcome. Carolina is favored for good reasons this time, and the ineffectiveness of this Denver offense is one of them.

It’s too Hollywood for Manning to have one last vintage performance and become the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, then promptly retire at midfield. It’s possible though, just not probable.  And it feels like the few people picking Denver are picking them for this reason (well, this and that defense). It’d be a great story.

It would also be a great way to further prove how winning Super Bowls are about team play. Manning could win a ring after having the worst season of his career. Sure, it may take a great Super Bowl performance from him to ultimately earn it — and he will have earned this ring– but he is never at this point without a full team effort, from the defense right down to backup Brock Osweiler keeping the team at a winning pace.

People want to compare this to past Super Bowls, I say look at the 1997 Broncos vs. Packers. Brett Favre was shooting for his second ring after his third MVP and was the hottest QB in the league. John Elway was old and still looking for his first ring as a huge underdog in the big game. Elway did not even play a good game by any means, but we all remember the helicopter spin he did, and how Terrell Davis carried the offense with an MVP performance. Denver pulled off the upset, and that might be the way to do it again this week. Have someone like C.J. Anderson step up as the MVP. Let Manning just manage the game instead of putting everything on his shoulders like his past Super Bowls.

Getting a second ring, a winning playoff record (14-13), maybe another game MVP award, and becoming the first QB to win Super Bowls with different teams would all be an outstanding way for Manning to walk away from the game. However, he’s probably best equipped to get those things by doing less and getting more from his teammates. Doing less should not enhance your legacy, but that’s the kind of odd situation we arrive at when it comes to rings.

If anyone ever deserved a break in the playoffs and a win on the backs of his teammates, it’s Manning.

Final Prediction

I just want to see a good game, but I’m not overly confident about that.

Final score: Panthers 23, Broncos 16

NFL Week 9 Predictions: Manning vs. Brady Is Coke vs. Pepsi

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are like Coke and Pepsi, the two biggest brands in the world.

You can appreciate both for what they are, but Coke (Manning) has always been better.

That’s my opinion and nothing I’ve seen in 14 years (and even longer on the Pepsi-Coke front) has been good enough to change my mind.

They meet for the 16th time on Sunday and I have already done a game preview at FO, so I implore you to read it if you haven’t yet.

There’s no denying this is the biggest game in the AFC this regular season. It usually is. The winner has had home-field advantage over the other except for the last two years. One of these quarterbacks has had the No. 1 seed in the AFC in eight of the last 11 seasons.

MB1

Rarely does this rivalry bring out the best in each quarterback. Only about half of the games featured both quarterbacks playing very well. An even smaller number of meetings were actually decided by one of these quarterbacks.

Last year’s 34-31 overtime classic in Foxboro was a perfect example. In a 31-31 tie, these quarterbacks had a combined seven drives to put their team ahead, but neither could do so. The Patriots only won after Denver muffed a punt return at its own 15-yard line.

Manning hasn’t won in Foxboro since the 2006 game in which he played very well, but Brady threw four interceptions in his worst performance of the series. Manning’s worst game, the 2003 AFC Championship, saw him throw four interceptions, but Brady tried his hardest to match on a sloppy day.

When you look at the nine games in Foxboro, Manning-led teams are 2-7 and constantly shot themselves in the foot on every side of the ball. Sometimes it was in the most unlikely of ways. I got a copy of the first Brady-Manning game from 2001 and somehow Edgerrin James turned this low pass into a juggling interception for the Patriots:

int

Remember the 2012 game with Denver? Demaryius Thomas fumbled in the red zone after a long gain. Danny Woodhead converted on the ground on a third-and-17 run. Manning lost  a fumble. In the fourth quarter, Willis McGahee single-handedly blew Denver’s comeback attempt by dropping a fourth-down pass and fumbling at the NE 11 with 3:42 to play.

The Brady-Manning game with some of the best quarterbacking from both was the 2004 season opener. In the fourth quarter, down 27-24 with 3:51 left, Edgerrin James fumbled at the 1-yard line on first down. Manning was later sacked by an unblocked Wilile McGinest and Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal with 19 seconds left.

Some have compared this week’s game to the 2005 meeting on Monday Night Football simply due to the alleged superiority of Manning’s team. That 2005 game was the biggest team advantage Manning’s ever had over Brady and it was a 40-21 beatdown. Both quarterbacks played at a high level, but the Colts were just too much for NE that night.

I don’t think the Broncos are that much better than the Patriots right now. It’s also not lost on me that in his five wins in the rivalry, Manning has thrown for a minimum of 321 yards and scored at least 26 points. Can he do both on Sunday? Sure, but it still feels like he’ll have to do both if Denver’s going to win. The teams aren’t uneven enough to expect he can get by with an average day.

If the game was in Denver it would probably be a comfortable win for the home team, but on Halloween weekend, I know Foxboro has been a house of horrors for Manning teams and Belichick will have Rob Gronkowski and Darrelle Revis at his disposal this time around.

Final prediction: Broncos 20, Patriots 24

NFL Week 9 Predictions

I cautiously picked the Saints on TNF, but they delivered on the road.

Winners in bold:

  • Cardinals at Cowboys
  • Redskins at Vikings
  • Chargers at Dolphins
  • Jets at Chiefs
  • Eagles at Texans
  • Jaguars at Bengals
  • Buccaneers at Browns
  • Rams at 49ers
  • Broncos at Patriots
  • Raiders at Seahawks
  • Ravens at Steelers
  • Colts at Giants

Whether it’s ailing Tony Romo or old-but-inexperienced Brandon Weeden, I’ve been big on Arizona this week. This should be the game where DeMarco Murray’s 100-yard game streak ends, but I get the feeling he’ll be force-fed the ball (30 carries if possible) because of the quarterback situation. But I like the aggressive Cardinals on the road in another tight one.

Speaking of tight ones, the Steelers and Ravens should get back to a usual 3-point outcome this week. I think the big hit Ben Roethlisberger suffered at the start of the Week 2 game threw him off that night and the Steelers are playing much better now. I like them to win 23-20 here. Roethlisberger’s stats might be cut in half after last week, but 260 yards and 3 TD sounds more than adequate against Baltimore without Jimmy Smith at CB.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 10-5
  • Total: 76-44-1

NFL Week 3 Predictions: Broncos vs. Seahawks, Take Two

I never wrote a formal recap of  the stunning domination that was Super Bowl XLVIII by Seattle over Denver. It’s the only time since the 2011 season I didn’t write a weekly recap of the NFL’s close games, because it’s the only week there weren’t any close games. We have been spoiled by great Super Bowls, and this one had all the right ingredients for a classic. It was the highest-scoring offense against a great defense. Then the highest-scoring offense in NFL history couldn’t execute a snap on the first play from scrimmage, and it was all downhill from there.

It’s probably the biggest disappointment I’ve experienced as an NFL fan in general. 43-8? Thanks for the unique score, I guess. Whatever happens in Week 3, where the schedule is seemingly titled to give this “rematch” full focus, won’t make up for the lack of competitiveness in February.

For me, the Seahawks need this win more, because they’re 1-1 in a tougher division and Denver is 2-0. It’s not like Seattle can’t rebound from 1-2, but some doubt will creep up for a team that’s as much of a favorite to repeat as any we’ve seen in years.

I think the Broncos need to show February was just an outlier. If these teams met 50 times, I’m not sure it would ever get more lopsided in Seattle’s favor than the one result that counted. Denver can’t afford a repeat, or else there will be major doubt in its ability to hang with this Seattle team. There’s nothing even close to a guarantee they’ll have to get through them to win a championship this year, but it’s certainly possible. Denver winning this game in Seattle, where we know the Seahawks are 18-1 with Russell Wilson at QB and have been extra dominant defensively, would be a big confidence builder and would help lower Seattle’s playoff chances in the process.

So what the hell went wrong on February 2, and what has really changed in seven months to expect a different outcome this time?

I wrote a really long preview for the Super Bowl, and some of it turned out to be relevant. Marshawn Lynch wasn’t a factor, Percy Harvin’s kick return value iced the game, and Seattle’s third-down pass defense was extremely decisive with two interceptions.

Denver had to be sick when watching the film on this game if only for the simple fact that the Seahawks wrapped this thing up on the strength of a couple of plays.

By the time it was 22-0 in the second quarter, Peyton Manning had thrown two incompletions of consequence.

Both were interceptions and both were the result of quick edge pressure. Now don’t get me wrong. Seattle made sure every yard and first down was like pulling teeth for the Broncos, but a long Denver drive was building when it was 15-0, then that fateful 3rd-and-13 happened. Cliff Avril again got the pressure, but this time he hit Manning while throwing and the ball just so happened to land in Malcolm Smith’s possession for a pick-six. That pretty much wrapped it up there, but Harvin’s kick return to make it 29-0 guaranteed the second half would be irrelevant.

The game was about pressure. Denver’s offense allowed the lowest rate of pressure all season, but Seattle’s defense generated the most of any defense in the last four years. Manning was only pressured about five percentage points more often than usual in this game, but it was extremely effective to get interceptions on third down. Meanwhile, no offense allowed more pressure than Seattle, but Wilson was not hit or sacked in this game by Denver’s defense, which also came away with zero takeaways (not even a forced fumble) in three playoff games last year.

Pressure’s not very consistent from year to year, but if Seattle can get some in key spots at home, they’re going to disrupt this offense again. The reconfiguration of Denver’s offensive line should help with a superior player like Ryan Clady at left tackle, but the noise is going to be an issue. Denver stupidly didn’t prepare for crowd noise in the neutral-site Super Bowl, despite having a head coach that’s been there before and Manning also should have known better. I’m sure a tactic like the silent count has been worked on this week and we’ll see Denver more prepared for the noise, but it’s obviously a significant factor in playing at Seattle.

Besides Clady, what else has changed? Seattle still looks very similar on paper, but the Broncos have 13 new starters compared to who started at each position in February. That includes a secondary Seattle didn’t see any of with Rahim Moore (IR), TJ Ward (CLE), Aqib Talib (NE) and Chris Harris (IR) plus rookie CB Bradley Roby. That also includes DeMarcus Ware (DAL) and Von Miller (IR), who must generate pressure on Wilson to have success in this game. On offense there’s Emmanuel Sanders, who will take over for Eric “Charmin Soft” Decker, who had a pathetic performance in the big game. That’s a lot of guys that don’t know anything about 43-8, because they didn’t play that day.

For Denver to keep it close in Seattle, this new defense must get after Wilson and continue containing Lynch on the ground. Keep in mind Seattle actually ranks second to Denver in points per drive thru Week 2 this year. Denver’s defense has had two suspect performances at home against the Colts and Chiefs. Alex Smith was moving well and dealing on third down last week. Denver’s new-look defense looks a lot like last year’s struggling unit despite all the changes. Harvin gave them some nightmares with the jet sweep, but defenses league-wide have to start getting prepared for that better. Seattle may also chill a bit after a horrible time to run it in San Diego with the game on the line last week (the play lost six yards).

Offensively, I would imagine Sanders or Andre Caldwell will occupy Richard Sherman, but I strongly disagree with the strategy to avoid him for the entire game like we saw in Week 1 with Green Bay. You can’t just surrender a side of the field to the defense like that. If the guy Sherman’s covering is open, throw it there. Philip Rivers didn’t show that fear last week and it turned out fine for him. Denver can keep Demaryius away from Sherman, but there’s no reason to purposely stay away from him all game long.

Demaryius also hasn’t played that well to start this season. He had an interesting Super Bowl with a lot catches, but not for a lot of yards, because Seattle’s defense swarmed and tackled so well. There just wasn’t much YAC, and that’s the kind of offense Denver has evolved into with “Old Peyton”. He’s going to have to try loosening them up a bit more with intermediate (15-25 yards) routes. It can’t be a lot of screens or Seattle will continue stifling this offense.

The key to this game is Julius Thomas, but after the trouble Antonio Gates gave Seattle last week, don’t you think both sides expect that? Julius has looked great this year, but I’m skeptical he can make the tough catches the veteran Gates did last week. He’s still young and learning. He wasn’t much of a factor in the Super Bowl, but for Denver to win this game, he has to play big this week. I’m not fond of Wes Welker’s return to a physical matchup like this one. He might leave with yet another concussion. No matter who Peyton targets, you know the ball is coming out very quick. It was still coming out in 2.6 seconds in the Super Bowl, but that wasn’t enough against some of that crucial edge pressure.

What Denver must do differently is stick with the running game even if it’s not that efficient. Before two garbage-time carries by C.J. Anderson in the Super Bowl, the Broncos had 11 carries for 18 yards — the same numbers Denver had in a Week 15 loss to San Diego. That’s the worst rushing support Manning’s had in his 265-game career. The score had a lot to do with that, but Denver still abandoned the run.

San Diego stuck with the run despite its inefficiency last week so that Rivers didn’t have to make every play. He also got his running backs involved with nine catches, which I think Manning needs to do more of with Montee Ball and Anderson. Attack the short middle of the field and flats. I feel like last year Denver watched San Diego shred Dallas, albeit a horrific defense, and used some of that knowledge (similar offense with Mike McCoy) in the following week in that classic 51-48 win in Dallas. The Broncos could once again learn a few things from San Diego’s trial run against Seattle.

All the talk after the Super Bowl was that Denver’s just not physical enough to beat Seattle (or San Francisco). Well, it just so happens they caught a break with the schedule and will play this NFC West this year. So the first litmus test is this week in the toughest place to play in the NFL right now. I’m not sure how a team gets “tougher” without a simple dose of more running plays. This is still a Manning-led offense, which has pretty much looked the same as it always has this season. It’s always been about execution, but rarely has the execution ever been so poor as it was that night in February, and while Seattle had a lot to do with that, there are some opportunities for Denver to make corrections and give us a more competitive game this time.

I think that’s enough analysis for a Week 3 game, so onto the prediction.

Final prediction: Seahawks 27, Broncos 20

NFL Week 3 Predictions

Can we get a Thursday game that’s not won by 20+ points by the home team? I picked Atlanta to win, but that was embarrassing, Tampa Bay. I’m glad I picked you to finish last place in the division, but 7-9 is looking far too kind.

Winners in bold:

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

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Total: 17-15

I only picked six of them, but I like a lot of the road teams this week. Ravens can certainly win, but I like Cleveland’s rushing attack right now and maybe the football gods will intervene here if you’ve been following the news.

2014 NFL Predictions

I just want something I can never have…a perfect week of NFL predictions. But before we get into my weekly picks every Saturday, here are my full season predictions for the 2014 season.

Last year I had Denver beating Atlanta in the Super Bowl. Half right. Okay, more like a quarter right. Picking all 256 games before Week 1, my record was 152-103-1 (.596), or one game worse than just picking every single home team. That’s still not bad given the ebb and flow of an NFL season, but I’m striving to do better this year.

I predicted 20 teams within two games of their actual record, but had some notable misses in a year where three teams declined by at least seven wins for only the second time since the merger.

2013smiths

Dramatic falls and rises shouldn’t happen again this year, but you never know. Chad Henne could tear his ACL on Sunday and Blake Bortles ends up leading the Jaguars to an AFC South title. The pieces to this 2014 puzzle have been moving for seven months already, but the real fun starts tonight.

This year’s band to set up each team’s theme is Nine Inch Nails. It’s hard to believe Pretty Hate Machine is 25 years old and The Downward Spiral is 20 years old. We’re also up to season 95 of the NFL.

Honest note: proofreading was at a minimum on this piece, and I shot from the hip more than doing new research under a time crunch. After seven long months of research, writing and waiting, I just want to watch some real f’n football games.

 

NFC EAST

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Nine Inch Nails: “Closer”

Stat: The 2013 Eagles averaged 7.04 yards after catch, the highest since 1992 according to STATS LLC.

If you read my Eagles chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 (purchased here), then you might think I want to feel Chip Kelly from the inside. Unlike DeSean Jackson, who won’t be a big loss, I have fully bought into Chip’s offense. However, where’s the improvement coming from on defense when not much has changed from last year’s lackluster group? As much as I want to push this team into the next tier in the NFC, I’m hesitant because of that defense. There’s also a 2012-13 Washington feel with this team minus the quarterback nursing a torn ACL. Remember, the Eagles were 3-5 before rallying and had the fewest injuries in the league. Nick Foles only threw two picks. These things regress to the mean and he was living off play-action passing down the winning stretch. Sounds like RGIII’s rookie year a bit, doesn’t it? I’m not one for teams “catching up” to Chip, and I think this offense almost has too many weapons, but it wouldn’t shock me to see some decline here. Still, this is the best team in the division and they could get closer to the top of the conference.

2. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

Nine Inch Nails: “Hurt”

Stat: No team in NFL history has ever finished .500 in four consecutive seasons, but the 2011-13 Cowboys are only the fourth team to spend three seasons in purgatory.

Based on my stat, I shouldn’t pick 8-8 again, right? Well, things just broke that way as they usually do for Dallas. Jason Garrett’s never won more than four in a row; never lost more than two in a row. He does just enough to keep his job. The offense should be effective as long as Tony Romo’s behind center, but good lord this defense gets worse every time I look at it. Beyond players who left in the offseason, there are a bunch of injuries, disappointment and underachieving. It’s hard to get worse than last year, but where will the impact plays come from? I feel like 8-8 would actually be an achievement this season for Dallas. The bottom could fall out here.

3. New York Giants (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Downward Spiral”

Stat: Giants had the most injuries of any team in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric.

A ton of injuries (especially at RB/CB) and Eli Manning led the league in interceptions (27). Sounds like a good candidate for regression, but this is the downward spiral choice as the Giants have gone from my division winner to 5-11 over the past few months. The new offense with the laughable goal of 70 percent completions for Eli has been a mess so far. What if he doesn’t recover? There’s a lot of turnover on the line and Hakeem Nicks has moved on. Rookie Odell Beckham Jr. hasn’t been able to get on the field. The starting tight end is a nobody. This team has to be carried by its defense, which fortunately should be pretty good with additions like Stevie Brown (hurt in 2013) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. I can see 7-9 happening, but the Tom Coughlin/Eli era is deep into its third act and we’re probably not going to get a happy ending.

4. Washington Redskins (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “Disappointed”

Stat: Washington has used the second-highest rate of play-action passing since 2012 (roughly 35 percent). In three years as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, coach Jay Gruden used play action sparingly: 16.4% (2011), 17.1% (2012), 18.9% (2013).

Last year I picked Washington to win 10 games and miss the playoffs. They disappointed greatly with a 3-13 finish. The offense couldn’t score early in games, the defense was a sieve, so there was no controlling of games with the run and play-action like in 2012 when Robert Griffin III had great numbers. Expecting about seven wins this year, my run through of the schedule only produced a 4-12 record. What we know is this receiving corps is loaded with talent, including the Drag King (DeSean Jackson) and Drag Qu–better not (Garcon). Very interested to see Jordan Reed play a full season at tight end. That’s a nice group, but will the quarterback get them the ball consistently? Will Griffin stop taking horrible hits on the sidelines and will he ever learn to slide so that it doesn’t look like he’s trying to shit in the woods?

Griffin’s going to play somewhere in between his first two years, but I’m skeptical of what he does in an offense that seemingly won’t be so dependent on making things look like zone read and play-action. For all we know, Gruden did a hell of a job getting everything he could out of Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, but this is going to be an adjustment for RGIII. The defense is pretty much a dumpster fire after Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan. Too many guys on the wrong side of 30 and some of the most overrated multi-time Pro Bowlers in NFL history (DeAngelo Hall and Brandon Meriweather).

 

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (13-3)

Nine Inch Nails: “Wish”

Stat: I jinxed them on every interesting streak last year, so I’ll have to find new stuff.

Repeat after me, Patriots fans.

  • 2005: We wish Tom Brady didn’t throw that pass to Champ Bailey in the end zone.
  • 2006: We wish we didn’t blow an 18-point lead in Indianapolis.
  • 2007: We wish Rodney Harrison decapitated David Tyree so he couldn’t make the helmet catch.
  • 2008: We wish Bernard Pollard was never born.
  • 2009-10: We wish we could outscore Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez at home.
  • 2011: We wish Eli Manning didn’t save his best throws for our defense.
  • 2012-13: We wish Rob Gronkowski and Aqib Talib didn’t break so easily late in the season.

Since last winning a Super Bowl over nine years ago, it’s been a lot of the same for the Patriots each year. You can pencil them in for 12+ wins. You can also take an opponent on the schedule and pick them to beat the Patriots in a playoff rematch, because that’s exactly what happened in their last eight playoff appearances. This year they play the likes of Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, San Diego and Green Bay. Take your pick.

I expect Brady to play better, Gronkowski to play more games and Bill Belichick will use Darrelle Revis the way he’s supposed to be used. This is probably the best defense the Patriots have fielded since the rebuild began about five years ago. I like the Patriots to get the No. 1 seed simply because they play an easier schedule than Denver and get home-field advantage for the third year in a row when they play the Broncos in Week 9. Just have to wish everything goes right in the playoffs like they did a decade ago.

2. Miami Dolphins (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “Into the Void”

Stat: Despite a league-worst 58 sacks, Ryan Tannehill had the 13th-lowest pressure rate of qualified quarterbacks last year.

Tannehill and Joe Philbin are starting to run low on chances to prove they’re the right people for their jobs. It’s a tough task: bringing the Dolphins out of sustained mediocrity/general irrelevance ever since Dan Marino retired. For Tannehill, he’s really struggled with pressure the last two years. His offensive line should be a little better this year, though Mike Pouncey needs to get back on the field ASAP. Mike Wallace has been on a steady decline since the midpoint of 2011, but it’s hard to get any worse than last year when he just couldn’t generate the big plays down the field. A new offensive coordinator will help too, but the offense is going to have to pick things up to carry this team over the hump. The defense should be okay, but the annual story of waiting for a quarterback to blossom in this post-Marino era remains the most critical part of any Dolphins season. A good start with the Patriots at home — that was probably Tannehill’s most impressive game last year in December — is huge.

 3. New York Jets (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “Down In It”

Stat: The 2013 Jets had the worst scoring differential (-97) for an 8-8 team in NFL history.

Last year’s Jets were of the “win close, lose big” variety. With Geno Smith leading five game-winning drives, it was a poor man’s version of the 2012 Colts, who still rebounded to make the playoffs in 2013. I’m not confident in Geno as I am Luck, but he does have better weapons this year. Eric Decker will show up against the lousy defenses and disappear against the good ones. His vertical game matches up well with Geno’s skillset. I know I predicted terrible things for the Jets (and Bills) last year too and was burned, but I just think last season’s record was a mirage and there’s more to fix on the defense than we imagine. The secondary, especially cornerback, is a mess right now. Rex Ryan can coach defense and he might have the best defensive line (in the AFC), but we haven’t truly seen a top-notch unit since 2010. That’s also the last time the Jets were anything better than a .500 team with a bunch of bad losses on their resume.

 4. Buffalo Bills (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “Something I Can Never Have”

Stat: The only team in the 21st century to not make the NFL playoffs.

I won’t sugarcoat it: I hate writing about Buffalo because it’s the same stories every year. Will the quarterback be any good? Can they score points? Is the defense good enough to carry the offense to a winning record? And the answer is always no. This year especially, I see a team wallowing for the top pick in the draft. How can the defense improve on last year when it lost its defensive coordinator, its two best players (Jairus Byrd and Kiko Alonso) and had career-years in sack production from Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes? That just screams regression, especially given the success without getting pressure.

Speaking of pressure, EJ Manuel had the third-lowest DVOA without pressure (10.3%) in 2013. I found 40 examples since 2010 where a quarterback had a DVOA without pressure under 20.0%. Not one of those quarterbacks was a good starter after that point. This is something reserved for the worst quarterbacks in the league or guys on the decline. Matt Schaub did that last year and he’s already lost his job to Derek Carr. Eli Manning also did it and I’m skeptical of his future. Manuel hasn’t looked good this preseason, but that is just preseason football. This could be a run-heavy offense again with two good backs, but Manuel has to step up with what is a talented receiving corps.

 

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

Nine Inch Nails: “Even Deeper”

Stat: 2009-14 Packers can tie franchise record for most consecutive playoff appearances (6; 1993-98).

Insert mandatory line about as long as Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the division, the Packers are the NFC North favorites. That’s still the case. What I don’t see is a defense good enough to make this a Super Bowl team in the loaded NFC. The year the defense actually played up to that level was 2010 and we know what happened then. The offense will be very good as long as Rodgers is healthy, but when matched up with a team like the Seahawks or 49ers, I’m not sold on the Packers. They’re 0-5 against those teams since 2012 and I like Seattle in the opener. Green Bay also has to travel to New Orleans for an expected shootout, but it’s those tough road games that make me think the Packers won’t be getting a first-round bye, meaning they’ll likely return to the same difficult venues in January. If they can’t dig deeper and grind out those road wins, they’re not ready for another title run.

2. Chicago Bears (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Mr. Self Destruct”

Stat: In 2013, Josh McCown (8.0%) and Jay Cutler (-23.8%) finished 1st and 2nd in DVOA with pressure.

My initial run through the games produced a 13-3 record for Chicago. That’s not happening. I like Marc Trestman, but this team’s still a bit flawed for that kind of record. Jay Cutler has shown almost no progression since the first start of his career since 2006. He’ll make beautiful throws. He’ll make horrible throws. He’ll come through in the clutch. He’ll get you blown out before halftime. He is what he is, but he can lead this team to the playoffs with talented skill players and their wide catch radius. Alshon Jeffery was more impressive than Brandon Marshall last year in my eyes. The defense used to be so reliable, but the core has gotten old and there were too many injuries right down the middle last year. Safety play leaves much to be desired. Still, better health and talent can get this group to being at least mediocre, which is good enough mixed with a high-scoring offense.

3. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “Kinda I Want To”

Stat: Mike Zimmer has been a defensive coordinator for the last 14 seasons. His defense’s average rank in points per drive is 14.6, finishing as high as third last year with Cincinnati.

Last year I was really hard on the Vikings, and rightfully so. This year, I kind of wanted to make them a playoff team, but the tough schedule made that too hard. I also wish they would have just let Teddy Bridgewater take over as QB1 from the start and insulated him with a very talented offense, a strong running game and Norv Turner’s knowledge. The weapons and line are there, but they’re going to start with Matt Cassel and the book’s been out on him. He’ll look good against the soft defenses, but match the Vikings up with a better opponent and the mistakes will shine through. Bridgewater rarely threw picks in college. He’s the future, but I wish he was the present. Zimmer’s going to make the defense better after an awful 2013, but he doesn’t have a full deck yet like he was getting close to in Cincinnati. Maybe next year, Minnesota.

4. Detroit Lions (6-10)

Nine Inch Nails: “Head Like a Hole”

Stat: The 2013 Lions tied the NFL record (2000 Chargers) by blowing seven fourth-quarter leads.

I’m just going to post this copy of Jim Caldwell’s resume I “found” one day…

jimcald

Lions needed a change at the top, but I’m not sold Caldwell is the right guy for the job. Mike Tanier made a great point in FOA 2014 about the Lions being hit hardest by the old CBA in having to dish out huge contracts to top picks like Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh. Johnson has lived up to the hype, but Stafford still has the funky mechanics and bad decisions. Suh leads a defense that’s been mediocre at best and he’s not consistently a force in the middle. He’s pretty good at getting fined though.

These players take up so much of the cap space that it’s hard to build the rest of the team. They have more receivers than ever before around Stafford this year, but the defense doesn’t have much outside of the line, especially in the secondary. That’s why there will be plenty of high-scoring games and the more put on Stafford’s plate, the more likely he starts making those costly mistakes. A lot of people are high on the 2014 Lions, but FO’s projections were not. Based on this team’s history, I think another losing season should surprise no one. As much as the Lions want to taste victory, their mouths are dry in the end. They’ll probably score too many points to only win six games, but this isn’t a playoff team in a conference with contenders who can do multiple things at a high level.

 

AFC NORTH

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Every Day Is Exactly the Same”

Stat: The 2004-2013 Steelers are the 8th team in the Super Bowl era to go a decade without a losing record and having outscored their opponents in each season.

You knew I’d pick that song, right? “The standard is the standard” for Mike Tomlin. So we’re just waiting for the Steelers to get a few ball bounces and break out of this 8-8 mediocrity. I originally didn’t want to pick the Steelers to win the AFC North, but we’ll probably have at least one new division winner in the AFC, right? The elements of a few great players, an easy schedule and a division without a juggernaut help the Steelers, but those same things all existed in last year’s 8-8 finish.

The fear with the Steelers is they only got marginally better this offseason. Dri Archer could grow into having a Darren Sproles-type impact if Todd Haley uses him right (holding my breath there). Mike Munchak could be huge for the offensive line if he maximizes the talent David DeCastro has. Ryan Clark was too old at safety, so insert Mike Mitchell. Ryan Shazier’s speed is going to create a lot of plays. However, the rest of the secondary remains intact and that’s not great news if Ike Taylor is going to keep giving up completions and amassing penalties.

Does Ben Roethlisberger actually get his no-huddle offense this year? We’ll see, but that would be one welcomed change to a team that seems to be slow in keeping up with evolving trends.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Ruiner”

Stat: Andy Dalton has increased his touchdowns, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and yards per attempt each year of his career.

In a three-team race for the division, the Bengals probably have the best roster, but the least trustworthy quarterback. We’ve at least seen Joe Flacco go on a great run against superior competition. Andy Dalton has been absolutely dreadful in playoff games. My opinion of him really soured this offseason when I looked at the catch radius for A.J. Green and Marvin Jones. Dalton takes advantage of his playmakers by allowing them to create a great highlight reel on difficult catches that aren’t great throws. When people talk about a quarterback being made better by his weapons, Dalton is the example to point to. While after looking at more receivers I felt better about Dalton, but then I looked at his playoff loss to San Diego and again found instances of Jermaine Gresham, a 6’5″ tight end having to leap off the ground and fully extend his arms above the head for a catch. Dalton is not an accurate quarterback by any means, but he’s still very rich now.

JGreshb

Marvin Lewis has somehow made it to a 12th season in Cincinnati without a single playoff win. Expectations will be high again, but both coordinators are gone. This is a crucial season in Cincinnati and while I think the talent is there to win 10 games, a decline out of the playoffs wouldn’t be surprising. After all, how many teams consistently win with average quarterback play?

3. Baltimore Ravens (9-7)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Only Time”

Stat: Despite one of the worst rushing attacks in the last 25 years, Joe Flacco had his highest DVOA yet on play-action passes.

Last year was the only time John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco failed to make the playoffs together in six seasons. It’s the only time Flacco failed to throw no more than 12 interceptions (career-high 22). It’s the only time Ray Rice punched…Okay, it was a really bad year and not a great offseason for the Ravens. Basking in the glow of their Super Bowl title, a poached roster had a difficult time last year with sustaining offense.

I think Gary Kubiak could be huge for that running game, which was so ineffective all season regardless if it was Rice or Bernard Pierce. The play-action game oddly worked, but Baltimore rarely used it. Some of the best play-action attacks in recent time were Kubiak’s in Houston, so I think he can do a good job here with a pretty talented receiving corps. There’s a deep threat (Torrey Smith), a veteran underneath (Steve Smith), a tall/red zone guy (Marlon Brown), another deep threat/return specialist (Jacoby Jones) and tight end Dennis Pitta is healthy again. I also think Michael Campanaro could be a good slot receiver. The offense will get better, but this is still a team led by defense. The front seven is loaded with talent, but they are old. At least rookie C.J. Mosley is there to bring the snap-weighted age down. Secondary depth and the safety position in particular concern me, but I have the Ravens getting off to a nice start and they’ll be a factor in the playoff race.

4. Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Wretched”

Stat: Browns are 3-22 (.120) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities since 2011.

One of the most agonizing stories this offseason was Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel. It’s Hoyer in Week 1, but it doesn’t matter which quarterback starts, because this will be one of the worst offenses in the league. Even with Josh Gordon’s incredible effort last year, the Browns ranked 28th in offensive points per drive. Where will the points come from this year? The ghost of Miles Austin? Ben Tate? Manziel scrambles? It’s no longer Brandon Weeden and T-Rich, but there’s not much here. The defense will keep this team competitive in many games and Mike Pettine should have a solid impact there. However, Pettine seems cursed to work with terrible offenses each year and I see no reason why the 2014 Browns will be any different. I’m glad Hoyer is starting too. After the impending bad September, we can stop saying he has a winning record as Cleveland’s starter in a stretch that wasn’t all that last year.

 

NFC SOUTH

1. New Orleans Saints (14-2)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Perfect Drug”

Stat: We think of the Saints as a scoring juggernaut, but nine teams actually scored more points than New Orleans (414) in 2013.

I’ve been high on this team all offseason. The defense is getting closer to the offense, which should be great with better wide receiver depth to go along with Jimmy Graham. Drew Brees is my MVP pick. He might even avoid the annual stinker game against an inferior opponent he has every year. He’ll have to if the Saints are to have a shot at the top seed and not have to worry about traveling to Seattle where they are 0-3 since 2010. I’m all in on the Saints in this division. They just better get that four-minute offense fixed, because it stung them against the Patriots and Panthers last year.

2. Carolina Panthers (8-8)

Nine Inch Nails: “Where Is Everybody?”

Stat: Panthers lost 80.2% of its secondary snaps from 2013.

panth

The Panthers burned me in last year’s predictions by finally winning several close games on their way to the playoffs. Then they burned a lot of their roster. Who are these Panthers? One of the league’s very best front sevens is still there, but the secondary, offensive line and wide receivers have gone through major changes without many great additions. I don’t think they’re that bad off at wideout now with veterans and Kelvin Benjamin should be productive right away. Greg Olsen should have his best year. The line is a little scary and we’ve already seen the usually durable Cam Newton have some rib issues this preseason. The secondary was the weak link last year, but it actually didn’t play that poorly and the Panthers were still very good on defense without getting pressure. They didn’t draft any studs or sign any great free agents to replace those guys, so I think the weakness just got weaker. I also think Riverboat Ron was overblown last year and this is still a team with several holes that need fixed before we can entertain the thought that this is a Super Bowl contender.

3. Atlanta Falcons (8-8)

Nine Inch Nails: “Starfuckers, Inc.”

Stat: The 2013 Falcons had the highest pass ratio on offense in NFL history (68.7%). And there’s an 87% chance Bryan Cox owns Wild Hogs on DVD.

When did the Falcons become the boring version of the Cowboys? They have a couple of stars (heavily slanted towards offense), a lack of depth and they barely try to run the ball anymore. Jake Matthews has big shoes to fill at left tackle, but he has the pedigree. Matt Ryan had a better year than most will give him credit for, but this offense has sputtered out in the red zone in crucial situations way too often since 2012. It cost them a Super Bowl appearance and a couple of games last year. Take away a HOFer like Tony Gonzalez and replace him with nothing proven and that’s going to be hard to overcome. At least Julio Jones is back, but for how long? He hasn’t been a pillar of health. The offense has to compensate for the defense, which has lost defensive captain Sean Weatherspoon again. After cornerback Desmond Trufant, I’m not sure there’s much on this defense for the long-term. I still think Ryan and Mike Smith are one of the league’s better QB-HC pairings and this team will be better, but they’re not ready for a playoff return.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “With Teeth”

Stat: Last season, Josh McCown became the only QB since 2010 to have a positive DVOA (8.0%) while under pressure. Yeah, life doesn’t make much sense.

We’re going to see the impact of coaching here. Greg Schiano had a great player at every level of the defense (Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Darrelle Revis) and still didn’t get good results last year. Lovie Smith will turn that around and get this unit playing well with Alterraun Verner replacing Revis. David is one of the most underrated defenders in the league.

They’ll be fine defensively, but where the coaching may hurt is on offense where Lovie’s teams usually are lackluster. McCown doesn’t have Marc Trestman this time. He does have two big receivers again, but Mike Evans is a rookie and perhaps not ready to break out like Alshon Jeffery last year. Doug Martin returning will help and the Logan Mankins trade was good, but the offensive line will have to quickly build chemistry. I just can’t trust McCown to continue his success in a different system and personally, I would have never signed him and just let Mike Glennon keep the job. Sure, Gumby the Gargantuan looks awkward as hell out there, but he was slicing and dicing the Seahawks in Seattle for a half as a rookie. Give the kid another shot. I bet we see him this year too. McCown is 35.

 

AFC SOUTH

1. Indianapolis Colts (12-4)

Nine Inch Nails: “Survivalism”

Stat: Colts are 16-2 (.889) in games decided by 1-8 points since 2012. #Luck

The 12-4 record doesn’t match the direction I feel this franchise is headed, but if any team’s going to post a 12-4 record with big flaws, it’s the Colts. Who will generate pressure without Robert Mathis as he serves his four-game suspension? Even when Mathis comes back, you have to raise your eyebrows about his career season resulting in a suspension for PEDs. Why is the defense so old with an average age of 29.5 for the main starters and nickel back? Who the heck is the interior offensive line this year? Will Trent Richardson even get back to being “3.0” and how long can Pep Hamilton keep giving him the ball?

I’ve bounced around this offseason from having the Colts in the Super Bowl to remembering they have Delano Howell at starting safety, so how would that be possible? They don’t even have Howell (neck) now, because this is one of the most injured teams year after year. Andrew Luck has his best group of receivers yet, but the Colts need to utilize them with empty sets and using Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen together at least 80 times this year. That’s a tough formation to defend, especially when Luck can scramble so well. Last year wasn’t the huge leap forward for Luck, but he did get better and I think he can improve more with this receiving cast.

I’m not sure how I got 12-4 when the Mathis-less Colts start with Denver and Philadelphia. Are the Colts ready to take down a Denver or New England to get to the Super Bowl? I don’t really see it, and the AFC South should be getting better in a hurry. Luck continues to give the Colts the edge here, but that window is closing until the Colts decide to open things up a little more.

2. Houston Texans (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Becoming”

Stat: Since 1970 merger, only two teams have ever declined by 10 wins excluding strike seasons: 1993-94 Houston Oilers and 2012-13 Houston Texans.

Damn that was almost a perfect draft with Jadeveon Clowney and one pick away from getting Teddy Bridgewater too. That combination of Clowney and J.J. Watt will be tough on bad lines, but we’ve seen even with the greatness of Watt the Texans can get torn apart defensively or lose 14 games in a row. They’ll win a handful this year with new coach Bill O’Brien and a new quarterback: bearded-hasbeen Ryan Fitzpatrick or neverwas Ryan Mallett. But I think the quarterback of the future resides in next year’s draft for Houston. Get that piece in place and this team can be in a good position very soon.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “Find My Way”

Stat: With Maurice Jones-Drew gone, the 2014 AFC South is the first division since 2002 to not return a single rushing leader from the year before (Donald Brown in Indianapolis, Chris Johnson in Tennessee and Ben Tate in Houston).

Blake Bortles. I can’t believe Jacksonville has gone with Chad Henne to start the season and a plan to keep Bortles on the bench all year. That’s just not the NFL anymore, and Bortles was very impressive this preseason with his Roethlisberger-esque style. If Luke Joeckel wants to “forget” his blocking assignment and get Chad Henne destroyed, that might be the best thing for this team. I kid, only a little. But I think we’ll see Bortles at some point this year and he’ll make the Jaguars one of the trendiest playoff picks in 2015. Hell, I’m already seeing it this year, but as long as it’s Henne, that’s not happening.

4. Tennessee Titans (4-12)

Nine Inch Nails: “You Know What You Are?”

Stat: In 2013, Kendall Wright had two touchdowns on 94 receptions. He’s only the fourth WR to have no more than two touchdowns with at least 90 catches in a season.

I picked four wins for the Titans last year and they surprised with seven. This team’s hard to figure out, but let’s review some facts. Jake Locker isn’t very accurate or durable. Ken Whisenhunt hasn’t had any success in his career unless he’s had a great quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner or Philip Rivers last year. Ray Horton’s defenses have been fairly mediocre the last few years, and the Cardinals didn’t miss a step without him last year. Will Jurrell Casey get as much pressure as a 3-4 DE? That’s hard to do, and he is one of the few real bright spots in place on this otherwise bland, directionless team.

The 2013 AFC South had a rotten year, but playing the AFC West and NFC West had a huge impact on the records. The schedules should be easier this year, and that fact alone should help some of these teams win more games, though I think this division is a big part of why the AFC is so top-heavy right now. We’re still waiting for something to spark in the South besides Indianapolis. To me, the Titans have the least going on of these three teams.

 

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (14-2)

Nine Inch Nails: “Ringfinger”

Stat: Seattle has had a fourth-quarter lead in 30 consecutive games (including playoffs). I’ll have to dig, but this could be the all-time record.

The defending Super Bowl champion hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 Patriots, but that’s going to change this year. Seattle’s in as good of shape as any team to repeat. The defense won’t be as historically great, but it will still be dominant. The offense could really get better with a healthier offensive line and actual snaps from Percy Harvin on offense. Doug Baldwin is underrated and I like Jermaine Kearse too. Russell Wilson didn’t really grow from his rookie year, but his level of play was so consistent and high enough already. His best days are ahead of him, but the time for winning rings is now.

2. San Francisco 49ers (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “And All That Could Have Been”

Stat: The 2011-13 49ers are the 11th team to lose to the eventual champion in three straight postseasons. In year four, the previous 10 teams missed the playoffs six times, lost a Super Bowl and won three championships.

The NFC West is the best division in football, but I feel like the 49ers are a clear No. 2 behind Seattle. The gap was much smaller last year, but the 49ers are down too many key defenders for me to believe they’ll still be a 12-4 team. I like Colin Kaepernick and his deepest set of weapons yet, but the identity of this team has been running and defense. Those teams have a short shelf life of success and you wonder how long Jim Harbaugh’s intensity will carry the way. The 49ers are a playoff-caliber team, but it’s another long trip as the Wild Card, which means an extra game and all road appearances. I think we’ll be looking back at this team and how it was one play or one score away from winning or at least getting to multiple Super Bowls. That’s not to say the run is over, but the off-field issues and some shaky drafting the last few years could start to catch up.

3. Arizona Cardinals (6-10)

Nine Inch Nails: ‘Somewhat Damaged”

Stat: Since moving to Arizona/Phoenix in 1988, the Cardinals have had one running back rush for 1,000 yards and average 4.0 yards per carry in the same season: Beanie Wells, 1,047 yards, 4.27 YPC (2011)

A surprise 10-6 team last year, the Cardinals are going to take a step back with that hard schedule and too many losses on defense. Darnell Dockett, Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby are big losses in the front seven. Larry Foote and John Abraham (who was great last year) are really up there in years. Antonio Cromartie had a horrible season in 2013. Patrick Peterson takes on a tough responsibility each week, but he’s not exactly a shutdown corner. I think the defense regresses and this becomes a more offensive team, which is really where the pieces are right now with a bunch of Notre Dame guys and Larry Fitzgerald. The Cardinals actually have options at tight end for a change with John Carlson and Troy Niklas. Andre Ellington could have a huge year, but as the stat above shows, running backs usually die out in the desert. I was never a fan of Carson Palmer in a Bruce Arians offense, and I think he played to expectations last year. When protected, he was quite good. When pressured, he was a bottom five quarterback in the league. He’s not Luck or Roethlisberger, but Arians don’t currr. Palmer will pile up volume numbers, but Arizona’s not going to live up to last year.

4. St. Louis Rams (5-11)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Fragile”

Stat: No St. Louis receiver has had 700 receiving yards in a season since Torry Holt in 2008.

I actually tend to believe Shaun Hill is a better quarterback than Sam Bradford. He’s been in this spot before, replacing what was a disappointing No. 1 overall pick (Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford) and keeping the team competitive. He has one of the best touchdown-to-interception ratios (1.78) ever. He doesn’t have to carry the team, and I think they can max out at eight wins. However, I had a hell of a time with the difficult schedule in giving them any more than five wins. It’s not that the Rams are bad, but they’re just not great at most levels beyond that front seven. Most of the teams they will see this year are simply better.

 

AFC WEST

1. Denver Broncos (13-3)

Nine Inch Nails: “We’re In This Together”

Stat: Peyton Manning is 80-0 when his team allows fewer than 17 points, excluding a 16-10 loss he left after two series in Week 17, 2007.

I’m still trying to figure out what the hell that was in XLVIII. Remember when the highest-scoring team ever came out in the Super Bowl and couldn’t even get the first snap off correctly? Can we just jump to the postseason? The regular season is a formality for the Broncos. They’ll lose in Seattle, lose in New England and split with the Chargers. That’s 13-3, but I think losing the game in New England is why the Broncos will drop to the second seed. Yes, they were still the top seed the last two years despite losing in Foxboro — again, this is an awful scheduling quirk by the NFL where teams are playing at the same site three years in a row — but that won’t happen for a third year in a row. Playing the AFC West and NFC West is going to be tough. The Patriots have the easier road.

Come playoff time, let’s see what Denver has learned. The schedule works out beautifully in the sense that they played the Seahawks and 49ers in the preseason and in the regular season. If “being more physical” is the key to not letting 43-8 happen again, then they’re going to get a good litmus test. Frankly, I don’t know what more the offense can do to match up with Seattle. They’re still going to run Peyton Manning’s offense, and we know what that looks like. Can the receivers separate or do anything after the catch? Can they block that quick edge pressure that caused some huge problems last year? Can they run the ball at all? This isn’t suddenly going to be the 1998 Broncos. Montee Ball isn’t Terrell Davis.

That’s why I think the way for Denver to win this year’s Super Bowl is for the defense to step up and turn the tables on those top teams. Get after a Russell Wilson (wasn’t hit in Super Bowl) or Drew Brees. Cause turnovers, which Denver failed to do even once in three playoff games last year. Keep the game competitive. The Super Bowl was 15-0 Seattle and Manning had only thrown one incompletion to that point. Things got out of hand so fast.

Maybe this is the year the Broncos play more complementary football and the ball bounces their way. Somehow, the Broncos are 28-8 with Manning despite a -9 turnover differential (same as 6-26 Jacksonville). That team in Seattle? It has a +41 turnover differential since 2012 (Patriots are +36). The Denver offense won’t be record-setting against a tougher schedule. I predict they’ll score 492 points, down from 606 last year. The defense should be much better. For all the talk about the new additions (and they are nice), I think Von Miller and Ryan Clady returning is as big of news as any move.

Wes Welker and Danny Trevathan missing early games? Forget about that. It’s Super Bowl or bust for this team. We’ll see if the new additions on defense pay off. It worked for the 1994 49ers, who had to get over the Dallas hurdle in the playoffs. Three Dallas turnovers set up a 21-0 lead for the 49ers halfway into the first quarter of the 1994 NFC Championship. They held on for the win on a day where Steve Young only completed 13-of-29 passes for 155 yards. It’s not about just having a record-setting offense or superior defense. It’s getting your units to play together and that’s what the Broncos have to do against better competition.

2. San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Nine Inch Nails: “Just Like You Imagined”

Stat: San Diego had a league-low 158 offensive drives in 2013, but ranked second in points per drive (2.46) to only Denver (2.98).

Once upon a time Philip Rivers was essentially the sixth-best quarterback in the league and very consistent, getting San Diego in the playoffs in 2006-09. Then he started making more mistakes, especially in situational football and appeared to be on the decline. Last year, he was back to form and there’s no reason not to expect he can stay there in Mike McCoy’s offense. I still say Keenan Allen should have won OROY, and there are several other quality receivers in this offense along with three running backs who can play and fill every role. They’ll be fine on that side of the ball. The improvement has to come on defense, which shouldn’t be hard after how bad things were for most of last season. The fewest drives per game was the result of an efficient, ball-control offense for both San Diego and its opponents. The Chargers couldn’t stop teams until later in the season when they fared well with Cincinnati (especially in the playoffs) and even stole a win in Denver on a Thursday night. The division’s really not up for grabs, but I like San Diego as a solid Wild Card team with a chance to upset just about anyone in the AFC.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)

Nine Inch Nails: “The Big Come Down”

Stat: After starting 9-0, the Chiefs finished the season 2-6, including a 28-point blown lead in the playoffs.

This is the Carolina of the AFC. The quarterback’s basically average, but he’s right up there with Peyton and Brees if you ask John Lynch. The offensive line has lost several players, including the left tackle (Branden Albert). Eric Fisher was awful last year, but fortunately he was just a rookie. Brandon Flowers left the secondary where there’s question marks at cornerback and the safety next to Eric Berry. They didn’t really add anything to the receiving corps besides getting a healthy (but unproven) Travis Kelce back at tight end. The draft didn’t add an instant impact starter. Dee Ford’s not likely to steal much playing time from Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. There’s not a lot to like here in terms of a playoff team. Going from the easiest schedule to what’s projected as the second toughest is a big deal. Having the second-fewest injuries means you’re probably going to have more this year. At best, this is maybe the eighth-best team in the AFC.

4. Oakland Raiders (3-13)

Nine Inch Nails: “Help Me I Am In Hell”

Stat: Oakland finished 4-12 or worse in 38.5 percent of Football Outsiders’ season simulations — highest rate of any team.

Eleven seasons without a winning record or a playoff appearance sums it up enough. At least we’ll see Derek Carr early, which could provide some hope (Matt Schaub is washed up), or could tell the Raiders they need to take Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston next year. Khalil Mack should be pretty good, and hey, that’s one piece for the future. The other pieces are relics of the past with Oakland’s spending spree at the thrift store adding LaMarr Woodley, Justin Tuck, Antonio Smith, Donald Penn, Maurice Jones-Drew, James Jones and Carlos Rogers.

It’s about damn time the Raiders had a roster ready to win the 2009 AFC West.

 

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  • 1. New England (13-3)

  • 2. Denver (13-3)

  • 3. Indianapolis (12-4)

  • 4. Pittsburgh (10-6)

  • 5. Cincinnati (10-6)

  • 6. San Diego (10-6)

Ruh-roh, Indy’s old nemesis San Diego comes in and works its voodoo magic again for a win. Pittsburgh keeps Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton winless in the playoffs, but Ike Taylor gets a bout of PTSD against Demaryius Thomas in Denver. San Diego once again fails to get past the Tom Brady-led Patriots, setting up the fifth (and final) Manning vs. Brady playoff meeting. The rubber match. The guy with HFA has always won in the playoffs, but this time the Denver defense hardens and leads the road win in a low-scoring game.

NFC

  • 1. Seattle (14-2)

  • 2. New Orleans (14-2)

  • 3. Green Bay (12-4)

  • 4. Philadelphia (11-5)

  • 5. San Francisco (10-6)

  • 6. Chicago (10-6)

Bears and Packers part three? I like Green Bay in that one, which sets up a more ideal meeting in New Orleans, but Brees gets the best of that duel. The 49ers are unable to continue their road success in Philadelphia, earning Chip Kelly his first playoff win. However, the Eagles are no match in Seattle with that crowd and defense. The Saints return to Seattle, giving us two straight final fours with only bye teams. It’s more competitive this time, but again the Seahawks find a way to beat the Saints.

 

SUPER BOWL XLIX

Seattle Seahawks 27, Denver Broncos 17

I hate this prediction, but I’d rather be right than try to be different. This is 1992-93 Dallas vs. Buffalo all over again to me. This time it will be closer, but the Seahawks pull away in the second half to intensify the dynasty talk.

If you don’t like that outcome, well consider Richard Sherman is on the cover of Madden.

Now doesn’t that make you feel better?

Super Bowl XLVIII Predictions: Peyton Manning’s Legacy vs. NFL’s Next Great Team

The Denver Broncos are as likely as any team to win Super Bowl XLVIII.

That was the opening line to my March preview of the 2013 Broncos. I have been riding the Denver bandwagon for a long time now. In April I called it “The Year of the Broncos” after the schedule came out. On numerous occasions I have compared the 1996-97 Broncos to the 2012-13 Broncos, thinking they’d bounce back and go the distance this season. I picked them before the season started in spite of the Von Miller suspension.  I only wavered when San Diego was the first opponent in the playoffs, actually believing the Chargers had the right stuff to pull the upset. I was wrong.

So how can I go against Denver now that they’ve reached the destination I always believed they were headed for?

With Wilson’s development and continuous improvement to the roster, the Seattle Seahawks are primed to have the NFL’s next dynasty.

That was the closing line to my piece last May on the NFL’s next dynasty. I chose Seattle and a championship this season would certainly put the Seahawks on the right path to becoming that.

So both of my babies have made it and we get the perfect Super Bowl matchup. These were the two best teams down the stretch last year and both had heart-breaking losses in the Divisional Round, surrendering the lead in the final 40 seconds. They were the best teams again this year and make this only the second Super Bowl between No. 1 seeds in the salary cap era (1994-present).

We have all the potential for an instant classic and I have a ton of thoughts to share on this game, which may not flow together well, but my goal was to finish this in less time than it will take me to watch the game.

I’m all about that action, boss.

NO. 1 DECIDING FACTOR: HOW WELL THE RECEIVERS ARE COVERED

I cannot see anything more decisive in this game than how well each defense covers the receivers. We know Seattle’s going to get grabby and physical and there is concern over whether or not Denver’s group of receivers can handle that for 60 minutes. The Seahawks are mostly built like the 2001-04 Patriots where it’s hard to key in on any one receiver and they’re all capable of making a big play. And you can bet Russell Wilson will be looking for the bombs, either off play-action or one of his Fran Tarkenton-esque scrambles. Denver’s had some big problems with covering receivers down the field.

If you’re expecting some pass interference calls, don’t. In the last 10 Super Bowls, only two defensive pass interference penalties have been called (4 OPI). The receivers are going to have to work hard on Sunday to win battles.

DENVER’S OFFENSE SHOULD WIN BIG MATCHUP WITH SEATTLE’S DEFENSE

First the big disclaimer: Denver’s offense has not played a defense anything close to Seattle. Seattle’s defense has not played an offense anything close to Denver. It’s a big step up in competition for both sides.

The more I think about this dream matchup the more I think it favors Denver. Sure, things will not look as pretty as they have this postseason (SD/NE) and Denver will probably have more punts by the end of the first quarter than the one they have this whole playoffs. Seattle’s defense will win some battles (series), but I think Denver’s going to win the war (overall matchup).

These units are amazingly talented and rely on that talent to execute what is not an overly complex scheme built on variety, trickery and deception. Denver’s going to load up in “11” personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) for most of the game with Manning often in the shotgun. Seattle’s going to mostly rush four, not blitz much, play a lot of Cover-3 and you can count on Richard Sherman lining up on the defensive left and Earl Thomas often in the middle.

When you give Peyton Manning two weeks to prepare for such a defense, I have to believe he’s going to figure out the mismatches quickly. Seattle’s vaunted pass rush is something I don’t remember hearing much about until the last two weeks. The attention was all about the secondary. Manning gets the ball out so quickly that most of the rush gets neutralized when the ball’s coming out in under 2.5 seconds. Kansas City was supposed to have a great pass rush and could barely breathe on Manning in the first meeting this season when Tamba Hali and Justin Houston were healthy. Those are more talented rushers than Seattle’s and Manning’s not playing his first game with a taped-up high ankle sprain like he did that night.

The Seahawks rotate in a lot of guys to rush the QB, but Manning, the least-pressured QB in the league, should be able to stop that by going with the no-huddle offense and not allowing for substitutions. So much of Denver’s offense works with the 11 personnel and they still have flexibility. Julius Thomas can line up at wide receiver and create a mismatch thru speed with any linebacker or even Earl Thomas. The three wide receivers are a lot for Seattle to cover even if Sherman locks up Demaryius Thomas.

I also don’t see Sherman being a big factor for the reason that he does not shadow the top receiver from side to side. Manning’s old offense was more rigid in how Reggie Wayne would almost always line up on the left. In the 2010 playoffs against the Jets and Darrelle Revis, Manning showed Revis too much respect, throwing just one target (a screen) to Wayne all night.

But in Denver, guys move around and I fully expect Demaryius to get his targets on the offensive left with a guy like Byron Maxwell in coverage. I saw the 49ers accomplish that with Michael Crabtree, but Kaepernick was not seeing the field or throwing the ball as well as Manning.

STATS LLC show that Manning does not favor one side of the field over the other and is great in every area:

PMSTATSLLC

Demaryius will likely not have a huge game, but he’s going to get Sherman-free opportunities in this one.

Seattle’s worst defensive game of the season was in Indianapolis (season-high 27 points allowed). The Colts have arguably the closest comparison to the Broncos in terms of a good QB and multiple receiving options (Saints just didn’t have the horses on the outside this year; so much of it was RBs and Jimmy Graham, who played really soft in press coverage in 2013). Remember, that was the Colts with Reggie Wayne.

In that game against the Colts, the Seahawks faced a season-high 46 snaps from 11 personnel used by Indy. Denver used 11 personnel 33 times against New England…in the first half alone of the AFC Championship. Yeah, that’s their base offense and Seattle’s going to get a ton of looks at it.

As Aaron Schatz notes, the Seahawks only faced shotgun on a league-low 45 percent of snaps. They were still No. 1 against shotgun offense. The Broncos used shotgun a league-high 78 percent of the time, so once again Denver will be running an offense with more talent than Seattle has seen and in formations the Seahawks are not as used to having to defend this year.

I’m a strong believer in any defense Matt Schaub and Mike Glennon can have success against, Peyton Manning can have success against too.

I also think the running back screen will be more important than those wide receiver screens that Seattle snuffs out very well. Seattle has been vulnerable to passes in the short middle and we may see Knowshon Moreno/Montee Ball eat up some catches. Remember, Joseph Addai had 10 catches in SB 41 from Manning who was playing a very good, but also very predictable Tampa-2 defense from Chicago, so he should know where to pick and prod. The crossing routes and pick plays will also give Seattle some trouble.

Manning has already played the six best passing defenses for a playoff team since 2006, based on defensive passer rating. His results speak for themselves:

pmtDEF

Running backs in general are important for Denver in this game, though I think a 30-carry, 110-yard night would be more than adequate to get the win. It can’t be Manning throwing 50 times into that secondary, but this does not have to be a huge rushing performance. When the pre-snap look is there, Manning has shown he’s willing to take it.

I just think unless Seattle does show some defensive wrinkles exclusively for the SB, then Manning has an opportunity to pick them apart. Remember, the Saints had a different game plan for every quarter of SB 44. I’m not sure any of them really worked, but all it takes is one play for a corner to jump a route and that can be the ballgame.  Of course, Seattle’s offense matching the potent efficiency of the 2009 Saints sounds very unrealistic based on the last six games of the season.

WHICH SEATTLE OFFENSE SHOWS UP?

Remember how brilliant Russell Wilson looked in Week 13 on MNF against the Saints? I think it was after that night I started picturing this matchup and how Wilson and Lynch could give this Denver defense fits in New Jersey. Well, a lot has changed in two months. Seattle’s really resorted to relying on big plays on offense and getting great field position from mistakes to score points on short fields. The defense of course obliges them, but this is not a game the Seahawks can win with a low score. The offense, which ranks 30th on third down since Week 14, needs to step up.

While Marshawn Lynch should get his touches and opportunities, the game really comes down to young Wilson. He threw a great game-winning TD pass on fourth down against San Francisco, but the rest of his game was very uneven. He was impotent against the Saints as well, showing some major accuracy issues on easy slants. Some point to the defensive schedule in recent weeks, but then look at how the Broncos have stepped up and held down better offenses from San Diego and New England. The defensive line is getting it done with the emergence of “Potroast” and a surprisingly good pass rush without Von Miller. Now Wilson is far more mobile than Brady or Rivers and I expect him to rush for 40+ yards and give Denver fits, but many of his wild scrambles are also unproductive plays for Seattle. He’s the most pressured QB, so I expect Denver will have some success, but the secondary better plaster downfield. Champ Bailey is back for Denver, but he hasn’t been tested much at all (3 targets in the playoffs).

Wilson will need to exploit the secondary of Denver and hit on some deep balls, which is a strength of his. The Seahawks love to use play-action. Brady had the perfect play-action bomb setup on Denver in the AFC-C, but terribly missed a wide open Julian Edelman. Wilson is better on those throws, though I wonder if his accuracy will be an issue early if nerves get to the 25-year-old.

I don’t expect nerves to be a problem by the end of the game for Wilson, but for that portion to matter, he’s going to need some help.

BEAST MODE?

Who knew Lynch was like a prisoner on a chain gang from Cool Hand Luke? “Wiping it off here, boss!” The shame is if he has a bad game or a big fumble, some will blame his handling of the media for why he blew it. Let’s do the right thing and give Denver credit or Lynch some criticism.

Lynch is a trendy pick for Super Bowl MVP, but I don’t see it. Denver’s been very good against the run all season, so Lynch gashing the Broncos would be a surprise. Lynch has only topped 100 rushing yards five times in 18 games this year. That’s really not impressive for an elite RB. Someone asked me how many 95-yard games he had, but who cares? If Lynch has 95 yards, advantage Broncos. If Lynch has a game like he did in the NFC Championship where half of his production (3 carries for 56 yards, TD) came on one drive, then advantage Broncos (unless it’s late in the game and he puts Seattle ahead with that TD, but you feel me, boss). For Lynch to truly dominate and have a MVP performance, he’ll need to consistently rip off good runs and have a 25-carry, 150-yard night. I don’t see that happening.

Then I hear how there’s “Playoff Lynch” where he “raises his game” in the playoffs. Nope, don’t buy it. One week after he put himself on the map with that TD run against the Saints, Lynch had 4 carries for 2 yards in Chicago. Last season he had 16 carries for 46 yards in Atlanta (a “soft” defense) in the playoffs. He’s also had multiple fumbles in his playoff career. His numbers look fine the last two weeks, but Denver’s defensive line has really stepped up and this game is more on Wilson’s arm to win it, not Lynch’s legs.

Should Denver score like they’re capable of, that just makes it even less likely Lynch has a big impact.

WILSON NEEDS TO FINISH, MANNING NEEDS TO START AND FINISH

While I think Wilson has to come through for Seattle to win, he may only need to play his best in the fourth quarter instead of all four quarters, which is exactly what Manning needs to do for his offense to work against this defense. Wilson can get by with a pedestrian start, which I think will happen. He’s young and we’ve seen nerves get the best of quarterbacks before. Colin Kaepernick looked a bit shaky last year before getting back on track in the second half. Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Hasselbeck never really calmed down in SB XL. I think Wilson’s a gamer and will be at his best in the fourth quarter.

CLOSE GAME?

The last 10 Super Bowls have had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity (only 13 of the first 37 did). Hopefully that streak continues, because I want to watch something great. It should given these teams’ competitiveness.

Manning has had a fourth-quarter lead in 13 straight playoff games (NFL record).

Seattle has been at least within one score in the fourth quarter in 50 straight games. Seattle’s led in the fourth quarter of 29 straight games:

SEA50GM

Going back to college, Wilson is on a 64-game streak of being this close late and not getting blown out. Denver actually just ended New England’s 63-game streak in the AFC Championship, keeping the Patriots down by 10+ the entire second half. Breaking Seattle’s streak too would be epic, but I wouldn’t bet on that happening. Seattle’s too good and balanced.

BIG COMEBACK?

Yep, the Super Bowls have been much closer, but remember when it was 28-6 Baltimore last year shortly after Beyonce shit the house down (in the words of Joe Theismann)? Well, it still ended up close eventually, which is my saying for all Russell Wilson games.

But which team is more likely to make a big comeback in the second half? Believe it or not, I lean towards Seattle, just because of the difference in defenses. That would be very tough on Manning to abandon the run and keep throwing against that defense and pass rush. For Wilson, look no further than the way the Broncos have let up in the fourth quarter with three-score leads to the Chargers and Patriots. But you might think taking advantage of a prevent requires cutting down on risk and Rivers/Brady are far more likely to take what the defense gives them while Wilson looks for big plays.

That sounds logical, but then I remember Wilson being down 27-7 in the fourth quarter in Atlanta last postseason and making big play after big play to put his team ahead in the final minute. Can he do it again in this game? Absolutely, because that plays right into Denver’s weakness (big passes) and away from their strength (stopping the run). I actually think Wilson’s best playoff game was the only one he lost.

Seattle is 34-5 (.872) under Pete Carroll when leading by 7+ points at any time in the game. Only the Steelers (4) have fewer losses in that time. The Seahawks have lost three games after leading by 10+ points since 2010. Denver certainly has the firepower to pull it off, but both teams better stay close. Super Bowls aren’t known for big comeback wins:

SBDEF

MOTHER NATURE

Looks like Manning’s Law, where anything that can go wrong will go wrong for Peyton Manning’s teams in the playoffs, is getting a break. The weather was fantastic for the AFC Championship and it looks like the weather should not be a factor on Sunday night. Manning doesn’t magically turn into Scott Mitchell when the temperature dips below 40 anyway, but there’s no doubt good conditions (that’s more about wind and precipitation than temperature) are a big positive for the pass-heavy team.

PERCY HARVIN: SUPER BOWL MVP?

Though if there is some Manning’s Law at work here, it would be Percy Harvin having a monster game and MVP performance after giving the Seahawks nothing all year. We don’t really know what Seattle’s offense with Harvin looks like since they never had him healthy long enough. He can definitely have a big impact even if it doesn’t show up in his individual stats. Denver being down their top pass-rusher and a very good cornerback (Chris Harris) makes the passing matchup difficult, but I’ll be surprised if Harvin has a lot of catches. He just hasn’t had the reps with Wilson, who is not exactly playing his best football right now. Harivn’s also a bit of an overrated receiver. He’s known for big plays, yet his longest catch in the NFL is 53 yards (that’s out of 281 receptions). In three career playoff games, he has 9 catches for 60 yards, or the Trent Richardson equivalent for a wide receiver.

Where Harvin can dangerously impact the game is with kick returns. He could be like Desmond Howard for the 1996 Packers. But of course, more kick return opportunities only come after Denver scoring drives.

SH!+ I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT

  • Tim Tebow having anything to do with any NFL team, but especially the 2013 Broncos.
  • The officiating in Super Bowl XL.
  • Dominic Rhodes being the real MVP of Super Bowl XLI. Seriously, did people not see how well Manning threw the ball in the rain? Look at the six drops that cost him a 300-yard day.
  • Denver “only” averaging 25 PPG in the playoffs. Look at the freakin’ drive stats. More efficient than regular season.
  • Anything about “Omaha.”

BRUNO MARS

So he’s like a 2010’s version of Prince? Not interested.

SCORE BIG TO BEAT MANNING

All seven of Denver’s losses under Manning have seen the opponent score 27+ points (Denver had at least 20+ too). Manning is 80-0 when he starts and finishes a game where his team allows 0-16 points. You’re not going to beat him 16-10 (Jim Sorgi on the other hand…).

UNUSUAL PASSING PRODUCTION FOR A CHAMPION

No matter which team wins, it will be historic for passing standards. The Broncos set a NFL record with 5,444 net passing yards. Those teams never win a Super Bowl. The Seahawks ranked just 26th with 3,236 passing yards. That would be the lowest ranking in passing for any Super Bowl winner.

Wilson had a season-high 25 completions in Week 1. Manning’s had 25+ completions in 15/18 games this year. Different strokes…

ERIC DECKER

I get the feeling Decker’s going to have some really pathetic play that turns into an interception for Seattle. He needs to play his most physical game to match up with Seattle’s secondary. That goes for all of Denver’s skill players, but especially the reality TV star looking for big bucks in free agency.

WES WELKER

I know you don’t really make that catch in Super Bowl XLVI, Wes, but how about catching the ones in your wheelhouse this week? Too many drops from this guy in the last few years and he should be an important part of Denver’s success if he’s up to it. A big performance and a ring could be a difference maker for his legacy when you’re talking about the Hall of Fame. Manning and Champ Bailey could play the worst games in Super Bowl history and both should still be first-ballot HOFers. Welker will be viewed as the guy who redefined the slot receiver in his era, but he could use a signature moment here.

TIPPED BALLS

According to the NFL Network, Seattle has 18 of its 30 interceptions off tipped balls this season. That sounds way too high to be random luck, so there’s some skill involved here. Richard Sherman’s tip-to-a-pick in the NFC Championship is a replica of a play he made to force Eli Manning’s fifth interception last month.

BALL SECURITY

Turnovers are always huge in the Super Bowl. This is an area that strongly favors Seattle, which is +20 in turnover differential this season compared to 0 for Denver.

Since 2012 (including playoffs), Seattle is +37 in turnover differential compared to -5 for Denver.

That’s just a stunning difference, and yet Denver has reached the same playoff round in both years as Seattle. But this is not a game that can be won with a poor turnover differential. Seattle capitalizes too well on mistakes. Denver has the #ObligatoryDenverFumble to worry about and Seattle is very good at stripping and tipping the ball. That could be huge.

THIRD DOWN

I did a big third-down study for this game last week at ESPN Insider.

In summary, Seattle’s offense is mediocre, has been poor lately, but Denver’s pass defense is historically bad in these third-down situations. Seattle has the best third-down pass defense since 1989 by DVOA, but Manning’s still pretty elite on these plays too.

The big stat: quarterbacks are 1/39 at converting on 3rd-and-11 or longer against Seattle this season.

Yep, Carson Palmer somehow had the one conversion. I believe Manning has 7 such conversions in 2013.

NEUTRAL-FIELD ADVANTAGE?

These are two teams that actually have a tangible home-field advantage they won’t have this week in New Jersey. I think the neutral field favors Denver, just because the Seahawks have a decade of evidence that they really do play much better in Seattle than on the road. In terms of DVOA, Denver is basically the same offensive team on the road versus at home and a bit worse on defense, but the Seahawks have considerably larger declines on the road on both defense and offense. They’re still the No. 1 road defense, but not as dominant.

HRS

Seattle also hasn’t played a road game since going to MetLife a month ago.

COMPARISONS TO PAST SUPER BOWLS

This is one of those meaningless things we talk about before the game and can better answer after the game. I see a lot of comparisons to the 2007 Giants/Patriots. I don’t think the game will be like that and the New England offense was slumping down the stretch anyway. Giants showed some cracks in that matchup in Week 17.

I’ve seen comparisons to 1990 Bills/Giants. I highly doubt the Seahawks will hold the ball for 40+ minutes and keep Denver to 1/8 on third down. Seattle’s boom or bust on offense right now. It takes a lot of successful plays to do ball-control offense.

Carolina (8) is the only offense to have fewer than nine possessions against Seattle this year.

2002 Bucs/Raiders – kill that noise. Jon Gruden knew what plays were coming and the 2002 Bucs had the best pass defense this century. Denver’s offense is much better than Oakland’s and these teams have little familiarity at all.

The game I actually might think compare best is Super Bowl 34 between the 1999 Rams/Titans. I think Denver will move the ball well, but may struggle in the red zone while the Titans struggle for the better part of three quarters before mounting a comeback behind their mobile QB. No, Demaryius Thomas won’t beat Richard Sherman with a great move for a 73-yard touchdown like Isaac Bruce had, and there won’t be a bad slant from Wilson to Harvin that gets stopped at the 1-yard line, but I think that might be the Super Bowl this compares to best when it’s over.

COACHES

John Fox and Pete Carroll are two of the league’s better coaches. I don’t see any significant advantage in this area of the game. This isn’t like Jim “Bernie” Caldwell matching blank stares with the calculated, aggressive genius of Sean Payton. Both had equal time to prepare and like I said earlier, their strong units really are more about execution than the scheme.  Denver is usually a dominant second-half team, though that did start to slip after Fox had his heart surgery and Jack Del Rio took over on an interim basis. In the last four games, the Broncos have allowed a total of 16 points in the first three quarters (that’s 12 quarters total), and only 3 points in the last 3 games, but obviously the late prevent is giving up points.

I don’t put stock in preseason games. These teams haven’t met since 2010, but have changed dramatically from that year to the point where it’s not even worth any analysis.

One thing I did find interesting is how Seattle struggled with the AFC South this year. Indy beat them, Houston had them down big, the Titans were tied in the 4th quarter in Seattle and well, the Jags were the Jags. What’s interesting is Carroll never coached against that AFC South, which last played Seattle in the 2009 season, a year before Carroll was hired.

So unfamiliarity is an interesting topic in this game, but I imagine these teams will quickly get acquainted with each other Sunday night.

SPECIAL TEAMS

This favors Seattle, but it’s a game involving Peyton Manning, so what do you expect? Take the last 47 Super Bowls and the 94 teams and rank them by special teams performance on Super Sunday. I’d be shocked if the 2006 Colts and 2009 Colts didn’t rank 93rd and 94th. In 2006, the Colts allowed an opening-game kickoff score to Devin Hester, botched an extra point and missed an easy field goal in the first half. That’s an 11-point difference, which is the only reason the Colts didn’t win in a blowout. In 2009, the Colts had the third-worst starting field position in any playoff game I have studied (2nd worst for a Super Bowl) and of course Hank Baskett botched the onside kick recovery to start the third quarter. Matt Stover missed a long field goal in the fourth quarter while New Orleans’ Garrett Hartley was great on his long kicks.

Trindon Holliday has been very quiet and still hard to trust with fumbling.

I trust Matt Prater, who has missed twice all season (incl. playoffs), not to pull a Scott Norwood, but there will be no Denver altitude here. His ability to get touchbacks is another huge part of the game as Harvin is likely to get some opportunities to give Seattle great field position.

FIELD POSITION

Oh, and in case you missed it, Wilson’s had the best starting field position in the playoffs (34.81) of any quarterback I’ve studied, and this is in the era where starting at the 20 is oh so common. Manning (27.34) ranks 30th out of 32. Could be a lot more shorter fields for Seattle.

MANNING AFTER A BYE WEEK

I was asked by a few people how Manning’s done with a bye/extra week to prepare. I think that’s lessened in the Super Bowl when both teams have the same time, but here’s the table:

PMBYE

As you might expect, the results are favorable. Manning’s worst game was in his rookie year (his 8th career game). In the 23 games, Manning had at least 224 yards and scored at least 16 points all 23 times.

Oh noes, he’s 3-5 in the playoffs!!

Yeah, I think I’ve handled those games before. Not concerned with his play. He’ll be prepared.

MANNING VS. ELITE PASS DEFENSES

Clearly Denver did not get here with records by playing a tough defensive schedule. The highest-ranked pass defense Manning played was Kansas City (7th) twice. Of course, had the Chiefs not played Manning twice, they may have ranked in the top five, but it is what it is.

I had the table earlier about Manning against the top pass defenses, but that was for playoff teams and based on DPR. Based on DVOA, here’s Manning since 2003 against top 5 pass defenses (playoffs in blue, Weeks 16-17 rest games in tan):

PMT5DVOA

Again, a lot of favorable results.

Since I’m getting into “Manning table” mode, might as well jump into the next section before I make my final prediction.

PEYTON MANNING’S LEGACY

She’d have been a legend with or without that god damn song.Quote from a bad movie that works better in a song

I promised I was not going to walk down Idiocy Boulevard with another Peyton Manning Super Bowl appearance. I spent the week on it four years ago when the narrative was “with a win on Sunday, Manning will be the greatest quarterback in NFL history!”

That’s a label that will never reach a consensus, and there’s nothing to stop me from already saying Manning is the greatest ever regardless of what happens on Sunday. We know even with a win, all it will take is a close playoff loss at home next year coupled with a Tom Brady Super Bowl win for the conversation to change again. I’ll just let 15 years of evidence speak for itself when I talk about who is the greatest.

When asked about his legacy this week, Manning had the perfect response:

“If I had my choice, what my legacy would be, would be that I played my butt off for every team that I ever played on, I was a really good teammate and I did everything I could to win. Whatever happens along in that time is fine with me. Those are things that I care about.” – Peyton Manning

That’s basically become my go-to argument for Manning over the years. No quarterback has ever done more to put his team in a position to win regardless of circumstances. That’s all you can ask for from the quarterback in this team game.

Now don’t get me wrong. Winning on Sunday night by any means necessary would be huge for Manning — about as huge of a win as any quarterback could ever have. There’s far more to gain with a win and hardly nothing to lose with a loss this week for Manning.

Becoming the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams would be the perfect accomplishment for Manning’s career. It proves his style works and that he was able to transplant it perfectly from Indianapolis to Denver, even after four neck surgeries. He’d have won it his way (twice), not putting the share of the offense on a young running back like his boss John Elway did at the end of his career. He’d put a cherry on top to the greatest quarterback season ever, even surpassing what Joe Montana did in 1989 with a loaded San Francisco team. Montana was very good in Kansas City, but he wasn’t dominant like Manning’s been in Denver. Brett Favre’s first year in Minnesota was great, but how did the encore go?

Can anyone picture Tom Brady, without Bill Belichick, going to any of the 31 other teams in the league and having the type of impact Manning’s had in Denver? Not a chance. Manning’s in his third Super Bowl with his third head coach. Someone like Bart Starr was an embarrassment without Vince Lombardi. Manning’s impact on a whole team is unlike any other quarterback’s impact.

Yet somehow being “the best regular-season quarterback” has become an insult. The same regular season that makes up 91.3 percent of Manning’s career starts somehow takes a backseat to the postseason, where Manning has been one of the best playoff quarterbacks by every measure except the one he has the least control over: the win-loss record. He can get over .500 with a win and pick up his 12th playoff win (sixth most).

By recognizing Manning as the greatest regular-season quarterback ever, you’ve just eliminated over 99 percent of the competition for the GOAT. And there is no argument against that either. No quarterback has ever been so individually decorated with 5 MVP awards, 7 1st-Team All-Pro selections and 13 Pro Bowls. He has the records and longevity to back that up.

For those who care about more intangible things, a record 13 postseason berths (#winning) and changing the standards of the game with regards to the no-huddle offense and how to call plays is more than enough proof of his legacy.

So at the end of the day, we’re talking about the postseason. Manning will pass Brady for the most passing yards in playoff history, doing so in three fewer games. He’s already engineered some of the best playoff games in NFL history, including the largest comeback in a championship game ever. With one more win, he would have beaten the league’s No. 1 defense in the playoffs in all three of his Super Bowl runs. If Manning should lead a game-winning drive against Seattle, it would be his 52nd, moving him past Dan Marino for the all-time record.

Then there’s the fact that no leader in passing yards has ever won a Super Bowl (0-47). Manning would do that, all while likely throwing over 60 touchdowns and for over 6,400 yards (another record). Of all the 48 Super Bowl wins, this one would be the most quarterback-dependent of them all.

That’s a hell of a lot to gain from one game, so no pressure, Peyton. But even if he comes up short, show me another quarterback capable of having a chance to accomplish all of these things.

I do not expect Manning to retire even with a win, but there would never be a better opportunity to go out on top. There is nothing he has left to prove, and that’s just as true on February 1 as it will be tomorrow night.

THE NUMBER 24

I think the number 24 is huge in this game, and that’s not really a reference to Marshawn Lynch. I’m talking about points. Seattle’s only exceeded that point threshold in half of their games (9 games with 27+, 9 games with <24). Denver’s hit 24+ in 17/18 games and can join the 1983 Raiders as the only teams to score 20+ in 19/19 games.

It’s very difficult to score that much on Seattle, but if any offense can do it, it’s this one. The Seahawks have allowed 24+ points only five times since 2012 and they are 1-4 in those games with an overtime win over Tampa Bay this year.

If Denver has even one of its worst games of the season, that should still force Seattle to have to score 24+ to get the win.

FINAL PREDICTION

So what more can I even say? A lot of the numbers and history tell me to go with the Seahawks, because they’re the more balanced team for both offense/defense and run/pass. They’re younger and more physical. They’re even better on special teams and have the health bonus (though it’s no given Harvin lasts long). The offensive juggernaut with the MVP QB tends to flame out against the No. 1 scoring defense, which is 12-3 in the big game.

I tried to hide the heart from the head.Rites of Spring

I make no secrets about it: I want Manning to win. I love having a real rooting interest in the Super Bowl and have been fortunate to have a lot of them in the last decade.

But I really do like Denver’s chances this week. I just don’t love them and can see many reasons why Seattle could (should?) win the game.

In the end I see Denver protecting a 4-point lead and the most fitting ending would have to be a Hail Mary from Russell Wilson. Fans of Wisconsin and the Packers know how big that play has been in his football career. It’s the play both teams have to overcome from last season. Golden Tate needs a Hail Mary everyone believes he caught. The Broncos need to get over the Rahim Moore debacle. Knock it down if there’s no one trailing the play. I really do think it comes down to the last drive, producing an instant classic.

It’s a game like this that makes you wish the NFL would stop all talks of expanding the playoff field and instead make a best-of-3 Super Bowl.

Win or lose, Seattle should be the favorite to win it all next season. This is Denver’s best chance as the roster is going to experience a lot of changes. Denver started the season in historic fashion with a 7 TD takedown of the defending champions. Why not end it with another groundbreaking performance over a proud defense?

Final prediction: Broncos 24, Seahawks 20

Super Bowl MVP: Peyton Manning

NFL Week 11 Predictions & Chiefs-Broncos Preview

We have three key games to focus on this week (49ers at Saints, Chiefs at Broncos and Patriots at Panthers), but one stands above the rest.

Chiefs at Broncos

I’ve already had a lot to say and tweet about this game, so I’m not going to repeat much of that here.

Simply put, I don’t believe in the Chiefs’ 9-0 record or that their defense is one of the all-time best. I think it’s a reflection of who they have played, which shouldn’t impress anyone. The Denver offense is historically impressive and has dominated to a higher level than the Chiefs’ defense. There’s also stronger correlation and consistency in maintaining offensive performance than there is defense. You can throw a touchdown to Wes Welker many times in the red zone, but once in a blue moon will you get Jeff Tuel’s gracious peace offering for a 100-yard pick-six.

The only reason I don’t think the Broncos easily win by 17+ points is because Kansas City’s catching them at the best possible time. The Chiefs had a bye week to rest and prepare. Jack Del Rio is in at interim head coach following John Fox’s surgery. Peyton Manning aggravated his high ankle sprain at the end of last week’s game and we don’t know how he’ll handle the outside pressure since his tackles are struggling. It’s also going to be pretty cold and while the “Manning in bad weather” thing is BS, no old quarterback with neck and ankle issues is going to benefit from that.

What I do know is you have to score a lot of points to beat a Peyton Manning team and I don’t think Alex Smith is capable of doing it on Sunday night. This so-called “winner” is 2-23 when his team allows more than 24 points. He’s 11-24 against teams with a winning record and has 35 TD to 40 INT in those games (just one 300-yard passing game). He’s 5-16 on the road against good teams and averages 164 passing yards in those contests.

Maybe Smith can get it done in Arrowhead in a 23-20 game (against Brock Osweiler given his luck lately), but the Denver defense plays better at home and Von Miller is going to have his say too.

To beat Manning you have to put up a lot of points or shrink the game and limit his possessions, forcing him to be basically perfect (maximum efficiency). The Chiefs have done neither this season. The offense has never scored more than 24 points and their games almost always include double-digit possessions.

Excluding those pesky playoff rest games, here’s every Manning loss since 2007 and what his defense did (kneel-down drives excluded):

PMDEF

For context, anything above 3.0 Pts/Dr is incredibly elite while 2.48 Pts/Dr means you have to be a top-2 offense. 1.80 would be just above average in recent seasons.

You have to go back to the 6-INT night in San Diego to find a game where Manning lost despite the opposing offense being below average in scoring. Darren Sproles had two return touchdowns and even then Manning was a missed 29-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri in erasing a 23-0 deficit for a win. Even if the Chiefs get a lead of 17-24 points, we know from every Denver loss since 2012 that those aren’t safe.

Meanwhile here’s the Chiefs’ 2013 offense and their per-drive production:

KCOFF

So let’s see… The Chiefs average 1.58 Pts/Dr this year and this is despite having the best average starting field position in football. I noticed a lot of their scoring drives started deep in opponent territory, so their scoring is even less impressive than it already sounds. They feast on mistakes, which the Broncos are certainly guilty of since 2012, so ball security is a must this week.

In Manning’s last 19 losses, no one had less than 1.89 Pts/Dr. That would be the 3rd-best game of the season for the Chiefs.

Given you seemingly need to hit at least 2.0 Pts/Dr to beat Manning, who’s expecting the Chiefs’ offense to deliver on their end? There’s Jamaal Charles, but there’s not much else to worry about.

Simply put, Manning hasn’t lost to an offense this bad since David Carr and the 2006 Houston Texans (ranked 23rd with 1.50 Pts/Dr). How did that one work out? Houston rushed for 191 yards, limited Manning to six possessions, got one fumble from Dominic Rhodes and still needed a 48-yard game-winning field goal with no time left in a 27-24 game.

The KC defense should not give up 40+, but nothing short of their offense having their best game of the season will win this one. I also don’t think the Chiefs can win without being at least +2 in turnover differential.

According to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs have the No. 2 pass defense (DVOA). Here’s a table of Manning’s last 29 games against a top 5 pass defense (DVOA) since 2003. Playoff rest games are colored as are the five games I would consider “bad performances” from Manning. That’s an unscientific way of saying games where he was more of the problem than the solution for his team.

PMT5DEF

We’ll revisit this matchup in two weeks and perhaps again in January, but I just see the Broncos as a superior team even if they are vulnerable right now.

Final prediction: Chiefs 16, Broncos 27.

2013 NFL Week 11 Predictions

The Colts rarely make it look easy, but I had them on TNF.

Winners in bold:

  • Redskins at Eagles
  • Raiders at Texans
  • Falcons at Buccaneers
  • Browns at Bengals
  • Ravens at Bears
  • Lions at Steelers
  • Jets at Bills
  • Cardinals at Jaguars
  • Chargers at Dolphins
  • 49ers at Saints
  • Packers at Giants
  • Vikings at Seahawks
  • Chiefs at Broncos
  • Patriots at Panthers

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
  • Season: 96-51