NFL Week 2 Predictions: Embracing Mediocrity

I always like it when the afternoon games I’m most interested in are on my local CBS and FOX affiliates, which is the case this week. Without failure, each season someone is shocked that I don’t have Sunday Ticket, but why would I ever want or need such an expensive service? I prefer to watch a full live game if I can, particularly the Steelers, but I also have the RedZone channel. Then there’s Game Pass and torrents. So I get the league-wide access I need at a favorable cost. If there’s a drive full of 4-yard papercuts to Jarvis Landry that I need to see, I’ll see it in due time. No worries.

Bengals at Steelers

This is easily the game of the week. That may not mean it will play out as the best, but it is the most important game — the next chapter in a heated rivalry. It also brings up one of the more fascinating stats in the NFL: Marvin Lewis is 6-7 in Pittsburgh, but 2-13 at home against the Steelers (including two crushing playoff losses). The road team just happens to play better in this series, and Cincinnati’s 6-7 record in Pittsburgh trails only Jacksonville (3-1) and New England (3-2) since 2003 among teams with at least 3 trips to Heinz Field. Part of this weird split is that Ben Roethlisberger’s stats are better in Cincinnati than at home where he has had some of the worst games of his career in low-scoring struggles, including last season’s 16-10, three-pick defeat. At least this won’t be a game where Roethlisberger is just returning from injury as was the case last year.

In his career, Roethlisberger is 54-4 at home when the Steelers allow fewer than 21 points, but three of those losses were to the Bengals. Lewis’ defense has a good feel for defending this offense, including pressuring Ben and containing Antonio Brown as a receiver (he does have 3 punt return touchdowns against the Bengals). In Brown’s last 48 games with Roethlisberger at quarterback, he’s had at least 5 catches in all 48, and at least 70 yards in 40 of them. Only the Ravens (4), Bengals (3) and Seahawks (1) have held this duo under 70 yards. I think the Bengals can limit his damage again this week, and A.J. Green is going to have the bigger game. He almost has to with both offenses experiencing many departures, putting the onus on their star receivers to dominate. Heath Miller retired, Ladarius Green and Tyler Eifert are injured, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones are gone, Martavis Bryant is suspended and Markus Wheaton appears to still be injured. This means newcomers have to contribute, including Eli Rogers, Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd. While a game of HORSE between Brown and Green would be interesting, the offense that gets more secondary receiver contributions is likely to win this game. I do not think either running game is going to go off, though I’d give the Steelers the edge there with DeAngelo Williams still looking really good at an advanced age behind this offensive line. I’m still not sure what to think of Jeremy Hill after a disappointing 2015, and he’ll especially be happy if Ryan Shazier isn’t at full strength after Shazier’s dominant playoff game helped eliminate the Bengals. The Steelers ought to be happy that Vontaze Burfict is still suspended for this one after Burfcit injured Le’Veon Bell, Ben and Brown on hits last season.

Defensively, I would be concerned that the Steelers did not get much rush on Washington and gave up their share of plays, but got enough big stops to limit the points to 16. That is always key, but a similar offense in Cincinnati should get rid of the ball quickly and there really is no one capable of matching up with Green in this secondary. Andy Dalton is usually one of the best-protected quarterbacks in the NFL, but he took seven sacks on the road last week. The Steelers are going to have to get their front seven to deliver more this week. I would expect a few sacks from the Bengals of Roethlisberger, but he’ll be glad to see no Reggie Nelson in the secondary. The offense had few problems in the last three quarters against Washington, but must build off that performance. You saw the ugly first quarter and how a few turnovers could really change the game around. The Bengals have the better defense in this matchup.

So home field has been established as pretty irrelevant in this particular series, but I do give the Steelers a slight edge going into this one. They’ll be happy to be home given six of their last seven games were on the road thanks to being a 6th seed in the playoffs last year and opening this year on the road. Monday night’s performance was impressive enough for me to think this offense is clicking well enough early despite the personnel losses that they can pull out a close one here.

Bengals 21, Steelers 24

Colts at Broncos

I hope I’m not relying too much on “fighting narratives” to make game picks this season, especially after a bad Week 1. But this was a game where I picked the Broncos to win when I went through all 256 games before opening night. Yes, it is true that Andrew Luck has had great success against the Broncos (3-1), including the most efficient and effective game any QB had against them last year while he lacerated his kidney. Maybe he took those matchups with Peyton Manning personally, really wanting to impress the Indy fans. He doesn’t need any extra motivation to avoid going 0-2 this week, but he hasn’t seen this Wade Phillips’ called defense on the road yet. The Broncos are still very much led by that defense, which feeds on the crowd energy to play even better at home. Trevor Siemian threw one pass over 15 yards in Week 1 and it was intercepted. He may get a boost this week with the Colts’ beat-up defensive unit struggling to get pressure and cover receivers. The Demaryius Thomas injury is a little concerning given Denver is basically two deep at that position, but I like Emmanuel Sanders this week. Right now, Siemian looks like Alex Smith without the draft pedigree, but the Broncos can win with that as long as C.J. Anderson is making great cuts behind an improved run-blocking line. Luck looked great last week, but I fear his line on the road this week against a much tougher unit. I absolutely think the Colts can win this one since you really don’t need to score many points to beat Denver, but I just don’t see it working out this time. The Colts need more of a big defensive effort than a big game from Luck (smart will do).

Colts 17, Broncos 20

Seahawks at Rams

I always like to say I get a lot of predictions wrong throughout the season, but I still get more right. It never fails to amaze me when I mention a long streak and it gets broken in the next game or two. All throughout the summer I feared a Russell Wilson injury this year due to his unusually good durability despite a frantic playing style behind a porous offensive line. Was this the year that would catch up to Seattle? Then he hurts his ankle in Week 1 and just barely limps to a late win over Miami. Unless the Seahawks are covering it up, Wilson seems to have avoided the dreaded high-ankle sprain and will start on Sunday. We don’t know anything about what Injured Russell Wilson looks like since he’s always been healthy. However, if his mobility is limited, then that’s a huge problem against a Rams defense that always gives him fits even when he’s on his game. Who saw the Rams going into Seattle in Week 16 and pulling out that win? Jeff Fisher can’t sniff a real Super Bowl again, so he treats these Seattle games as his team’s Super Bowl, and the success has been pretty good given Seattle’s overall dominance since 2012.

After the game on Sunday, I was determined to pick the Rams to win this game in their home Los Angeles opener given the Wilson injury. And then Monday night happened — an embarrassing 28-0 shutout to Blaine Gabbert and the 49ers, projected to be a bottom-two team this year. They drafted Jared Goff No. 1 to be inactive for this shit? Forget 7-9 bullshit, this looked like the start of 2-14 c*cksucker blues. And they want to give Fisher an extension? It’s madness.

And yet, as much as that game cooled me off the Rams’ upset, I still think they’re going to give Seattle a game here. I just don’t think it’s going to be enough because of that horrific offense against this great Seattle defense. Wilson may not need to throw for 100 yards. Just don’t turn the ball over.

Rams 6, Seahawks 16

Packers at Vikings

Opening a new stadium should be a joyous occasion, but in Minnesota, the throng of yawns in the air have already given the new place a stale smell of boredom and disinterest. Nothing can suck the life out of a fan base more than having to start Sam Bradford at quarterback after trading a first-round pick for him. Vikings fans, get ready to embrace mediocrity.

Mediocrity would actually be an improvement over most of Bradford’s career, but it’s really the best-case scenario this year. He plays at a league-average level, but does just enough in the right moments to get this team enough wins. Adrian Peterson is going to have to play much better than last week, though the Titans were built to stop the run and stink at the pass. Green Bay is a solid, but not great defense, and Sam Shields being out should help. I wouldn’t expect much from Bradford, but honestly, why would you ever expect much from Sam Bradford?

The other side of the ball is what interests me most about this one, because what the hell has happened to this Green Bay passing game? It went from years of being one of the most efficient attacks ever to a broken mess. Where are the timing plays and the chemistry on the back-shoulder throws? Anymore this offense works best by producing broken plays and taking advantage of offside penalties. It’s not sustainable, and it hasn’t been effective even though the Week 11 game in Minnesota is one of two times the offense has scored 30 offensive points in the last 13 games.

Aaron Rodgers has five seasons with at least 8.2 YPA.  He still ranks 5th all time in YPA (7.99). So it’s incredible when one of the most efficient passers ever has been held under 6.0 YPA in five of his last six games. That’s something Rodgers has only done in 12 other starts in his career. He’s been held under 7.0 YPA in 11 of his last 13 games (including playoffs). One of those two was the Hail Mary in Detroit to boost him up. Even though Jordy Nelson returned last week, he wasn’t the same receiver as he didn’t make the big plays. In fact, his 6 catches for 32 yards (5.33 YPC) is the lowest YPC he’s ever had in a game with more than 1 catch.

The effect this stretch of play is having on Rodgers’ career stats is interesting. He was at 8.22 YPA thru 116 regular-season games. Now after going a Joey Harrington-esque 5.96 YPA in his last 11 games, he’s down to 7.99. He still manages his TD-to-INT ratio well, but it’s hard to call this depressed passing game effective. Keep in mind the Packers are 6-7 since a 6-0 start last year. Rodgers has tore up the Vikings many times in his career, but not last year against Mike Zimmer’s defense. I think that defense rises to the occasion in this one, but the offense lets them down as Green Bay does just enough to sneak away with the win in the new stadium.

Packers 19, Vikings 16

2016 Week 2 Predictions

Well I was some 7-9 bullshit in a bad opening week. At least I changed my mind on the Jets starting 0-6 to give them the Thursday win over a growing mess in Buffalo. See, Ryan Fitzpatrick sucks against Rex Ryan defenses, but that Rob Ryan D is another story.

Winners in bold

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

Week 1: 7-9

Advertisements

NFL Week 2 Predictions: TD-or-Bust Drives

I didn’t write about it here last week, but I was mentioning on Twitter before the game how Russell Wilson still hasn’t thrown more than 37 passes in a game in the NFL. I believe the last time I wrote about it on here he had 37 the next day in Philadelphia before stopping. Wouldn’t you know on Sunday in St. Louis Wilson hit 41 attempts, albeit in overtime. So that streak is over in his 49th regular-season game.

A lot of times I’ll post a table about a streak and see it broken the next game or sometime soon after. Following Week 1 last year, I showed that the Seahawks had a record 31 consecutive games with a lead in the 4th QT or overtime. In their very next game in San Diego that streak ended with San Diego’s 30-21 win. Are these just strange coincidences or do I have some special kind of jinx power? The answer is really neither, but it’s usually not by accident either. I find a lot of obscure streaks that are records, which means no one else has ever done it before. So if you’re doing something that’s never been done before, it’s very difficult to sustain that. Records are meant to be hard to obtain. So when I keep mentioning Seattle’s NFL record 70-game streak of being at least within one score in the 4th quarter, don’t be surprised if that streak-ending blowout loss is just around the corner.

Last week I highlighted Antonio Brown’s receiving streaks. Odell Beckham’s 9 games with 90+ yards came to a crashing end. Hopefully with Brown on several of my DFS rosters, his streak-stopping day won’t come against the 49ers.

TD-or-Bust Drives

We already had a great start to Week 2 with one of the craziest finishes in NFL history when Jamaal Charles lost a fumble for a game-deciding touchdown in the final minute. I already wrote a 3,000-word recap of the game on Friday, so please check that out.

In that article I mentioned Peyton Manning has had 25 opportunities to start a drive in the final 3:00 of the fourth quarter, down 4-8 points and absolutely needing a touchdown. I just couldn’t let Phil Simms get away with saying Manning’s been in that situation hundreds of times. It’s rare and the number is 25. I showed all 25 of those drives in the article and found that Manning threw an interception of eight of his first nine attempts, all under Jim Mora in 1998-2001 when he was still feeling his oats. When Manning took his game to a new level in 2003 you saw the success start to pile up and he led a total of 8 touchdown drives in this situation. He’s been money in recent years, but how does this compare to his peers? I used Pro-Football-Reference to quickly gather that data, so it’s possible some drives are being omitted due to some timing differences with the kickoff. Example: PFR might say a drive started at 3:03, but it actually started at 2:58 in my data because of the five seconds spent on the kickoff. I base things on when the offense took the field to start the drive. With that said, here are the results for some key active QBs:

Drive3

Thursday night’s success pushes Manning ahead of the pack in TD%, but he also has the highest INT%. Again, all but one of those picks happened in his first four seasons (5 as a rookie in 1998 alone). We also see the Manning brothers had the most average time left while Aaron Rodgers got the short end of the stick there. I’m surprised Roethlisberger is that low, but a lot of his great touchdown drives came in 3-point games (SB 43) or just outside of the 3:00 mark (2008 Ravens). By the way, Tony Romo’s drive last Sunday night is included here so we’ve already seen a couple of great ones this season.

Take away from this what you will, but what I want to highlight is that drives like the one Manning had on Thursday night against the Chiefs are rare and shouldn’t be taken for granted. That’s the kind of moment you remember for years as a fan, whether you were on the winning side or the losing side. NFL Network still airs that 1994 game where Joe Montana threw a late TD to beat John Elway’s Broncos on Monday Night Football. Twenty years from now you might see this game replayed too.

2015 Week 2 Predictions

The quest for one perfect week of picks continues as I’m already 0-1 after picking a team with Alex Smith to beat a team with Peyton Manning starting. Silly me.

Winners in bold

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

The 49ers are still a pretty talented team, but I don’t think they’ll take advantage of the poor pass defense the way you should when playing the Steelers right now. Pittsburgh’s offense pushes them ahead to a home win.

If the Saints lose at home to Tampa Bay, I seriously may not pick that team in another game until 2016. I’ve had it.

The Titans shouldn’t blow a 25-point to Cleveland this year. I’m interested to see Johnny Manziel start, but I expect this offense to continue struggling. Ken Whisenhunt and Dick LeBeau have a lot of experience at beating the Browns. Mariota won’t have to throw too much again.

After having no running game on Monday night and playing Dallas this week, DeMarco Murray is someone I expect to have a huge Week 2. The only thing that might stop him is Chip Kelly’s rotation of the three backs, because that’s a very difficult thing to manage with the talent you get from Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews. But I expect Murray to get most of the touches this week. Eagles clean up some things defensively and no Dez Bryant is a big blow to Dallas.

The Jets are a sneaky-tough opponent for the Colts at home, but I think Indy finds a way to win that one at home. Or for Ryan Fitzpatrick to lose it. Either way.

Seahawks at Packers is indeed the big one on SNF. This time it won’t be in Seattle and Kam Chancellor won’t be playing, but neither will Jordy Nelson (and Bryan Bulaga). This is Aaron Rodgers’ best shot to have a good game against this defense, and I think this could be the week Davante Adams actually shines like he was so hyped to do. Remember, he was supposed to be the x-factor in the NFC Championship Game. He caught one ball for 7 yards. With James Jones coming on last week and Randall Cobb always a threat, Adams could have some favorable matchups against a secondary that just isn’t as deep with all the injuries (Jeremy Lane) and holdouts going on this year. This game can basically decide who gets the No. 1 seed in the NFC and it’s only Week 2. Still, I can’t fathom Seattle starting 0-2. I think Marshawn Lynch is a huge part of the gameplan — no 41 throws this week — and the Seahawks grind out a close one.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6

Super Bowl XLIX Preview

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

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

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

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

Key to the Game: Run to Win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The X-Factor: The Gronk

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

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

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

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

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

Pressure vs. Sacks

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

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

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

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

Unfamiliar Opponent and Playoff Consistency

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

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

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

Expect a Competitive Game

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

SEANOBLOW

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

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

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

The Comebacks

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

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

SBDEF

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

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

RW37update

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

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

Home-field vs. Neutral Field

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

Seattle’s Points Allowed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl Windows

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

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

We know that multiple titles come in small windows.

sbwind

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

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

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

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

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

batsb

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Injuries

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

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

Conspiracy Theory Time

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

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

vino

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

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

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

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

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

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

seawelk

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

seaoffside

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

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

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

Special Teams

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

The Final Prediction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Seahawks 20

Super Bowl MVP: Rob Gronkowski

NFL Week 14 Predictions: Try To Write It Down Into a Perfect Sonnet or One Foolish Line

I am feeling better this week and have some random thoughts to share on a few Week 14 games.

Colts at Browns

This is a bad game for Vontae Davis to miss with Josh Gordon getting his share of targets. He only needs a little space to break a huge play. Brian Hoyer has to know he’s on a short leash and must play better before he loses his job to Johnny Manziel. I think he’ll play a good game and the Cleveland offense will have to score a decent amount to get the win. The Colts haven’t played a road game since November 3 and this is statistically one of the best pass defenses Andrew Luck will face this year. I doubt he’ll fear Joe Haden on T.Y. Hilton and the Colts have a bunch of other weapons to go to anyway. I just hope this isn’t viewed as a week to get T-Rich going because of that dreadful trade. The best backs on the field will probably be the undrafted ones (Isaiah Crowell and Dan Herron).

The Colts surprisingly haven’t had a 4QC/GWD this year, so I think this could be the one in a 27-24 type of finish.

Texans at Jaguars

Houston should win this game, but I just wanted to reiterate a point about the ludicrous thought of J.J. Watt for MVP in 2014.

Not only is Houston just a 6-6 team, but the Texans’ strength of victory is 22-50 (.306).

Furthermore, look at the quarterbacks Watt and the Texans have feasted on in those wins:

  • RGIII (benched)
  • Derek Carr (rookie’s second start)
  • EJ Manuel (benched)
  • Zach Mettenberger (rookie in his 1st and 5th starts)
  • Brian Hoyer (slumping and may be benched too)

Now here comes rookie Blake Bortles with his league-worst 15 interceptions and poor 9.1% sack rate.

A guy scoring five touchdowns, including a 1-yard catch while already up 24 in the fourth quarter, is an asinine argument for someone to be named the Most Valuable Player in the league, yet that’s what Watt’s teammates and some fans are selling now because there’s really nothing else going on with Houston’s season. You’re 6-6? Cheers. That’s good for 12th place in the AFC.

It also helps Watt that defensive end is one of the most blameless positions in football. You don’t hear someone bash Watt or any pass-rusher for not getting to Tony Romo when he evaded him and threw a touchdown. Keep in mind the Texans lost that game in overtime. Where’s the criticism? Yet if you play defensive back and get burned for a touchdown, you can guarantee someone will point that out. Hell, Richard Sherman allowed a few first downs to Keenan Allen and people acted like he was exposed. A star defensive end can get locked down on 85-90% of the snaps in a game, but if he gets one sack some people will think he had a good game. People bash quarterbacks for not putting up enough points. Why don’t we bash a DE for not generating enough stops and pressure? Some of them are making close to QB money after all.

We’ve seen the Texans lose 14 games in a row with Watt playing at a high level. We’ve seen them allow 40+ points in games he shined. He’s a great player. He’s running away with DPOY.  Maybe he should get more red-zone snaps at tight end. He’s just not MVP material when his impact on the game is so minimal compared to the quarterback position where several great players are having incredible seasons.

Steelers at Bengals

I know the Steelers for some reason play Marvin Lewis’ Bengals better in Cincinnati (10-2 since 2003) than they do at Heinz Field (6-5), but I’m calling my shot on this final quarter of the season.

The Steelers will lose in Cincinnati, lose in Atlanta, beat Kansas City and beat Cincinnati to finish 9-7. Too little, too late. Shouldn’t have pissed around with Tampa Bay and the Jets.

Ravens at Dolphins

Close game last year won 26-23 by Baltimore. This is almost a “loser goes home” game right here, and I think there may be a little more pressure on Miami to get the win at home with the gift of Haloti Ngata’s suspension. Miami still has a very tough game left in New England. Baltimore is more than capable of winning its last three games, but if they drop this one and Miami only loses once more, that’s 10-6 for both with the Dolphins having the H2H win. So yeah, it’s a big one. I just think with or without Ngata, that Baltimore secondary is struggling and Ryan Tannehill has been playing solid. They’ll get a boost in the running game with Ngata out and I like the Dolphins to sneak out a close one.

Bills at Broncos

Julius Thomas is a game-time decision (ankle), but will his return make the Broncos worse on offense? All the rage the last two weeks has been Virgil Green’s blocking, a revamped OL, some 6-OL sets and C.J. Anderson’s excellent running. Peyton Manning’s never had an offense with two 200-yard rushing games in the same season, let alone back-to-back games. I think Thomas was missed in the red zone and he should have an impact there, but the Broncos may want to limit Wes Welker’s playing time and keep the 2-TE sets more with Thomas in the slot when he’s up to full health. Buffalo has a front four to get pressure on Manning, so it’s a good week to experiment with that extra protection. I think given time Manning will have a big day at home and Kyle Orton will be the one taking the majority of the game’s sacks. Something to watch for is Connor Barth’s kickoffs in the Mile High altitude. He was awful in Kansas City, routinely giving the Chiefs good starting field position. If he can’t get touchbacks at home, the Broncos may still have a major kicking dilemma.

49ers at Raiders

After an inexplicable fake punt loses the game on the final play, Jim Harbaugh races to midfield to a gang of Oakland players and rips off his shirt to reveal a “Just Win Baby” Raiders t-shirt. The screwjob is complete.

vince

That probably won’t happen, but it would be so much fun to see the NFL perfectly emulate old-school wrestling. You know, back when shit was called WWF.

Seahawks at Eagles

This is a big one with a lot of interesting layers, many of which were covered by my co-workers at Football Outsiders this weekend.

The Eagles have allowed a league-worst 14 pass plays of 40+ yards, but Seattle’s lost its vertical edge with the departure of Golden Tate and failure to do anything with Percy Harvin. It’s shocking to see Russell Wilson is the only current starter getting over 60% of his yards from YAC (60.9%) this season. His scrambling has been a bigger threat this year, but we’re still waiting to see a game where Wilson has to throw a lot. He’s never thrown more than 37 passes in any game, which is insane given how quickly (and often) most quarterbacks do that in their career (click to enlarge).

37RW

This could be the week with the Eagles ranking 8th against the run in DVOA and having just contained DeMarco Murray and that consistent Dallas running game that has tortured most of the league. Perhaps more importantly, the Eagles have the ability to score points. We know Seattle’s defense is healthy and playing at a high level again, but Chip Kelly is a whole different beast from Arizona/49ers and the game is in Philly.

The Eagles have scored at least 20 points in 21 consecutive games (16-5 record), tied for the 10th-longest streak in NFL history (including playoffs). The record is 25 games (2010-12 Saints). The fact this streak is alive is amazing considering the offense scored 0 in San Francisco, but three return touchdowns still gave them 21. Don’t discount the impact of special teams on the Eagles’ season.

We keep setting up Mark Sanchez to fail this year, but he’s doing okay so far. In the blowout loss to Green Bay, he literally threw one bad pass and took a few sacks and still trailed 30-3 for it. That loss didn’t say much about him. He never had a chance really. The Seahawks do not pose that kind of dynamic offense, but I think Wilson’s going to have to have one of his best games this season to get the win. This isn’t another 19-3 game by any means.

I hate to say it because I already see Sanchez making me eat my words, but I think he’ll struggle with the Legion of Boom and the Seahawks will keep rolling towards what could be another strong finish that puts them in prime position for a repeat.

Patriots at Chargers

Circadian rhythms, December records and Justin Bieber curses? What the heck are we talking about here? All I know is Philip Rivers is 0-5 against the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick duo, and outside of an ass-kicking in the 2007 regular season, the losses have been right out of a Greek tragedy.

Two game-tying field goals from 50+ yards away missed at the end. Eric Parker’s butterfingers. Martyball. Marlon McCree fumbling a Brady INT on fourth down with a 21-13 lead. Rivers having to play on a torn ACL for the 2007 AFC Championship. LT on the bike. Three straight fumbles recovered by NE in the 2010 meeting, the last time they played in SD. Four more turnovers in NE in 2011 by San Diego’s offense, including a Vince Wilfork pick.

Can San Diego win this game? Sure, but I just don’t see it happening. Darrelle Revis will contain Keenan Allen and the bigger Brandon Browner could limit the deep-ball threat of Malcolm Floyd. I think Eddie Royal and Antonio Gates have to play huge for Rivers in this one, as does the running game. He pulled out a great 4QC in Baltimore last week, but something just always goes wrong at the worst moment when he’s playing this team. I’m not sure San Diego has any answers for the tight ends of the Patriots.

Denver will be rooting like hell for San Diego to win and suffer a letdown in next week’s game, giving the Broncos a nice path to the No. 1 seed. However, I imagine we’ll see the opposite. After a loss to NE, the Chargers rally and drop Denver in Week 15, which I’ve been penciling in as a Denver loss since April. But the No. 1 seed in the AFC is very much going to be in control of what San Diego does these next few weeks.

Falcons at Packers

This is like Russell Stover taking on Hershey Chocolate. The only intrigue is whether the Packers dominate so much by ground or air and where it leaves Aaron Rodgers on this list of the most passing yards through 100 starts since 1960. He needs 293 yards to break the record.

100

NFL Week 14 Predictions

I had the Cowboys on TNF and the streak of 8-8 seasons is over. However, this could still be a 10-6 non-playoff team and that Romo back injury that led to losses to Washington and Arizona will be the main culprit.

Winners in bold:

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

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
  • Week 9: 11-2
  • Week 10: 10-3
  • Week 11: 8-6
  • Week 12: 12-3
  • Week 13: 9-7
  • Total: 126-65-1

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.

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 14 Predictions, Rookie QBs on 3rd Down and Writing Recap

With the news out of Dallas on Josh Brent killing teammate Jerry Brown in a drunk-driving accident, this is another NFL weekend with tragedy coming before the games. Hopefully the NFL and really everyone out there can learn lessons from these incidents. How hard is it not to get into a car when you’re drunk? If we are still too stupid to make these decisions, then maybe we need cars that will make them for us.

Something has to change.

Before I get confused for Bob Costas during one of his halftime speeches, onto the usual Saturday recap.

This Week’s Articles

Captain Comeback Week 13: Colts, Steelers Rally to Build Familiar AFC Race – Cold, Hard Football Facts

The Colts were able to rally from a 12-point deficit in the final 4:02 for another stunning comeback victory over the Lions. Pittsburgh surprised everyone with Charlie Batch leading the team to a road win in Baltimore. The two wins shape up yet another AFC playoff picture with the usual suspects. Also: Tony Romo tied Troy Aikman for most 4QC wins in Dallas history (16). He did it by attacking “The Todd Bowles Movement.” This is the most jam-packed edition of Captain Comeback yet with 11 game recaps. It was a good week of games.

Andrew Luck Outclasses Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson in the Clutch – Bleacher Report

True story: this article originally had a general headline (see URL), but after finishing it, the results were pretty clear: Andrew Luck owns clutch moments in a way no rookie really has. We know all about his five game-winning drives, but his performance on third down, especially third and long, is something we just never see from a young QB. The surprise is just how historically bad RGIII has been at converting on third and long.

The war is clearly raging between these fanbases, so arm yourself with some real data that matters, unless you think throwing a short pass on 3rd and long and punting is good.

R3D

3DS

Following a Legend: Andrew Luck Week 13 at Detroit Lions – Colts Authority

Find out how Andrew Luck threw 30 incompletions, three interceptions, had a season-high in three-and-out drives, but still managed to grow his legend with another comeback win and career-high four touchdown passes. The young Jedi just had to use the Schwartz.

Yes, Those NFL Offenses Are Better Than Ever – NBC Sports

If the numbers stay on their current pace, then the 2012 NFL season could be the most efficient ever in terms of passing, rushing, kicking and punting, otherwise known as the primary acts of a football game. Details on each category and the record-breaking numbers the league is averaging. It is also the most pass-happy season ever with teams throwing the ball on 57.95 percent of their plays.

The Thinking Man’s Guide: NFL Week 14 Predictions – Bleacher Report

In-depth previews for Raiders/Broncos, Chargers/Steelers, Saints/Giants and Texans/Patriots plus predictions for every game.

Ranking the Random Fumble Luck of NFL Quarterbacks – Cold, Hard Football Facts

Last week we looked at turnover rates using all fumbles. This week I took the lost fumble data that goes back to 1992 and looked at which quarterbacks have the most and least fumble luck, because recoveries are in fact random, and the data bears that out. Tom Brady is completely average (42.5%) in this regard, while Matthew Stafford has only lost four of his 14 fumbles, and Kyle Orton has the worst luck, losing 60% of his fumbles. Finally an updated turnover rate list using fumbles lost is included for the 59 quarterbacks from the last two decades.

 2012 NFL Week 14 Predictions

Was there even any doubt on the Thursday game? Peyton Manning has now won at least eight straight games in a season for the seventh time in his career. If only I had his consistency at making these game picks.

Winners in bold:

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

Season results:

  • Week 1: 12-4
  • Week 2: 11-5
  • Week 3: 4-12
  • Week 4: 10-5
  • Week 5: 10-4
  • Week 6: 5-9
  • Week 7: 12-1
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 11-3
  • Week 10: 9-4-1
  • Week 11: 11-3
  • Week 12: 10-6
  • Week 13: 8-8
  • Season: 123-68-1 (.643)