JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Sunday will be a first.
Super Bowls have run through grainy footage of Johnny Unitas, promises from Joe Namath, dominance from the Pittsburgh Steelers and later Joe Montana.
The New England Patriots have been a frequent visitor, nobodies have become celebrities, brothers have coached against each other.
Never have the two teams so forceful with their strengths met.
That will change Sunday evening once the singing stops and the ball is rested on a tee for the kickoff of Super Bowl XLVIII in MetLife Stadium. The first title game in league history between the team that led the NFL in points and yards against the team that allowed the fewest points and yards will be a kick from beginning.
The Seahawks defense, led by the league’s best secondary and its lid-sealing approach, will try to stop one of the best offenses in the history of football.
Perhaps the best. No other offense scored more points (606) during a season than the Broncos in 2013. They have five players with 10 or more touchdowns, including three receivers and the tight end. The Seahawks were sixth in the league in points scored. They had one player, Marshawn Lynch, score more than 10 touchdowns.
“It’s historically, as hard as it gets,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “It can’t get any tougher. They’ve done everything – broken every major record in the throwing game, points and everything. Peyton (Manning) has been extraordinary. He’s had the year that everyone would dream to have. People couldn’t even dream to have the year that Peyton’s had before this season with all the numbers. We’re up against it.”
No Super Bowl offense has carried the balance or scoring ability of the Broncos.
The 1991 Buffalo Bills made the first of what would be four consecutive Super Bowl trips for the franchise. The troika of quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver Andre Reed headed up that offense. They scored 451 points despite Kelly and Thomas being Hall of Fame players, and Reed being on the ballot for eight consecutive years.
The Greatest Show on Turf? The St. Louis Rams were even more potent than Buffalo, with Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce. They scored 526 points in 1999, the year they won the Super Bowl. After averaging 32.9 points per game, the Rams would have to play three more games to exceed Denver’s point total.
How about them Cowboys and their potent offenses? Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin; all in the Hall of Fame. Their first Super Bowl title together came in 1992. They scored 409 points – almost 200 fewer than the Broncos. That amount ranked second in the league that season.
Manning is the 37-year-old maestro of Denver’s offense. He’s led Denver to a hefty 68 “explosive” passing plays, which are gains of 20 yards or more in the NFL lexicon. That is the foremost area of prevention for the Seahawks. Their defense allowed just 30 explosive passing plays this season.
“That’s the top priority, staying on top and taking care of the deep ball as a secondary and as a defense,” Seahawks defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto said.
“When you give up explosive plays in a drive, that’s when they score. When you’re able to stay on top and take care of the deep ball, usually good things happen.”
Sunday is the sixth time the NFL’s top scoring offense has faced the top scoring defense in the Super Bowl. In four of those five games, the defensive power has won.
Green Bay beat Kansas City in the first Super Bowl. Pittsburgh downed Dallas in 1979; San Francisco over Miami in 1985; and the New York Giants held down the aforementioned Bills in 1991.
In 1990, Montana, Jerry Rice, John Taylor and the high-knee running of Roger Craig blew out the Broncos, 55-10, in the most lopsided game in Super Bowl history.
Even that group didn’t put up the numbers of this year’s Broncos. Not even close, actually. San Francisco scored a paltry 442 points that year.
Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant said the Seahawks haven’t faced a team like the Broncos or a quarterback like Manning.
“They’re definitely going to stress our defense,” Bryant said. “We’re going to be relying on everybody.”
Which is what Manning expects. When he looks at Seattle’s defense, one that often mixes styles but is schematically about as exotic as the Midwest in its approach, Manning sees a bond.
“Unity,” Manning said. “That is one word that jumps out. That is a close-knit bunch of guys, from what I see on film. They are constantly high-fiving each other, picking each other up off a pile. I see them constantly communicating. You see the safeties talking, you see linebackers talking to corners and linebackers talking to defensive linemen. That just jumps out on the game film.”
Seattle will likely often have an extra element on its defense Sunday: the nickel back. Denver frequently uses four wide receivers plus a split out tight end. Manning is constantly in the shotgun. The Seahawks will trot out Walter Thurmond, who previously was a starter at cornerback and has often played the nickel spot.
Denver can counter with its pet “pick” plays, crossing routes in tight space off the line of scrimmage or across the middle of the field that allow a receiver to cut off a defensive back. They are on the edge of legal. How they are handled by the Seahawks and viewed by referees will influence the game.
Carroll is borderline jubilant about the chance to play against the highest scoring offense in league history. He called it “thrilling.” He’d also be excited to walk barefoot over an open bear trap set on top of hot coals just for the challenge.
At least he has one of the great clichés of sports on his side: defense wins championships. It may even stick in this modern era of the NFL which is dominated by the pass unlike any other time in its history.
“We’ll find out you know, I don’t know,” Carroll said. “That statement that defense wins championships has been out there a long time. I don’t know that it ever went away. We’ll find out.”
BREAKING DOWN THE GAME
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS VS. DENVER BRONCOS
3:30 p.m. Sunday, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 710-AM, 950-AM, 97.3-FM, 1240-AM, 1030-AM.
Here’s the most discussed position at the Super Bowl: the legendary Peyton Manning and youngster Russell Wilson. Manning set numerous passing records this year. Wilson is in Year Two of a career he hopes has a similar arc to Manning’s. Experience, knowledge and ability to adapt for Manning pushes this to Denver.
Running back: Seahawks
As Marshawn Lynch said during the week, he’s “about that action, boss.” The Broncos have said during the week that stopping Lynch is their top priority. Denver has a solid running back itself. Knowshon Moreno ran for 1,038 yards during the regular season. He’s no Lynch, however.
Wide receivers: Broncos
The Broncos have three wide receivers with 10 or more touchdowns this season. They have a slot/possession receiver in Wes Welker, a deep threat in Eric Decker and a big receiver in Demaryius Thomas. The return of Percy Harvin bolsters the Seahawks’ group, as does Doug Baldwin’s 106 receiving yards in the NFC title game. It’s closer than some might think, but the edge still belongs to Denver.
Tight end: Even
The Seahawks have done an excellent job of shutting down pass-catching tight ends such as San Francisco’s Vernon Davis and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham. The Seahawks have used multiple defenders to cover tight ends. They’ll face another good one in Denver’s Julius Thomas (12 touchdowns). Zach Miller is an experienced tight end who is supplemented by the speed of rookie Luke Willson and blocking of Kellen Davis.
Offensive line: Broncos
Peyton Manning has been sacked 18 times in 18 games. A large part of that is because he releases the ball so quickly. Another aspect is his offensive line. The Seahawks’ offensive line has been in flux all season because of injury or mediocre play. Seattle has yet to reveal who will start at left guard Sunday. It could be a crucial position because Denver defensive tackle Terrance Knighton will need to be stopped. The Seahawks have two former Pro Bowl selections, Max Unger and Russell Okung, to lean on, though neither has played up to their usual standard this season.
Defensive line: Seahawks
Terrance Knighton, nicknamed “Pot Roast,” is the defensive line anchor for Denver. Seattle’s experiment of bringing in several defensive linemen and rotating them has worked beautifully. Each says they are rested, even into Super Bowl week, because of the reduction in snaps played during the season. The Seahawks have a much deeper and more versatile defensive line.
The return of K.J. Wright to a starting spot will be important to the Seahawks’ ability to cover Denver tight end Julius Thomas. One of the quietly developing players on the team is second-year linebacker Bobby Wagner. He led the Seahawks in tackles. Danny Trevathan is a force for Denver, which lost Von Miller in Week 16.
Defensive backs: Seahawks
There was a mini brouhaha last week when a couple of Denver radio hosts said the Broncos’ secondary was as good as the Seahawks’. That’s a stretch from someone serving home cooking. Byron Maxwell is the least-known player among the starters in the secondary and could start for a lot of teams. Both Denver cornerbacks, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey, are near retirement. Broncos safety Duke Ihenacho is prone to mistakes. The Seahawks have the best secondary in the league.
Special teams: Seahawks
Steven Hauschka has been on-point almost every kick this season. Jon Ryan has helped the Seahawks control games via field position with his punts. Golden Tate has been solid in punt returns, and Doug Baldwin and Percy Harvin provide a strong kick return duo. Jeremy Lane could be the league’s best gunner. Denver’s diminutive Trindon Holliday (5-foot-5) is among the league’s best returners. He has run back a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown this season. Kicker Matt Prater has missed just one field-goal attempt all season. One thing to keep an eye on: Denver allowed the highest average kick return in the league this year. Hello, Harvin?
Pete Carroll is in his first Super Bowl but has managed dozens of big games in his life. This will be the biggest. However, I don’t see it fazing him. John Fox has coached in a Super Bowl before. He knows how this works. This will be more about nuanced, in-game decisions. Will Carroll get “hormonal” in the biggest game of his life? Will Fox be desperate to win now with Manning? Neither is likely.
Pick: Seahawks 30, Broncos 23
The Seahawks’ secondary will buy its rush just enough time to get to Peyton Manning often enough that he ends up fumbling. That turnover, plus an interception, a solid throwing day for Russell Wilson and a big Percy Harvin kick return deliver the Seahawks their first title.