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Friday, February 28, 2014

Contribution to isportsweb.com:


Carolina Panthers: Gano signs extension; Hardy gets franchise tag
By Sean Faulkner, isportsweb.com (@isportsweb)


Friday, February 7, 2014

Tuesday's Gone: #NFL Predictions Review: SUPER BOWL XVLIII EDITION

SUPER BOWL XLVIII
February 2nd 2014 :: MetLife Stadium, NY/NJ 

Seattle Seahawks #1 (+2.5) @ Denver Broncos #1 (48): SEAHAWKS 27-24 SEAHAWKS 43-8
Sunday, 6:30 PM, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ (Weather: 30% rain, mild, mid-40s)



Reasons: Normally I would write a paragraph or two (or more if we're talking Patriots) breaking down a few key points to a particular game, specifically points/yardage rankings and applicable trends, and come to a relatively brief prediction of a score/winner. However, just as the Super Bowl is grand, so shall be my preview of this Super Bowl, much like my Super Bowl XLVII preview (I erroneously predicted the 49ers to win a close game), the game preview that started this sports blog one year ago to the week. I've enjoyed writing about the games this past year; I hope you've enjoyed reading.

Match ups and teams can look great on paper, but that's why they play the games. Super Bowl XVLIII was set to be one of the greatest in history, the greatest I argued, and for many it wasn't exactly that. For Seahawks fans and Manning haters, we, err, they rejoiced; but for most of the rest of the country and abroad this one was a dud.  Super Bowl XVLIII was the 3rd most lopsided Super Bowl in history, the 35 points differential (SEA 43-8) only being surpassed in Super Bowls XX (CHI v. NE - 46-10) and XXIV (SF v. DEN - 55-10). In fact, the Broncos are the victims of three of the five most lopsided Super Bowls in history, the fourth worst being a 32-point Broncos loss to the Natives in Super Bowl XXII. So Super Bowl XVLIII, although statistically (i.e. on paper) the greatest match up since the title game began in 1970, ties for the 3rd largest blowout in the game's history, and SBXXIV, statistically the second most intriguing game, sits as the 2nd-worst blowout in Super Bowl history. Hmm...not many of the #1 offense v. #1 defense Super Bowls have panned out unfortunately, but we should still hope for them.
   The Seahawks straight up whooped the Broncos, in all three phases of the game. Not only did the Seahawks defense ball, as I'll discuss in detail later, but the offense scored points, and was much more than efficient, just as they have been all season; their special teams, anchored by healthy threat Percy Harvin, scored on one of their two kick-off returns. More to come on that. From the first botched snap, a miscommunication attributed to Manning, and subsequent safety, the Broncos looked lost, apprehensive, out-of-place and on the road, and seemed to have no business playing for the title, because not only did they get beat, they were destroyed. Kam Chancellor set the tone early when he detonated not only Demaryius Thomas' body, but also his spirit, and basically the spirit of the entire Bronco's WR crew. That was just the beginning. The defensive line hit hard and fast, the secondary hit the WRs hard and jumped routes, and the linebackers mixed it up with pocket pressure and excellent coverage, just as advertised. In fact, the defensive display was so amazing (statistical details to come) it sparked talk of the Seahawks being on of the greatest single-season defenses of all time, and whether they could make a run at one of the greatest sustained defenses in NFL history. Sustained might be difficult: There are many low-round draft picks playing out of their minds in a perfect system that will be looking to get paid, very unlike the 2002 Tampa Buccaneers, potentially the loudest challengers to the Seahawks being crowned either the best "Super Bowl defense" or "single season defense", a selfless group of high-round draft picks that were paid enough early to take cuts and stay together sustaining that level over time. As for a single season, or certainly for a Super Bowl, the case has been made - and loudly. A record-breaking 112 million people saw the Seahawks force the Manning face over and over and over again. The domination was undeniable, to the point where I've heard almost every available excuse out there for the Broncos other than Vegas insiders kidnapping Manning's twins and holding them hostage until he threw the game.

The Most Anticipated Super Bowl in years...and the greatest Super Bowl ever

This is one of the most anticipated Super Bowls in recent memory. Since the merger of the two major American football leagues (AFL & NFL) in 1970, the top seeds from each conference have reached the Super Bowl only nine times, the last being in 2010 when the Indianapolis Colts lost to the New Orleans Saints; besides that it's been 20 years (1993). This is the highest points differential (23.5) between Super Bowl opponents that rank #1 in scoring offense/defense respectively in the game's history, and the next closest game isn't even close (17.9, SBXIX, 1984, SF v. MIA). In fact, this is only the fifth time that the #1 respective scoring offense/defense have met in the Super Bowl:

1978: Steelers (D) W v. Cowboys (O)
1984: 49ers (D) W v. Dolphins (O)
1989: 49ers (O) W v. Broncos (D) - this game also featured the top seeds from each conference
1990: Giants (D) W v. Bills (O)

You can see where the phrase "defense wins championships" comes from. As far as comparing total yardage this is only the second time in history that the top offense in terms of total yards gained faces the defense that gave up the fewest yards (2003, TB v. OAK), and the total yardage differential between these two teams (184 yards) is much greater than that 2003 game (137 yards). In fact, if you take those other four aforementioned games into account, in which the top-ranked scoring defenses/offenses played one another, and look at their respective yardage total from the season in question, the two closest games, SBXIV 1978 Steelers v. Cowboys (106 yards) and SBXXIV 1989 49ers v. Broncos (116 yards), weren't even close to this one. Super Bowl XLVIII not only boasts the highest points differential between #1 scoring offenses/defenses in the game's history, it is by far the highest total yards differential between the #1 total yards offense/defense, in addition to being only the second Super Bowl match up in league history the top defense/offense also happened to be the top seeds from their respective conference (SBXXIV, 1989, SF v. Denver, see above). I make the case here that Super Bowl XLVIII is statistically the greatest Super Bowl ever played, essentially destroying the 1989 Super Bowl on paper. Of course only time will tell if the game meets expectations, but statistically this is the greatest Super Bowl match up since the NFL merger in 1970. That's a cool thing to brag about as a Broncos fan: Your team has played in the two greatest statistical match ups in Super Bowl history. It is interesting to note that in SBXXIV, the only one of its kind where the #1 scoring offense won over the #1 scoring defense, the offense won handily, 55-10. Has anyone noticed that the two teams in the Super Bowl happen to be from the two states that have lifted marijuana prohibition? Oh yeah, everyone has. I suggest "Omaha" as a toking trigger, if you're so inclined, but there will be words uttered more, believe me. You know the booze-hounds will be all over it. My interest is in the much-promised marijuana advertising. That should be interesting...

So this game didn't live up to the hyped "match up" billing, and it is again interesting to note that the two greatest match ups in Super Bowl history on paper (anchored essentially by the two representatives teams being #1 seeds from their respective conferences while each being the top defense and/or offense in the NFL) were two of the top three greatest blow-outs in the history of the game. Wonders never cease. Perhaps the 1990 Giants-Bills could make an argument for the greatest 'return on a match up' investment for a Super Bowl between two top-ranked offensive/defensive teams. That's a different debate.

The Key Metrics to Winning in the NFL

There are certain metrics by which NFL teams measure themselves, or standards teams try to meet to enable success in the NFL. Some of these may vary from organization to organization, but for the most part they are relatively standard and include, but are not limited to: points allowed (and/or differential), yards allowed (and/or differential), Red Zone TD defense efficiency, Red Zone TD offense efficiency, yards per pass attempt, rush attempts per game, and turnover ratio. If we were to go by those metrics alone, on paper the Seahawks would destroy the Broncos. The Seahawks are ranked first in points allowed (14.4), yards allowed (273.6), and turnover ratio (+20), second in Red Zone defense efficiency (39%) and rush attempts per game (31.8), and sixth in yards per attempt (7.0). In the context of these aforementioned metrics their worst ranking is 14th, in Red Zone TD offense efficiency (53%), still ranked in the top half of the league, just out of the top-10. On the other hand, the Broncos only rank in the top-10 in two of these major metrics, although they are ranked first in both (yards per attempt - 7.3 & Red Zone TD efficiency - 73%). The Broncos are ranked 11th in rushing attempts (28.8), 16th in TO ratio (+/- 0), 19th in yards against (356.0), 22nd in points against (24.9), and 26th in Red Zone TD defense efficiency (62%). Strength of schedule is also a major factor and the Seahawks had the 9th-ranked schedule v. the Broncos 24th-ranked schedule. If you consider that both teams ranked in the top-3 in points/yards differentials as well, the fact that the Seahawks managed those statistics with such a difficult schedule is an amazing feat. The Seattle Seahawks are truly one of the more complete regular season teams to reach the Super Bowl, and most of the numbers point to them winning the game, but there's one other major factor could trump them all: experience. The Seahawks have almost no Super Bowl experience relative to the Broncos, which will certainly be one of their strengths leading up to one of the biggest media frenzies in sports. The most complete team game in professional sports might come down to individual strengths like this.

Without belaboring these points I'll simply put up a table:

Points allowed - SEA 8 :: DEN 43
Yards allowed - SEA 306 :: DEN 341
Red Zone TD % - SEA 50% (2-4) :: DEN 50% (1-2)
TO Ratio - SEA +4 :: DEN -4
Rush attempts - SEA 29 :: DEN 14
Yards per pass attempt - SEA 7.9 :: DEN 5.7

So similar to the regular season, the Seahawks essentially destroyed the Broncos in every single metric to winning an NFL game, and the results were just as any analyst using these metrics would have expected.

The Denver Broncos Strengths/Weaknesses

The Broncos have been shredding offensive records all season long, both team and Manning - no need to belabor those points. The interesting thing that almost no one has talked about, including many pundits, is the Broncos suddenly stout defense. Almost laughable at points in the season, the Broncos ranked in the bottom half of many important defensive categories, save rush defense (ranked 8th), but turned it around towards the end of the season. During the playoffs the Broncos ranked first in rush yards allowed, against two of the better rushing teams in the league (SD & NE), and second in total yards allowed. The resurgence of Pot Roast, a.k.a. Terrance Knighton, the 300-lb. interior lineman that has been wreaking havoc on the front lines of the Chargers and Patriots on their way to Super Bowl XLVIII, will be a major factor. The supposed slack caused by the devastating loss of Chris Harris was immediately picked up by future HOFer Champ Bailey, desperate for his first Super Bowl win. After the AFC Championship loss, Patriot's QB Tom Brady talked about how different the Broncos defense looked compared to their Week 12 match up, about the time the Bronco's defense started coming together and playing as a unit, one of the few things lost in analyzing full-season statistics. The Broncos have serious offensive weapons, but these weapons are more fragile than you might think, especially against this heat-seeking defense, and one major blow to Wes Welker or Eric Decker could change the tune of this game immediately. The size advantage Denver has over most teams is non-existent v. the Seahawks, and Seattle has some of the better cover LBs in the league. The weather may not factor in to the game much, but the altitude could. Playing at sea level relative to 5,280 feet above sea level will certainly effect John Fox's decisions regrading 4th down and FGs as well as Peyton Manning's ducks, something Richard Sherman astutely pointed out. The Broncos average a league-best 6.3 yards per play, but the Seahawks allow a league-best 4.4 ypp. This is one area I could see the Broncos excelling in - yardage and big plays. However, scoring points is the important thing, and the Broncos haven't done that in the playoffs, averaging 25 ppg (13 fewer points than their season average) v. relatively weak defensive teams, nothing like they'll face v. Seattle on Sunday. In fact, the Broncos didn't rank higher than 4th of 12 playoff teams in points or any yard totals in two home playoff games that had similar or better weather than Denver will face Sunday. So as the game approaches it might be the Bronco's defense that could make the biggest difference, not the highly-touted offense that has been sputtering, in addition to facing the best defense they've faced all year Sunday, maybe the best defense Peyton Manning has ever faced in his career (including Baltimore). Manning was only sacked 20 times all year - he could get sacked 10 times in this game alone v. this front seven. For all of those who point out that Seattle won't be at home: neither will Denver.

Ironically, the Broncos strengths played right into their weaknesses during Super Bowl XVLIII. The Broncos played a very normal game for their 2013 season, Seattle just shut them down. The Broncos feasted all season on short dink-and dunk passes that this team of Pro Bowlers took down the field for serious yards after catch. Such was not the case when said Pro Bowl WRs are terrified to come across the middle, something the Broncos exploited all season long. In my honest opinion the Broncos were simply exposed. They played the 24th-ranked schedule in 2013, and it showed. They simply had not played a team like the Seahawks, and you could bank on the results being nearly identical v. the 49ers and very similar v. the Panthers. These AFC teams, save maybe Cincinnati, are simply not built to deal with the likes of those fast, physical NFC defenses, with run-first offensive mentalities. So although Denver was embarrassed, yes EMBARRASSED, any team would have been v. Seattle. Pundits claim Tom Brady and the Patriots would have been a much better game. Trust me, and this is coming from a life-long Masshole, the Patriots would not have fared much better. I would have put that game at ~31-17 Seattle, mostly due to our stable of RBs, Tom Brady being better prepared than Manning in big games, and Matthew Slater (special teams in case you're confused). But make no mistake, NO ONE was beating Seattle that night except for maybe the 49ers. Manning attempted almost no long passes, mostly out of fear of them being picked off. Pressure or not, Manning's passes have seldom looked worse than they did Sunday night. The Broncos were absolutely terrible, and not just on offense. This suddenly stout playoff defense of the Broncos was also exposed, recording no sacks or turnovers for the first time in Super Bowl history (by comparison SEA had one sack and four turnovers). Many people have looked for reasons, like crowd noise, why the Broncos lost the game rather than why the Seahawks won the game, but that is utter nonsense. The crowd noise only elevated after the Seahawks made so many defensive plays that the crowd couldn't help but cheer the Seahawks on. You can't convince me that was a pro-Seahawks crowd from jump, or that Seahawks fans snapped up the remaining 18,000 "cheap" Super Bowl tickets as the game approached - these people live 3,000 miles away. It's just that not as many people love Manning as ESPN would like you to think and they liked what they saw - it doesn't mean they were mostly Seahawks fans. Please don't blame John Fox for electing to not practice with crowd noise, the great player-coach Peyton Manning could have stood up to that decision. This is a team of veterans, to boot. They underestimated that Seahawks team, plain and simple. The last note I'd like to make about blame is people claiming that Manning simply had too much on his plate running that entire team. Nonsense. People act like Peyton manning revolutionized the game by being the first QB to ever audible or change a coaches play at the line of scrimmage - most of the greats have. Not only that, but this Denver offense is essentially the Colts offense in orange, so Manning can run this team in his sleep. The problem IS Manning, but not because of the reasons you'd think. Just like many pundits and pros have said since the game: Manning isn't that hard to figure out, you just need the personnel to accomplish it. Steelers safety Ryan Clark said it best: Everybody has the recipe, what they need are the ingredients. The Seahawks had the ingredients. 

The Seattle Seahawks Strengths/Weaknesses

The Seahawks strengths are well-documented: the come in hot with a defense that will hurt you, insult you, and embarrass you. They're a team who had to play the likes of the 49ers, the Panthers, and the Cardinals, three of the five best defenses in the NFL, most twice, and all on the road. Just when the wounds from those defensive battles began to heal they'd be off to play teams like the Saints to deal with those offensive juggernauts. These Seahawks are no joke. They're not about timing or finesse. They don't rely on seamless pass routes and a kicker who can kick 50+ yard FGs in the thin air. The Seahawks are a team that grinds out wins in the worst weather against the toughest competition. People act as if the Seahawks can't play on the road when they went 6-2, losing only one more game on the road than at home, where they are praised for perfection. People worry about the Seahawks offense. I can't imagine why: The Seahawks were the 8th-ranked scoring offense (26.1 ppg), the 3rd-ranked rushing offense (137 ypg), and they didn't skip a beat in the playoffs averaging 23 ppg (just three fewer than their season average). The Seahawks are a turnover (39) and sack machine (44) and should take advantage of the extremely slow-moving Manning and/or his ducks, as well as the fumble-prone Broncos, who led the league in fumbles lost. Although both teams are obviously on the road, the Seahawks will certainly feel it more without their "12th Man", who doesn't travel well (as the 2006 Seahawks will tell you), especially being in little brother Eli's town. Two other slight disadvantages the Seahawks have to content with is a lack of Super Bowl experience, of which the Seahawks have zero, and the fact that the Seahawks were the most penalized team in the NFL. You simply cannot take cheap shot hits against the NFL's favorite son, nor can you touch their precious WRs, thanks to Peyton's most important personal assistant, Bill Polian, who made sure Peyton's bombs would go untouched, less any CB get flagged for the inevitable pass interference. A team that can move the ball at will, especially when greased, cannot be afforded gift yards from stupid penalties. This is something Pete Carroll needs to hammer into the heads of his defense. One last note about potential issues raised by the media that I cannot see being an issue: the play of Russell Wilson. Only in his second year, Wilson has shown no signs of a second-year QB, ranking 5th in the NFL this season with a 102.4 QB rating. The little amount of attention paid to Wilson has been just what the Seahawks could have wanted - let the man go to work. I could see Russell Wilson being the unsung hero of this game and stealing the show.

What can we say about this defense that already hasn't been exhausted? Not much, but I would like to reiterate how much of an impact Kam Chancellor made on the game from the beginning (as most dominant safeties do). This is one intimidating defense, and as a guy who still has to live through SpyGate nonsense, I will not offer any steroid jokes. These guys are huge, and the right kind of huge, they're long. You know you're in trouble when none of your offensive players are bigger than any defender, save the seemingly miniature Earl Thomas III, who is anything but small when it comes to playing safety, only physical. Physical was the name of the game as the Seahawks manhandled the Broncos front line, pressuring Manning more than he had been any other game this season, save perhaps the regular season San Diego game, and as Richard Sherman said, they jumped routes all night. Like many an expert said, it wasn't magic, or even necessarily about "domination" as much as it was about film study and discipline. There is no doubt this was a defensive effort for the ages, but statistically, and against a statistically-similar offense, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers might have been better: they gave up fewer first downs, fewer yards, more sacks (5:1), and more turnovers (5:4), in which three of those were pick-sixes. The argument could be made that Seattle nearly shut out Denver, but 12 of Oakland's 21 points came in a late, 4th-quarter onslaught. One could also argue that Seattle's competition was more fierce, of which I'd tend to agree, but the 2002 Raiders were no slouches, ranked 2nd in the NFL in total offense, led by Rich Gannon, the 4th-ranked QB in the league (who led the NFL in passing yards). Many of these arguments yield to recent memory, but I'll give the nod to that Buccaneers team as having a more dominant performance defensively than these Seahawks did Sunday, but make no mistake, they're a very close second. Regardless of the semantics, due to their epic season, and most certainly their Super Bowl XLVIII performance, this defense has vaulted into the discussion of "greatest single-season defenses" ever, let alone just the Super Bowl. Many experts have compared them to the universally accepted top defenses in modern (NFL merger) history: the 1978 Steelers, the 1985 Bears, the 2000 Ravens, and the aforementioned 2002 Buccaneers. All were the top scoring defense of that season and Super Bowl Champions, but it's important to note two other important metrics when considering those defenses: their team's offensive rank and the league average for points that season. In other words, if a defense has a really bad offense, the pressure on that defense mounts considerably, and their feats are even more remarkable. In addition, if the league average for points is high, as in 2013, the highest team average for points in NFL history (23.4), a defense holding opponents to low scoring averages is also more remarkable. Considering these three metrics (points allowed, the defense in question's offensive rank, and that year's league average for points) comparing these five defenses leads to an interesting conclusion: those 2002 Buccaneers were not only the most dominant Super Bowl defense, but maybe the single greatest single-season defense in NFL history, essentially equaling the 2000 Ravens, putting the 2013 Seahawks 3rd all-time. I might be called foolish, or biased because they beat my Patriots in Super Bowl XX, but the 1985 Bears rank 4th, and the 1978 Steelers would finish 5th of these five defenses most people argue over. Let me explain. The 1978 Steelers, as mighty and scary as they were, had the 5th-ranked offense in a league that only averaged 18.3 ppg; so allowing 12.2 ppg is stout, but not that many fewer than the league average (-6.1 differential); having the 5th best offense in the league never hurts. The 1985 Bears allowed a league low 12.4 ppg in a year when offenses averaged 21.5 ppg (-9.1 differential), but had an even better offense (2nd) than the '78 Steelers. The 2013 Seahawks are in a similar position to those '85 Bears: they allowed a league-low 14.4 ppg in a year when teams averaged a record-high 23.4 ppg (-9.0 differential), but Seattle had the 8th-ranked offense in the NFL. So the argument is really between the 2000 Ravens (10.3 ppg allowed/14th-ranked offense/league averaged 20.7 ppg/-10.4 differential) and the 2002 Buccaneers (12.2 ppg allowed/18th ranked offense/league averaged 21.7 ppg/-9.5 differential). One team has the slight edge in differential while the other has the slight edge in offensive rank; both team handily won their respective Super Bowls with dominant defensive performances led by several future Hall of Fame players. So although my brief analysis has essentially crowned the 2002 TB Buccaneers the greatest single-season and Super Bowl defense of all time (or at least tied with the 2000 Ravens), it was worth noting to see just how dominant this 2013 Seahawks defense was in a historical context. 

The Bottom Line

The weather should not be a factor, but if it's 40 degrees with a slight chance of rain as forecasted 48 hours before kick-off, that favors Seattle as that would be considered hometown weather. In 2013 the Broncos were 6-2 on the road and won their games by an average score of 37-24; in the playoffs those offensive scores dipped to an average of 25 points, both home games to boot, but Denver also only allowed 17 ppg. The Seahawks were also 6-2 on the road this season and won their games by an average score of 23-15; in the playoffs those numbers stayed nearly identical (23-16). The Broncos defense has certainly become a force in recent weeks, and Knighton and Co. will certainly make things tougher on the Seahawks than people might expect, but I doubt they can handle Russell Wilson outside of the pocket too much, especially without Von Miller, let alone along with The Beast, a RB the likes of which the Broncos haven't seen yet this season. No one has really talked about the Seahawks WRs, a very underrated group of speedsters with above-average athleticism and hands; don't forget about Percy Harvin, who'll be active for the game, a guy who despite few contributions thus far, could literally be the game changer if healthy. The Seahawks front seven will give Manning more problems than he's faced all year, and no amount of Omaha check-downs is going to fix that pressure. The larger-than-average secondary, save the tiny but dangerous bomb known as Earl Campbell III, will hit the Broncos WRs harder and more often than they've been hit all year. As I said before, the size advantage afforded to the Broncos on one edge and at the ends on a nearly week-to-week basis will mean nothing v. the giant Seahawks. If you think size plays no role in coverage you know nothing about football. So in my opinion I feel the game will come down to two things: can the Bronco's front seven contain Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson and can the Seahawks front seven get to Manning? The Seahawks secondary can only cover so many guys and the LBs can only cover well for so long. If Manning is allowed to throw freely they might hold the ball just long enough to first-down their way to a low-scoring title, but if the Seahawks can put any pressure on Manning and get The Beast rolling, it's all over for these statistically-inferior Broncos.

The weather was not a factor at all, which makes the Broncos failures, or better yet the Seahawks triumphs, even more remarkable. The temperature was over 50 degrees and the wind was light at worst. The Broncos defense did actually make some noise, holding The Beast & back-up Robert Turbin to only 64 yards on 2.6 ypc, but did give up 27 points to the Seahawks offense everyone seemed so worried about. Russell Wilson shined, and although his stats weren't padded, he made a strong case for Super Bowl XLVIII MVP with 232 combined yards and 2 TDs. The Seahawks WRs shined, just as I thought they would, and a case for MVP could have been made for Doug Baldwin or Jermaine Kearse. Finally healthy Percy Harvin stole the offensive show, returning the 2nd-half kickoff 87 yards for a TD; in fact, with that return TD and 45 yards rushing, not to mention his mere presence, Harvin even made a strong case for game MVP. But the night belonged to the Seahawks defense, which was in Manning's face the entire night, from the first botched snap of the game. The Seahawks defensive performance was so dominant Seattle didn't need the run game to control anything, they just stifled the Broncos at every turn.

MVP

I've thought long and hard about this one. Neither the Broncos nor the Seahawks have Special Teams guys that can steal the spotlight, a la Jacoby Jones in 2012, but they do have dark-horses. Although both teams rank in the top-10 in returns (K returns: DEN 6th - 25.0 yards; P returns: SEA 9th - 11.1 yards), there aren't many players dynamic enough to be considered for Super Bowl MVP status, although Seattle could make the case for Golden Tate or Percy Harvin (again, if healthy) and Denver could make a case for Trindon Holliday. Several defensive players could make a play for MVP, and I could almost certainly see Richard Shermon, Kam Chancellor, or even Bobby Wagner stealing the spotlight and grabbing an MVP award, but ask Justin Tuck how hard those awards are to come by for defensive players. No, this MVP award is going to one of two Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson or Marshawn Lynch, and something tells me it'll be the latter. I see early focus shifting from Lynch to Wilson as the QB begins to loosen up and make key throws while taking advantage of the play action pass, which will set up the run game late for The Beast as he wears down the Denver defense, keeps Peyton off the field, and scores his third TD late to seal the game. Wilson's game management and heady decisions, but relatively low total yards and no TD passes will give way to Marshawn Lynch's three TDs, a highlight reel run or two, and the subsequent awkward MVP acceptance speech.

As I said before the case for MVP could have been made for several players on the Seahawks, and some even suggested the award should have gone to the entire defensive unit. The award ended up going to Malcolm Smith, the first player in Super Bowl history to record an INT and a FUM recovery in the same game, the INT going for a pick-six. It's funny that I claimed no team had a special teams guy that could make the case for MVP, a la Jacoby Jones in 2012, save maybe Percy Harvin, and Harvin did just that. At least I claimed Russell Wilson could win the award, which could have easily happened. Not with that defense effort. It is a shame the world didn't get more of Marshawn Lynch, which we so desperately needed. Either way, the Seahawks  don't have many guys you don't want to root for, excuse the double negative.

Top-10 Prop Bets (take these...maybe)

I should have clearly stated with some of these prop bets that you only stood to make money on some of these sure bets if you had a bunch of money to put down in the first place. In other words, my suggested temperature prop bets were bank bets, but you'd have to put down $1000 to win $200; if you're a baller and you had $100K to spend, enjoy your $20,000.


1. Archie Manning shown OVER 2.5 times on TV, exculding halftime (-175): Come on...
This was a typo - I meant to write "Archie & Eli Manning shown over 2.5 times"...which didn't happen. They showed Eli once by my count. A rare mistake on this night, sorry. The money wasn't great anyway. If you bet $175 to win $100 you lost.
 
2. Peyton Manning says "Omaha" UNDER 27.5 times, excluding replays (-155): Used as decoy only
Money...not sure if he said it once. If you bet $155 you won $100.
 
3. Doug Baldwin OVER 39.5 receiving yards (-110): Best Seattle hands, most explosive
Money...65 yards and a TD. OK, that second part doesn't matter. If you bet $110 you won $100.
4. Temperature OVER 32 degrees F @ kick-off(-120): Supposed to be ~45 degrees
Money...it was over 50 degrees at kick-off. If you bet $120 you won $100.
 
5. Temperature OVER 28 degrees F as LOW game temp (-120): Low at 5AM is supposed to be 31
Money...it was 43 when the game ended. If you bet $120 you won $100.
 
6. Russell Wilson OVER 30.5 rushing yards (-110): Averaged 34 ypg in 2013; playoffs an anomaly
Dropped the ball on this one - Wilson ended with 26 yards. I thought he would beast, at least for 35+ yards. So I didn't drop the ball, it's just shit luck.  If you bet $110 to win $100 you lost.
 
7. Richard Sherman WILL BE interviewed by Erin Andrews live post game on Fox (-120): $$$
Not sure how this plays in Vegas, but there's tape of Sherman chest-bumping a shocked Andrews post-game, who was expecting a hug. The video is out there. I suppose this didn't count as a Fox post-game interview. I suppose if you bet $120 to win $100 you lost.
 
8. The first turnover will be a FUMBLE (+110): The Broncos led the league, enough said
Manny being Manny baby. The first fumble occurred within seconds, which only enhanced prop bet #10, the MONEY bet. If you bet $100 you won $110. 
 
9. Announcers WILL mention Russell Wilson being drafted by MLB (+150): More than a feeling...
As far as I know they did not mention this, but it was hard to hear the entire broadcast. If someone knows I'm wrong, please let me know. If you bet $100 to win $150 you lost.
 
10. There WILL be a score in the first 90 seconds (+1800): Why not, Peyton likes to score quick.
Perhaps my proudest call. Although I assumed any quick score might come from a sneaky Manning, the safety scored within seconds of the first snap sealed one of my greatest calls. If you bet $100 to win $1800 you won. Please inquire for an address to send my tip. Thanks in advance.

(Technically, if you took all of my suggested prop bets at face value lost $505 and won $2,460 for a net of $1,955; I didn't even take all of my suggested prop bets, but I do love squares.)


SUPER BOWL XLVIII: 

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 27
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 43
DENVER BRONCOS 24
DENVER BRONCOS 8

I enjoyed writing the Weekly #NFL Predictions & Tuesday's Gone: #NFL Predictions Review articles throughout the 2013 season and I hope you enjoyed reading them. I'd truly any appreciate feedback as I intend to continue this weekly post next season and also plan to expand to include team free agency and cap space issues, the draft, training camp and preseason news, and fantasy advice once the season begins. As far as resources used all season (used only for lines, box scores, statistics, & rankings) for the blog I'd like to acknowledge ProFootballReference.com, FootballOutsiders.com, NFL.com, ESPN.com/nfl, and FootballLocks.com. All views, opinions, and predictions were my own, but these sites were a tremendous asset for game, player, and line analyses. Check back periodically throughout the winter and spring for NFL updates like free agency and the draft. If you know anyone with an open sports writing or radio gig, I'm your man. Until then, take care and enjoy the other sports.

Thanks for reading!



Saturday, February 1, 2014

Week 21 #NFL Predictions: SUPER BOWL XLVIII EDITION

SUPER BOWL XLVIII
February 2nd 2014 :: MetLife Stadium, NY/NJ 

Seattle Seahawks #1 (+2.5) @ Denver Broncos #1 (48): SEAHAWKS 27-24
Sunday, 6:30 PM, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ (Weather: 30% rain, mild, mid-40s)

Reasons: Normally I would write a paragraph or two (or more if we're talking Patriots) breaking down a few key points to a particular game, specifically points/yardage rankings and applicable trends, and come to a relatively brief prediction of a score/winner. However, just as the Super Bowl is grand, so shall be my preview of this Super Bowl, much like my Super Bowl XLVII preview (I erroneously predicted the 49ers to win a close game), the game preview that started this sports blog one year ago to the week. I've enjoyed writing about the games this past year; I hope you've enjoyed reading.

The Most Anticipated Super Bowl in years...and the greatest Super Bowl ever

This is one of the most anticipated Super Bowls in recent memory. Since the merger of the two major American football leagues (AFL & NFL) in 1970, the top seeds from each conference have reached the Super Bowl only nine times, the last being in 2010 when the Indianapolis Colts lost to the New Orleans Saints; besides that it's been 20 years (1993). This is the highest points differential (23.5) between Super Bowl opponents that rank #1 in scoring offense/defense respectively in the game's history, and the next closest game isn't even close (17.9, SBXIX, 1984, SF v. MIA). In fact, this is only the fifth time that the #1 respective scoring offense/defense have met in the Super Bowl:

1978: Steelers (D) W v. Cowboys (O)
1984: 49ers (D) W v. Dolphins (O)
1989: 49ers (O) W v. Broncos (D) - this game also featured the top seeds from each conference
1990: Giants (D) W v. Bills (O)

You can see where the phrase "defense wins championships" comes from. As far as comparing total yardage this is only the second time in history that the top offense in terms of total yards gained faces the defense that gave up the fewest yards (2003, TB v. OAK), and the total yardage differential between these two teams (184 yards) is much greater than that 2003 game (137 yards). In fact, if you take those other four aforementioned games into account, in which the top-ranked scoring defenses/offenses played one another, and look at their respective yardage total from the season in question, the two closest games, SBXIV 1978 Steelers v. Cowboys (106 yards) and SBXXIV 1989 49ers v. Broncos (116 yards), weren't even close to this one. Super Bowl XLVIII not only boasts the highest points differential between #1 scoring offenses/defenses in the game's history, it is by far the highest total yards differential between the #1 total yards offense/defense, in addition to being only the second Super Bowl match up in league history the top defense/offense also happened to be the top seeds from their respective conference (SBXXIV, 1989, SF v. Denver, see above). I make the case here that Super Bowl XLVIII is statistically the greatest Super Bowl ever played, essentially destroying the 1989 Super Bowl on paper. Of course only time will tell if the game meets expectations, but statistically this is the greatest Super Bowl match up since the NFL merger in 1970. That's a cool thing to brag about as a Broncos fan: Your team has played in the two greatest statistical match ups in Super Bowl history. It is interesting to note that in SBXXIV, the only one of its kind where the #1 scoring offense won over the #1 scoring defense, the offense won handily, 55-10. Has anyone noticed that the two teams in the Super Bowl happen to be from the two states that have lifted marijuana prohibition? Oh yeah, everyone has. I suggest "Omaha" as a toking trigger, if you're so inclined, but there will be words uttered more, believe me. You know the booze-hounds will be all over it. My interest is in the much-promised marijuana advertising. That should be interesting...

The Key Metrics to Winning in the NFL

There are certain metrics by which NFL teams measure themselves, or standards teams try to meet to enable success in the NFL. Some of these may vary from organization to organization, but for the most part they are relatively standard and include, but are not limited to: points allowed (and/or differential), yards allowed (and/or differential), Red Zone TD defense efficiency, Red Zone TD offense efficiency, yards per pass attempt, rush attempts per game, and turnover ratio. If we were to go by those metrics alone, on paper the Seahawks would destroy the Broncos. The Seahawks are ranked first in points allowed (14.4), yards allowed (273.6), and turnover ratio (+20), second in Red Zone defense efficiency (39%) and rush attempts per game (31.8), and sixth in yards per attempt (7.0). In the context of these aforementioned metrics their worst ranking is 14th, in Red Zone TD offense efficiency (53%), still ranked in the top half of the league, just out of the top-10. On the other hand, the Broncos only rank in the top-10 in two of these major metrics, although they are ranked first in both (yards per attempt - 7.3 & Red Zone TD efficiency - 73%). The Broncos are ranked 11th in rushing attempts (28.8), 16th in TO ratio (+/- 0), 19th in yards against (356.0), 22nd in points against (24.9), and 26th in Red Zone TD defense efficiency (62%). Strength of schedule is also a major factor and the Seahawks had the 9th-ranked schedule v. the Broncos 24th-ranked schedule. If you consider that both teams ranked in the top-3 in points/yards differentials as well, the fact that the Seahawks managed those statistics with such a difficult schedule is an amazing feat. The Seattle Seahawks are truly one of the more complete regular season teams to reach the Super Bowl, and most of the numbers point to them winning the game, but there's one other major factor could trump them all: experience. The Seahawks have almost no Super Bowl experience relative to the Broncos, which will certainly be one of their strengths leading up to one of the biggest media frenzies in sports. The most complete team game in professional sports might come down to individual strengths like this.

The Denver Broncos Strengths/Weaknesses

The Broncos have been shredding offensive records all season long, both team and Manning - no need to belabor those points. The interesting thing that almost no one has talked about, including many pundits, is the Broncos suddenly stout defense. Almost laughable at points in the season, the Broncos ranked in the bottom half of many important defensive categories, save rush defense (ranked 8th), but turned it around towards the end of the season. During the playoffs the Broncos ranked first in rush yards allowed, against two of the better rushing teams in the league (SD & NE), and second in total yards allowed. The resurgence of Pot Roast, a.k.a. Terrance Knighton, the 300-lb. interior lineman that has been wreaking havoc on the front lines of the Chargers and Patriots on their way to Super Bowl XLVIII, will be a major factor. The supposed slack caused by the devastating loss of Chris Harris was immediately picked up by future HOFer Champ Bailey, desperate for his first Super Bowl win. After the AFC Championship loss, Patriot's QB Tom Brady talked about how different the Broncos defense looked compared to their Week 12 match up, about the time the Bronco's defense started coming together and playing as a unit, one of the few things lost in analyzing full-season statistics. The Broncos have serious offensive weapons, but these weapons are more fragile than you might think, especially against this heat-seeking defense, and one major blow to Wes Welker or Eric Decker could change the tune of this game immediately. The size advantage Denver has over most teams is non-existent v. the Seahawks, and Seattle has some of the better cover LBs in the league. The weather may not factor in to the game much, but the altitude could. Playing at sea level relative to 5,280 feet above sea level will certainly effect John Fox's decisions regrading 4th down and FGs as well as Peyton Manning's ducks, something Richard Sherman astutely pointed out. The Broncos average a league-best 6.3 yards per play, but the Seahawks allow a league-best 4.4 ypp. This is one area I could see the Broncos excelling in - yardage and big plays. However, scoring points is the important thing, and the Broncos haven't done that in the playoffs, averaging 25 ppg (13 fewer points than their season average) v. relatively weak defensive teams, nothing like they'll face v. Seattle on Sunday. In fact, the Broncos didn't rank higher than 4th of 12 playoff teams in points or any yard totals in two home playoff games that had similar or better weather than Denver will face Sunday. So as the game approaches it might be the Bronco's defense that could make the biggest difference, not the highly-touted offense that has been sputtering, in addition to facing the best defense they've faced all year Sunday, maybe the best defense Peyton Manning has ever faced in his career (including Baltimore). Manning was only sacked 20 times all year - he could get sacked 10 times in this game alone v. this front seven. For all of those who point out that Seattle won't be at home: neither will Denver.

The Seattle Seahawks Strengths/Weaknesses

The Seahawks strengths are well-documented: the come in hot with a defense that will hurt you, insult you, and embarrass you. They're a team who had to play the likes of the 49ers, the Panthers, and the Cardinals, three of the five best defenses in the NFL, most twice, and all on the road. Just when the wounds from those defensive battles began to heal they'd be off to play teams like the Saints to deal with those offensive juggernauts. These Seahawks are no joke. They're not about timing or finesse. They don't rely on seamless pass routes and a kicker who can kick 50+ yard FGs in the thin air. The Seahawks are a team that grinds out wins in the worst weather against the toughest competition. People act as if the Seahawks can't play on the road when they went 6-2, losing only one more game on the road than at home, where they are praised for perfection. People worry about the Seahawks offense. I can't imagine why: The Seahawks were the 8th-ranked scoring offense (26.1 ppg), the 3rd-ranked rushing offense (137 ypg), and they didn't skip a beat in the playoffs averaging 23 ppg (just three fewer than their season average). The Seahawks are a turnover (39) and sack machine (44) and should take advantage of the extremely slow-moving Manning and/or his ducks, as well as the fumble-prone Broncos, who led the league in fumbles lost. Although both teams are obviously on the road, the Seahawks will certainly feel it more without their "12th Man", who doesn't travel well (as the 2006 Seahawks will tell you), especially being in little brother Eli's town. Two other slight disadvantages the Seahawks have to content with is a lack of Super Bowl experience, of which the Seahawks have zero, and the fact that the Seahawks were the most penalized team in the NFL. You simply cannot take cheap shot hits against the NFL's favorite son, nor can you touch their precious WRs, thanks to Peyton's most important personal assistant, Bill Polian, who made sure Peyton's bombs would go untouched, less any CB get flagged for the inevitable pass interference. A team that can move the ball at will, especially when greased, cannot be afforded gift yards from stupid penalties. This is something Pete Carroll needs to hammer into the heads of his defense. One last note about potential issues raised by the media that I cannot see being an issue: the play of Russell Wilson. Only in his second year, Wilson has shown no signs of a second-year QB, ranking 5th in the NFL this season with a 102.4 QB rating. The little amount of attention paid to Wilson has been just what the Seahawks could have wanted - let the man go to work. I could see Russell Wilson being the unsung hero of this game and stealing the show.

The Bottom Line

The weather should not be a factor, but if it's 40 degrees with a slight chance of rain as forecasted 48 hours before kick-off, that favors Seattle as that would be considered hometown weather. In 2013 the Broncos were 6-2 on the road and won their games by an average score of 37-24; in the playoffs those offensive scores dipped to an average of 25 points, both home games to boot, but Denver also only allowed 17 ppg. The Seahawks were also 6-2 on the road this season and won their games by an average score of 23-15; in the playoffs those numbers stayed nearly identical (23-16). The Broncos defense has certainly become a force in recent weeks, and Knighton and Co. will certainly make things tougher on the Seahawks than people might expect, but I doubt they can handle Russell Wilson outside of the pocket too much, especially without Von Miller, let alone along with The Beast, a RB the likes of which the Broncos haven't seen yet this season. No one has really talked about the Seahawks WRs, a very underrated group of speedsters with above-average athleticism and hands; don't forget about Percy Harvin, who'll be active for the game, a guy who despite few contributions thus far, could literally be the game changer if healthy. The Seahawks front seven will give Manning more problems than he's faced all year, and no amount of Omaha check-downs is going to fix that pressure. The larger-than-average secondary, save the tiny but dangerous bomb known as Earl Campbell III, will hit the Broncos WRs harder and more often than they've been hit all year. As I said before, the size advantage afforded to the Broncos on one edge and at the ends on a nearly week-to-week basis will mean nothing v. the giant Seahawks. If you think size plays no role in coverage you know nothing about football. So in my opinion I feel the game will come down to two things: can the Bronco's front seven contain Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson and can the Seahawks front seven get to Manning? The Seahawks secondary can only cover so many guys and the LBs can only cover well for so long. If Manning is allowed to throw freely they might hold the ball just long enough to first-down their way to a low-scoring title, but if the Seahawks can put any pressure on Manning and get The Beast rolling, it's all over for these statistically-inferior Broncos.

MVP

I've thought long and hard about this one. Neither the Broncos nor the Seahawks have Special Teams guys that can steal the spotlight, a la Jacoby Jones in 2012, but they do have dark-horses. Although both teams rank in the top-10 in returns (K returns: DEN 6th - 25.0 yards; P returns: SEA 9th - 11.1 yards), there aren't many players dynamic enough to be considered for Super Bowl MVP status, although Seattle could make the case for Golden Tate or Percy Harvin (again, if healthy) and Denver could make a case for Trindon Holliday. Several defensive players could make a play for MVP, and I could almost certainly see Richard Shermon, Kam Chancellor, or even Bobby Wagner stealing the spotlight and grabbing an MVP award, but ask Justin Tuck how hard those awards are to come by for defensive players. No, this MVP award is going to one of two Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson or Marshawn Lynch, and something tells me it'll be the latter. I see early focus shifting from Lynch to Wilson as the QB begins to loosen up and make key throws while taking advantage of the play action pass, which will set up the run game late for The Beast as he wears down the Denver defense, keeps Peyton off the field, and scores his third TD late to seal the game. Wilson's game management and heady decisions, but relatively low total yards and no TD passes will give way to Marshawn Lynch's three TDs, a highlight reel run or two, and the subsequent awkward MVP acceptance speech.

Top-10 Prop Bets (take these...maybe)

1. Archie Manning shown OVER 2.5 times on TV, exculding halftime (-175): Come on...
2. Peyton Manning says "Omaha" UNDER 27.5 times, excluding replays (-155): Used as decoy only
3. Doug Baldwin OVER 39.5 receiving yards (-110): Best Seattle hands, most explosive
4. Temperature OVER 32 degrees F @ kick-off(-120): Supposed to be ~45 degrees
5. Temperature OVER 28 degrees F as LOW game temp (-120): Low at 5AM is supposed to be 31
6. Russell Wilson OVER 30.5 rushing yards (-110): Averaged 34 ypg in 2013; playoffs an anomaly
7. Richard Sherman WILL BE interviewed by Erin Andrews live post game on Fox (-120): $$$
8. The first turnover will be a FUMBLE (+110): The Broncos led the league, enough said
9. Announcers WILL mention Russell Wilson being drafted by MLB (+150): More than a feeling...
10. There WILL be a score in the first 90 seconds (+1800): Why not, Peyton likes to score quick


SUPER BOWL XLVIII: 

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 27
DENVER BRONCOS 24


Stay tuned for the last "Tuesday's Gone: Week 21 #NFL Predictions Review: SUPER BOWL XLVIII EDITION" coming Wednesday...