JERSEY CITY, N.J. — So the theories have abounded all week. No. 1 offense against No. 1 defense, for only the fifth time in 48 Super Bowls, and how would Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterback Peyton Manning handle the borderline impenetrable Seattle secondary?
That’s the key to Super Bowl XLVIII. Not the weather, which should be relatively mild for the first Sunday in February. And not the running game, at least not the way I see it. Unless Marshawn Lynch dominates both the time of possession and the Denver front seven and holds Manning to seven or eight possessions, I think the world is going to see what it wants to see: Peyton Manning succeeding or failing on his merits, and all the legacy-seekers getting their way. If Manning figures a way to handle a secondary he’s never played against, Denver wins. If the Legion of Boom trumps Manning and turns him over two or three times, Seattle wins.
I got Manning on Thursday morning for a few minutes, alone, after his final media availability before the game. We stood in the hallway leading from his press briefing to the Denver hotel here, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, and I tried to divine clues about how he’d attack Seattle. He’s much too smart to give anything away, but I did get the distinct impression he will test everyone in the secondary, and not shy away from the dangerous Richard Sherman or Kam Chancellor.
“You talk to other people around the league,’’ Manning said. “You talk to some teams that have played against them, some quarterbacks and coaches, and you might take some suggestions … ‘Hey, this is not a good route to throw on Sherman. We did not want to do that route.’ You know, whatever that is. And then you form your opinion as you watch it.
“At the same time, you have to do the things that got you here. So there are certain things that have worked well for us. You feel like you have to do them. I mean, Demaryius Thomas is on the right side a lot. Richard Sherman plays left corner a lot. You can’t just not try to get the ball to Demaryius. It’s not like you can’t throw his way, because you’ve got to try to get the ball to Demaryius if he’s over there. I think playing Sherman, he demands precision.’’
Sherman and Chancellor are 6-foot-3. Chancellor is as physical a strong safety as there is in football now. Sherman is as crafty a corner as there is in football. “Length’’ has always been a basketball term. The Seahawks might be making it a football term as well.
“There’s no question you have to account for that,’’ Manning said. “For instance, Sherman’s interception in the [NFC] Championship Game—that was a length play. The throw was a little short, but that’s a play that a lot of corners wouldn’t make. It was a play that he has made all season, because he’s long. And the fact that the linebacker was hustling to be right there—it was a true team play. Like you said, Chancellor is a physical guy that is around the box. Whoever is blocking him, a receiver or a lineman, you have to be ready, because he is coming downhill.’’
This is where the Denver imagination comes in, if you ask me. Manning and Gase took such pride in the AFC title game in doing odd things to frustrate the New England defense, such as Virgil Green, a backup tight end, running the ball from scrimmage for his first rush attempts in 48 NFL games. Of Manning’s big four—Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker—through 18 games, Manning has spread the wealth incredibly evenly.Take a look:
D. Thomas: 107 catches, 1,618 yards, 16 TDs
Decker: 94, 1,393, 11
Welker: 83, 854, 11
J. Thomas: 79, 949, 12
I’ve got a feeling if Denver wins, fourth receiver Andre Caldwell or second tight end Jacob Tamme is going to be a headline player coming out of the game. Manning has to be thinking: In five-receiver sets, somebody has to be open.
“I was receivers coach in 2009 here,’’ Gase said Thursday morning. “I remember the game when Brandon Marshall had 21 catches. Late in the game, I’m looking around and our other receivers are like, Am I even in the game?“
I looked up that game in 2009, against Indy—and Peyton Manning. Marshall was targeted 28 times that game by quarterback Kyle Orton. Combined total of the four leading receivers on the team after Marshall: eight targets.
“You learn as you grow in this league,” Gase said. “One thing I learned from coaching under Mike Martz [in Detroit eight years ago] is emphasizing five men running full speed on every pass route. If you have every guy understanding that, you know that eventually it’ll be time for everyone. Because Peyton is going to go to the guy who’s open.’’
Gase said only once this year has he emphasized to Manning to get the ball to a certain receiver—that was Demaryius Thomas at halftime of the game at Dallas in October. Thomas had no catches in the first half, and Gase wanted to get him going. Manning hit him on the first play of the third quarter. “Otherwise,’’ said Gase, “he doesn’t care who he throws to.”
Which is why I think Tamme or Caldwell could come up big. Two veteran receivers, supplementing the starters against such a physical secondary, could come in very handy.
So now we wait. Two-and-a-half days away, and it’s all over but the weather-watching. Should be much nicer than we thought.
Said Manning: “I remember when they announced that the Super Bowl was going to be here, of course everyone was talking about the weather. I mean, hey, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. Mentally, I’m prepared for it and I think our team is prepared for it. I think playing in Denver for the past two years has helped me. Playing in more elements than I did in Indianapolis on a daily basis. But I knew at the time, I said, ‘Boy, that’s gonna be special for the two teams that have a chance to play in it.’ To be on one of the teams playing in this Super Bowl, I feel honored. I feel privileged. I’m glad to be here because it means we have a chance to win the championship. I think that Sunday is gonna be a unique day—unique day and night.’’
I don’t want to jinx it. But I think we’ve got a classic coming. At least I hope we do. My pick: Denver, 27-24, because of the multiplicity of weapons at Manning’s disposal. But nothing will surprise me Sunday.
Player I’ll Be Watching This Weekend
Terrance Knighton, defensive tackle, Denver (number 94). All season, the Seahawks at some point in every game have asked Marshawn Lynch to take over the game on offense, and he’s usually succeeded. Lynch loves physicality. “I want to hit you,’’ he said this week. You can tell he loves that aspect of the game, and Sunday night the mountainous but quicker-than-he-looks Knighton will be the prime beef in his way. Knighton shocked the Patriots with three tackles of zero yards or fewer, and a crucial third-quarter sack of Tom Brady on fourth down. You can tell, talking to the Seahawks this week, that they know a key matchup will be Max Unger (a middling player against the rush) holding off Knighton, who will be trying to play smashmouth with Lynch. I’ll be watching the match closely Sunday night.
Sound Bite of the Week
“Well, being from Oakland, all I know about him is he punched people. That’s my type of person.”
—Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, on offensive line coach Tom Cable, who was accused as the Raiders head coach of punching an assistant coach on his staff.
That’s not just Sound Bite of the Week. It might be Sound Bite of the Year.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching This Weekend
1. The weather. So … the NFL dodged a very large bullet, unless the Polar Vortex pays an unexpected visit to the States this weekend. Seems that by the moment, the weather forecast for Sunday is getting lovelier. The Weather Channel says the high Sunday during the day will be 48, with temps about 44 and winds of 9 mph at kickoff Sunday evening. That, folks, is amazing—especially considering three days before the kick, at exactly the same time, the wind-chill temperature was 19. The effect? Peyton Manning will be unaffected by the weather, barring the 20-percent rain chance actually turns into a downpour that evening.
2. Saturday night behavior. It’s been a long time since there was a news story of any substance the night before the game. Eleven years ago, Raiders center Barret Robbins disappeared into Mexico and began the precipitous and calamitous Oakland slide to irrelevance. Seattle and Denver seem to have smart guys with little risk of screwing up their teams’ chances in the biggest game of their lives. But I’ll be interested in seeing Sunday morning that the 106 players eligible to play all made it back to bed in a timely manner in Jersey City on Saturday night.
3. Pete Carroll’s redemption. Twenty years ago this year, he had his lone season as a first-time head coach. Carroll doesn’t have fond memories of it. The Jets started 6-5, lost their last five games, and Leon Hess made one of the dubious calls in NFL coach-search history, replacing the energetic Carroll with the just-fired coach of the Eagles, Rich Kotite. A 4-28 run ensued. This week, Carroll practiced at the Giants’ facility, just across the parking lot from Met Life Stadium, the new place, which replaced the old place, Giants Stadium, on the same property. He didn’t seem emotional about it. I get a feeling Carroll will want to leave his mark back in the Meadowlands.
4. Russell Wilson making his own name. He just turned 25 two months ago, and Wilson is less than three years removed from being the second baseman for the Class A Asheville Tourists. But Wilson does not enter this game aiming low. “I want to change the game,’’ Wilson said Thursday. “If you think about it, there’s a difference between being good and being great and changing the game.” Listen to him, and watch him, and you actually believe he can do it—whatever “changing the game” means.
5. The Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2014. I’ll be one of 46 voters hidden away in the Hall voting process for seven hours or so Saturday. I have no idea what to expect. It’ll be interesting to see if Walter Jones is as much of a likely enshrinee in his first year as I assume he is. All over the ballot of 15 modern finalists and two senior candidates (Ray Guy, Claude Humphrey) are guys who deserve to be in. But a maximum of five modern candidates can make it—so we’ll see if that’s Charles Haley or Michael Strahan (or both), Marvin Harrison or Tim Brown or Andre Reed (or any combination), or Tony Dungy or Eddie DeBartolo (or both). There are close races everywhere I look. The class will be announced Saturday night on NFL Network.
6. Ray Guy. He’ll be a huge headline Saturday night, whether he makes the Hall or not. Guy is the Oakland punter who has tremendous emotional support not just from Raider Nation but also from Special Teams Nation.
7. The Sapp-Strahan feud. Wake me when this is over please. Warren Sapp hates Michael Strahan, and it colors what he says about him, and can we please move on to something of even minor significance? Please?
8. The NFL in Los Angeles. You have our attention, Stan Kroenke.
9. Mike Vick’s future. Vick said this week he’ll certainly be starting somewhere in 2014. I think that’s possible but hardly certain. Trying to figure who would bring him in as a likely starter, and I can’t find a team. Compete for the starting job, yes. Guaranteed, no.
10. NFL Honors. No suspense about the MVP—it’ll be Peyton Manning’s, in a walk—but lots of suspense elsewhere. Defensive Player of the Year (J.J. Watt? Luke Kuechly?), both rookie awards (my bets: Eddie Lacy on offense, Sheldon Richardson on defense), and coach of the year (my guess: Ron Rivera). A fun year for the awards, with lots of close races.