Think you have heard everything there is to hear about the Seahawks and Broncos? Well you have! But have you heard all there is to hear about the history of the Peyton Manning Denial Movement? How about the 1991 Redskins? The final Game Riff of the 2013 season riffs about dynasties, legacies and a matchup that either marks the final chapter of one NFL era or the first chapter of the next.
Super Bowl XLVIII: Broncos vs. Seahawks
6:25 p.m. Sunday, Fox
Line: Broncos by 2
What legacy will discussion of Peyton Manning's legacy leave behind?
Peyton Manning's legacy has been the antique vase in the Inspector Clouseau movie for nearly 20 years. It is beautiful, rare and priceless, but somewhat fragile, and we are hopelessly drawn to it, eager to flail and act like bombastic klutzes around it around it until … oops … it shatters hilariously. That was a Hall of Fame quarterback! Not anymore, madam.
We have squeezed and mashed Manning to form fit a cautionary-tale narrative since the moment he left high school. He was too famous and highly anticipated to do anything but disappoint, so we insisted upon being disappointed. We turned "cannot beat Florida" into a thing -- this was before showing up for SEC games and not wetting yourself in fear at the very sight of Nick Saban started to be hailed as an accomplishment -- even though that meant buying temporarily into Steve Spurrier's bonkers worldview. We denied Manning a Heisman, choosing 1997 as the one and only year we acknowledged the existence of defensive players. Manning Denial for fun and profit was a popular hobby long before Manning could legally buy a Bud Light.
When Manning entered the NFL, we fabricated an archrival who was in no way worthy (Ryan Leaf), then crowned a replacement rival far worthier (Tom Brady). Manning obligingly lived down to our legacy-juggling comic choreography. He made sure to always lose to Patriots, just as he had to Florida, while at the same time succeeding just about everywhere else. Manning made life easy for his receivers and coaches, but he made life easiest for his deniers: He stuck to the script until Colts seasons became as familiar and predictable as Gilligan's Island reruns, blowing fuses in the coconut rocket ship exactly on cue.
Finally, Manning began to audible. He led his team to a Super Bowl victory. He began to reliably beat Brady's Patriots. Instead of installing Manning's legacy behind shatterproof glass, we just juggled harder. One Super Bowl victory, plus another loss, simply isn't enough for this particular player! The bar for true greatness is multiple Super Bowl victories, an easy standard to set if you are a Patriots fan or a television analyst who shared a locker room with Troy Aikman! It's a wonder we did not go back and retroactively demand an Orange Bowl or two.
Rest assured that a win on Sunday will not permanently protect Manning's legacy. He will still have only two rings in a world where Brady, Aikman, Michael Irvin and anyone who claims to be anyone has at least three. But Manning's legacy will finally have the one thing it needs the most: an accomplishment that belongs to him and him alone.
With a win in Super Bowl XLVIII, Manning will be the only starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams. None of the champions who made late-career scenery changes, like Joe Montana or Brett Favre, ever got this far. Brady will not fly down to Houston and take over the Texans to rob Manning of this distinction. It would be a unique feat.
It would also be an illustrative one. What Manning has needed, to convince all but his most stubborn detractors, is proof that his impact on a team goes far beyond that of even the typical great quarterback. He has spent the last three seasons demonstrating that very point. The Colts evaporated like vampires in the sunshine the moment he got injured. The Colts replaced him with the most Manning-like substance the draft has produced in a decade, but Andrew Luck makes the Colts only a temperamental hotrod that stalls as often as it surges, not the precision tuned vehicle Manning drove for a few thousand laps. Upon arrival in Denver, Manning took personnel that was reduced to running a gimmick offense and transformed it into the NFL's most dangerous offense. At age 37, Manning alone was worth a 4-5 game swing in a 16-game season, which is uncanny and unparalleled. Individual basketball players can have that kind of impact on winning percentage, but football players, even quarterbacks, are not supposed to.
Of course, Manning's reward for the 2012 turnaround was a loss to the Ravens (caused largely by inexplicable defensive and coaching lapses), and this year he faced a "Super Bowl or Disgraceful Failure" narrative from the moment he arrived in training camp. Manning persevered when his team's star defender got suspended, then injured, when his coach had a bye-week heart attack, when receivers and left tackles got hurt. Then, he beat Brady's Patriots one last time while we sharpened our cleavers in anticipation of his failure. A win on Sunday will not silence the deniers, but it will marginalize them forever, take them off radio and television and stick them on weird websites with tiny fonts and erectile dysfunction advertising, as Manning finally gets his own perch in a place of honor in our Hall of Quarterbacks.
Of course, a 1-2 Super Bowl record would be a rather unique legacy too; it would place him beside Kurt Warner, who also needed a team change (several, actually) to reach his third Super Bowl. The Seahawks defense is good enough to provide a little more grist for the Manning Denier mill. But it has been nearly a decade since Manning could be counted upon to pratfall on cue like a helmeted Peter Sellers. He follows his own script now, and the ending has not yet been written.
Richard Sherman is Darrell Green. Discuss.
When the greatest teams in NFL history are debated, the 1991 Redskins rarely come up. The team is highly qualified -- a Super Bowl winner that went 14-2 against a tough schedule, a team that won its third championship in 10 seasons -- but they also occupy an odd niche.
The 1991 Redskins were not the Redskins of song and story. Joe Theismann, John Riggins and Mark Moseley (fans under 35 have no idea just how popular that kicker was) were long gone. Even the original Hogs had mostly been replaced by some high-quality pork substitutes. The 1991 Redskins were better than the 1982 Redskins (of Theismann-Hogs-Rigginomics fame) or the 1987 team (Doug Williams and Timmy Smith). They did not need a work stoppage to trim their schedule or provide three "replacement game" victories, for one thing. But they were less mythic, and therefore are less remembered outside of the Beltway.
The 1991 Redskins skill position talent did not overwhelm you. The names Mark Rypien and Earnest Byner do not leap off the encyclopedia page, though both were very good. Darrell Green and Art Monk gave them a pair of veteran Hall of Famers, but the team's strengths were its incredible balance and depth. Nine different Redskins recorded at least three sacks as the team finished the regular season with 50. A dozen Redskins defenders intercepted at least one pass as the team picked off 27. When the Redskins needed a slot receiver, it was Ricky Sanders. When they needed an all-purpose back, it was Brian Mitchell. Goal-line back? Gerald Riggs. Their second guy off the bench could reliably beat you.
The 1991 Redskins played in the same division with a Jimmy Johnson Cowboys team that was rising like magma through a fault line. They played in the same division with the post-Buddy Ryan Eagles, who fielded one of the greatest defenses ever. Their schedule was brutal, but they finished first in the NFL in points scored and second in points allowed, won games by 45-0, 34-0 and 56-17 scores, then breezed into the Super Bowl after a 41-10 victory over the Barry Sanders Lions in the NFC Championship Game.
You can probably guess what all of this middle-aged Redskins fan service is getting at. The 2013 Seahawks are reminiscent of those 1991 Redskins. They have the outstanding secondary and pass rush by scary, scary committee. They have won by depth and balance. They prevailed in a sausage grinder division. You may not like the Russell Wilson-as-Rypien comparison (Seahawks fans are Brady-level touchy right now about suggestions that Wilson has done anything less than free Excalibur from the stone), but Rypien was a fine quarterback imbued with the usual magic in his prime. While Marshawn Lynch looks, plays and acts little like the compact, articulate Byner, both get results. The comparison can be pushed too far, but advanced statistical analysis confirms the similarities. Football Outsiders ranks the 1991 Redskins as the best team of the last 25 years. The Seahawks rank fifth.
The 1991 Redskins trounced a Hall of Fame quarterback leading one of the most feared offenses in the NFL in the Super Bowl, taking a 24-0 lead by the third quarter and coasting to a 37-24 victory over the Bills. But that was totally different, because Jim Kelly and the Bills were acquiring a reputation for end-of-season bumbling, which … oh wait, that is not really all that different.
Actually, it is different. The Kelly Bills had a great offense, the Manning Broncos a historic offense: sixth-ranked in the last 25 years, according to Football Outsiders, the perfect foil for the Seahawks' seventh-best of the quarter-century defense. The 2013 Seahawks are not quite the 1991 Redskins: the Jim Lachey-Mark Schlereth-Joe Jacoby neo-Hogs would blow the current Seahawks offensive line out of the stadium, for one thing. And analogy isn't analysis.
This whole exercise was a reminder to look at the Seahawks as a historically unique team. They should not be pigeonholed as a great defense with a power runner and a feisty scrambler. They are much more. The 1991 Redskins were the culmination of more than a decade of Joe Gibbs' systemic empire building. They were crafted from late-round picks, smart player development, the perfect merger of scouting of scheme and ahead-of-the-curve thinking about the value of each position, unit, dollar and draft pick. The 2013 Seahawks are the first fruits of the exact same kind of top-down system. Even if we do not see them hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, we are almost certain to see them again.
Maybe the 2013 Seahawks are really the 1982 Redskins. Wilson and Lynch look a little like Theismann and Riggins if you squint. One problem, though: That is not David Woodley in the other huddle.
In-Depth Super Bowl Paralysis (Freudian Slip)
They pay me to make predictions, not to make Pink Panther jokes or demonstrate my encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s football (this is almost exactly not true, but play along). So here goes:
Broncos Offense vs. Seahawks Defense: Whenever an outstanding secondary faces outstanding quarterbacks and receivers, the offense has an edge. The rules are simply designed that way. Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker will get open because the rules are designed to get them open, and Manning will find them.
There will also be penalties. For all the talk of the Seahawks turning pass patterns into un-penalized group gropes, their defense finished with the second-most pass interference penalties (13) and fourth-most defensive holds (11) in the NFL. The Seahawks pass defense loses about 17 yards per game to interference-like penalties. They gain back far more yardage with their up-close-and-personal coverage, but that's still a first down or two that Manning can exploit.
That does not mean that Manning will throw for 450 yards or the Broncos will score 45 points. It simply means that the Seahawks face a tougher test than the 49ers or even the Saints gave them.
Seahawks Offense vs. Broncos Defense: Just as these teams match strength with strength when the Broncos have the ball, they match weakness with weakness when the Seahawks take over. The Broncos defense is weak in the red zone -- 25th, according to Football Outsiders -- but despite Lynch, the Seahawks do not have a great red-zone offense: They are 4-of-10 on goal-to-go touchdown opportunities in their last five games, dating back to the regular season. The Broncos have a terrible third-down defense, but the Seahawks third down offense is nothing special.
A rock-paper-scissors game will break out when the Seahawks have the ball. The Broncos will try to rush Wilson and exploit the Seahawks offensive line before Wilson can throw deep to exploit the Broncos secondary. The Seahawks will run Lynch to slow the pass rush, but the Broncos run defense can corral Lynch to a degree. Pass rusher Shaun Phillips will stunt inside so he can beat up the tasty Seahawks guards, but if the Seahawks see Broncos outside rushers breaking containment and working to the inside, it will be Russell Wilson option time. Percy Harvin will probably run decoy routes. The winner of these matchup will be the team that throws scissors the moment the opponent throws paper.
There is a greater chance of an extreme result when the Seahawks are on offense than when Manning is at work. Manning will get his 24 points or so. Wilson, Lynch and the Seahawks could get blanked, or they could ring up 35 points in a bombs-and-beasts orgy. Most likely, they will mix a few big plays with Lynch pile-drives, give up a big drive-killing sack or two on the Broncos' side of midfield (a major Wilson problem which needs fixing), and will settle for more field goals than they would like.
Special Teams: A big Seahawks edge. The Seahawks have solid returners and nasty coverage units; they allowed just 3.2 yards per punt return this season. The Broncos have the dangerous (though bobble prone) Trindon Holliday but awful coverage units. The Broncos may have slightly more boom potential, but the Seahawks are far more likely to get a 20-yard punt return when they need one to tilt field position.
Weather: The Super Bowl forecast looks amazing. Cloudy with a high of 46 degrees? I may be walking around with my shirt off! (The mass nausea caused in the press box will prevent my colleagues from writing quality stories, giving me an unfair advantage. Even Belichick doesn't come up with plans this foolproof.) The Manning Cannot Win in Cold Weather storyline -- which is stupid anyway -- is out the window on a day that will feel like 66 degrees to those of us who spent the week in a liquid nitrogen canister. Even high winds and drizzle would favor the team that prefers low-scoring games, but Mother Nature and Chris Christie did not even dial up a little precipitation, even though he spent the week screaming at her to "do her job."
Now, two significant snowstorms have slammed the New Jersey region with little warning in the last two months -- you may recall the Eagles-Lions game, which was supposed to take place on a cloudy, 40-degree day. But it looks like weather will not be a factor, which takes away a potential edge for the Seahawks.
Verdict: We have known since September -- probably since last spring -- that these are the two best teams in the NFL. We have also known that both are somewhat one-sided, and their strengths and weaknesses cancel each other out: offense versus defense, youth versus experience. What many of us have avoided for 20 weeks and 2,500 words was actually picking a winner between two teams at different points in their own history, and probably in NFL history. YESTERDAY'S CHAMPION IS FACING TOMORROW'S CHAMPION … TODAY!!!!!!!!!
Early in the week, during the deep freeze, I picked the Seahawks to win -- not because of any Manning cold-weather juju, but the simple reality of trying to execute a precision passing game when no one can feel his thumbs. Milder weather, however, favors the team that can do some little things that its opponent cannot. The Broncos can produce first downs on third-and-long, even against a great defense. They punch the ball into the end zone more reliably. Their secondary is bad enough that a great opposing receiving corps could turn the tide, but even with Harvin somewhat healthy, the Seahawks lack a great receiving corps.
The Broncos win the Super Bowl. Manning gets his niche. For one of the youngest, smartest teams in the NFL, there will be other opportunities to coronate a new dynasty.
Prediction: Broncos 27, Seahawks 23