The RBS 6Nations Championship is heading towards a climax, and while both sides will naturally want to win, this is as much a pointer to see where each nation is going into the 2015 World Cup.
Wales are almost where they want and expect to be. Warren Gatland’s side have been together for some time. England are quickly emerging as a major force and what some units lack in experience, they make up for in depth and quality.
Many see Wales as contenders for the World Cup semi-final, yet they failed to convince against Italy and were completely out-classed by Ireland. They are rushing back Jonathan Davies and will also be boosted by fellow British and Irish Lion Alun Wyn Jones.
Wales won last year’s tussle 30-3 in Cardiff. At present, they are the best team in Europe – since the last World cup they have won both Six Nations titles that have been played with a record of 11 wins and only two losses. England are still a year away from peaking, which is exactly where this young team expects to be.
We have our doubts about referee Romain Poite, who virtually handed New Zealand a 29-15 victory over South Africa in Auckland last September, but hopefully he won’t get in the way of what should be a Twickenham thriller.
For our money, England (4/7) have a vastly superior pack and will be fuelled by last season’s humiliating defeat which robbed them of the Grand Slam.
Wales’ crushing victory over France owed much to the woeful play of Philippe Saint-Andre’s team, yet the bounce-back from the crushing defeat in Dublin was nonetheless impressive.
Italy will be without influential captain Sergio Parisse because of a leg injury and he will be replaced by Trevisio’s Robert Barbieri, with veteran lock Marco Bortolami leading the winless Italians.
Ireland make one change for the side beaten by England: in comes back-row Iain Henderson as a replacement for the injured Peter O’Mahoney.
With Brian O’Driscoll winning a world record 140th Test cap and playing his final game for Ireland on home soil, look for his side to send him off in style.
Italy gave Wales all they could handle on opening weekend, but are a far different proposition without Parisse and we take the hosts to cover a large handicap.
France come into this game on the back of a humiliating 27-6 loss to Wales – which could have been far worse – while Scotland are buoyed by their 21-20 success in Rome.
Yet even after their dreadful loss, France are still in the mix for the 6 Nations title. Coach Philippe Saint-Andre, with his job in doubt, has turned over almost half the side, with three new loose forwards, three new backs and a third-choice hooker.
Scotland make four changes, including bringing in tight-head prop Geoff Cross for his first start in a year. Skipper Kelly Brown is recalled, as is David Denton.
Scotland will play with passion at Murrayfield and it is anyone’s guess which France side turns up. The guess is the experienced French duo of captain Pascal Pape and tighthead Nicolas Mas will get the edge up front and that is one of the reasons why they are considered 3/10 favourites.
Scotland can be backed at 9/10 in receipt of 7.5 points, because they have the capability to win this.
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This pivotal RBS 6Nations Championship encounter sees unchanged Ireland going for the Triple Crown and a win keeps them on course for the Grand Slam. They have not won at Twickenham since 2010, but that should not put anyone off taking them at 13/8.
If Ireland are to win, they will need a strong kicking game in order to take advantage of England’s inexperience on the wing in Jack Nowell and Jonny May. The key, however, is only so much down to the boot of Conor Murray, Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Jonathan Sexton.
England will sorely miss Dan Cole, who has started 45 of England’s last 48 Tests. He has been the fulcrum of England’s scrum. While David Whitehead is a competent tighthead, Stuart Lancaster’s side are sure to miss Cole.
There is no question that the Irish backs will challenge England at the breakdown. Likewise, England’s line-out, and in particular Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes, will be challenged by Brian O’Driscoll’s men.
Losing narrowly to New Zealand was no flash in the pan; Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are the real deal and England are simply too short at 4/6. Ireland look the value bet to pull off a shock. They can be backed at 19/20 in receipt of a 3.5-point handicap start.
Scott Johnson’s selections and tactics have been questioned in some quarters, with just six points scored in two 6Nations matches. But forget current form for a moment; Scotland are building for the 2015 World Cup and the Australian has been hampered by a lack of squad depth.
Scotland have won five of the last eight meetings with the Azzurri but have not come away from Rome with a victory since 2006 and the battle up front will be key.
Italy’s Alessandro Zanni, Roberto Barbieri Sergio Parisse go head-to-head with Ryan Wilson, Chris Fusaro and Johnnie Beattie at the breakdown. This battle up front will be key to the outcome, which, on paper, will be a tight affair.
Scotland are considered 8/5 outsiders, with Italy at 3/5. The draw is on offer at 21/1. We think Scotland have the capability to win this, but take them with a 6.5-point start at 4/7.
France should feel the full force of a Welsh backlash on Friday night. Pride has been hurt. A tactically superior Ireland left the champions dishevelled but Wales know that a victory will keep their hopes for a third successive title alive. France seek a third victory, following a fortunate win over England and a battering of Italy.
France have not beaten Wales since 2011 but the power of the French front row will fancy their chances against the Welsh front three who struggled against Ireland and Italy.
Ireland laid down the blue-print for beating Wales – kicking the leather out of the ball to nullify the Welsh attack. But Jean-Marc Doussain, who is likely to retain the kicking duties, produced a shaky display against Italy and despite their jaded display against an underrated Ireland, Wales look the bet at 4/6 to see of France (6/4).
Although four of the last six meetings have been drawn, Hammers lack potency up front with Andy Carroll suspended, and have won just one of their last eight vs. Saints. With Saints already safe and perhaps lacking in motivation, there is a fair argument for backing the more desperate hosts, who are just four points clear of the relegation zone and facing a tough run-in.
However, the Saints have a decent road record in the Premier League, winning three of their last six away from home (with two draws and only one defeat – a 2-1 reverse at Everton), so the visitors look a decent bet at 7/5 to take all three points at Upton Park.
John Gregory’s side are teetering on the brink of the relegation places in League One, while Walsall are on the verge of the playoff places. So how come the hosts are 1/1 and not odds-on to win this?
Simple. Crawley have not played for over a month, thanks to monsoon-like conditions deeming the Broadfield Stadium pitch unplayable. Crawley have six games in hand on Crewe, who are below them, and have six in hand of Tranmere, who are a point above them. Yet rustiness could prove a factor and the Midlands side can maintain their promotion push with a win.
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Exactly how much interest will be carried over from the World Cup?
After the debacle of the 2000 tournament, with half-empty stadia, you could forgive the 2013 World Cup organisers to have more than a degree of scepticism. They need not have worried. Huge crowds flocked to the grounds in a five-week celebration of rugby.
The best team won in front of a 75,000 sell-out at Old Trafford, New Zealand and England provided the game of the tournament in the semi-final at Wembley, and overall it was a tremendous success. Rugby League’s shop window wowed the crowds.
But how many will have bought into the sport after receiving such a much-needed shot in the arm?
Time will tell. Many of the Super League clubs have reported increases in season ticket sales and others have slashed prices in the hope of capiltalising on the momentum of the World Cup. They aim to attract the next generation of fans, who have been entranced by every Hakka and awed by heroes who have been both accessabile and accomodating.
The RFL needs to grab this opportunity to sell the game – and continue selling it – if top-level Rugby League is to survive and grow.
The loyalty of the fans is unquestionable. The Super League clubs – and the Championship clubs – are run by people who are extremely passionate. They also hold forthright opinions on the sport.
The Super League kicks off on Friday with Huddersfield Giants at Wigan and the Warriors will use this as a good preparation before heading to Australia for the World Club Challenge – the first time a British side has competed there in 20 years. Wigan take on the NRL Grand Final winners Sydney Roosters on February 22 and this has got to be another good advertisement for the growth of interest in Super League.
The Warriors will do well in Australia and it will show that big clubs in the Northern hemisphere have the appetite to go to the other side of the world to play. Gutsy moves such as this could lead to an expanded World Club Challenge tournament.
Is the drop from 14 clubs to 12 clubs the right move?
The Super League will contract at the end of the year. Clubs will want to position themselves for the 2015 season and there is an added edge of relegation, which will add to the competitiveness.
There will be greater competition which will be more intense, but the move makes the Super League commercially viable and sustainable – and that’s what’s probably in the players’ best interests in the long term.
Furthermore, some clubs have a rich history, so it will be good for some of the Championship clubs to have access back to the top flight.
The financial plight of some clubs meant something needed to be done. But the main concern is that some teams may feel the need to go out and sign big-name players and get themselves deeper into debt. This has happened in the past.
Finally, if the move is to work, the RFL need to communicate the playoff format more effectively to the casual fan who has been hooked by the World Cup. Their convoluted plan to split two divisions of 12 teams into three of eight two-thirds of the way through the 2015 season to determine both the Super League title and the make-up of the top flight for the following year should make for an interesting 18 months.
But while some of the top flight clubs may be disgruntled at the financial pie being distributed more fairly, clubs such as Featherstone, who received £25,000 for finishing first in the Championship last season, are reported to be in line for a £650,000 windfall should they win the title in 2014. That distribution of wealth can only be positive for the good of the Super League in the long run.
Who will win Super League XIX?
Leeds Rhinos, who finished third in 2013, face a tough start to their campaign. Rhinos take on sides who qualified for the play-offs this season in their opening four matches of 2014 – three of them away from home.
Coach Brian McDermott’s men begin at eighth-place Hull KR on Sunday, February 16, before opening their home campaign against Challenge Cup holders Warrington Wolves – this year’s beaten Grand Finalists – five days later. They then have successive away games against Catalan Dragons, who were seventh in 2013 and this year’s league leaders Huddersfield Giants. They are stronger for the arrival of Tom Briscoe (Hull) and Paul Aiton (Wakefield), and should be in the top four come season’s end.
Castleford Tigers begin with an away game for the fifth successive year, at Bradford Bulls on February 16. They also face a tough start, with Catalan Dragons their first visitors the following week, before a trip to Hull KR and home games against Wigan and Hull.
Wigan’s return from their tip to Sydney to face Wakefield on Sunday, March 2. They will do well to overcome the disruption caused by the jaunt Down Under and their prospects of winning the title are perhaps diminished after the departure of Sam Tomkins Lee Mossop and Pat Richards. They might just lack a touch of experience when it matters.
St Helens could well improve a place or two from last year’s fifth-place finish. Nathan Brown has strengthened the squad for the second successive season at Langtree Park, bringing in players such as Richard Baumont (Hull KR), Matty Dawson (Huddersfield) and Kylke Amor (Wakefield). They look to have much better depth than in previous years and in Luke Walsh they have a tactically astute half-back who can make things happen.
Last year’s league leaders Huddersfield have made some astute additions, too, namely Jodie Broughton (Salford) and London duo Antonio Kaufusi and Chris Bailey. Man of Steel Danny Brough (above) will do well to replicate last season’s heorics and the feeling for the Giants is the crown is borrowed.
Warrington Wolves are the favourites with most firms to land the title and perhaps rightly so. Some will argue that they have lost a wealth of talent since their second successive Grand-Final defeat; players such as Lee Briers and Brett Hodgson (who have both retired), Adrian Morley (Salford), Garreth Carvell (Bradford), Rhys Williams (Central Queensland Capras), Tyrone McCarthy (Northern Pride, Australia) and James Mendeika (Featherstone).
However, coach Tony Smith’s side is boosted by the arrival of Roy Asotasi (South Sydney), Kevin Penny (Swinton), Matthew Russel (Gold Coast) and Anthony England (Featherstone). There is no doubt that Briewrs’ departure will mean Stefan Ratchford now has the opportunity to show his immense versatility.
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France v England (Saturday, 5pm)
England’s babies will face a cauldron of fire when they take on France in Paris on Saturday.
Stuart Lancaster’s side have a strong pack with quality competition for places. But with three rookies in the back row and uncertainty in the midfield, it is not a game to take selection risks.
However, the Six Nations Championship looks one of the most open in years and victory would offer England a platform to build on ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
England, who may not have recovered from last season’s title decider against Wales, are 8/5 to beat France, who were wooden spoonists in 2013. Coach Philippe Saint-Andre is clinging to his job and France will miss captain Thierry Dusautoir, but they have plenty of power and will be desperate to put aside such a disappointing 2013 campaign.
The biggest question for England is whether they have the attacking flair missing from their game in the Autumn internationals.
Wales v Italy (Saturday 1.30pm)
Defending Six Nations champions Wales will have a tough time defending their crown, but Italy are not expected to give them any problems in their Six Nations opener.
Wales are considered 1/25 to beat the Azzurri, who stunned both France and Ireland to record a fourth-place finish last season.
Injury has forced coach Jacques Brunel’s hand, so he will rely on a vastly inexperienced group for what promises to be a long, hard campaign.
Warren Gatland’s men seek a third consecutive crown but injury to Jonathan Davies and prop Adam Jones is going to be a bigger problem than many believe. The lack of playing time for influential cogs such as Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts should not hamper their chances against Italy, who are 16/1 to pull off the shock.
Ireland v Scotland (Sunday, 3pm)
The return of Cain Healy is a major bonus to Ireland’s cause, although the loss off Sean O’Brien tempers enthusiasm for their Six Nations championship chance, as does away trips to England and France.
Ireland appear to have taken to Joe Schmidt’s methods and should start their campaign with a victory over Scotland, who should take at least one scalp this year. The bookies do not believe it will be that of Ireland, however, making them 5/1 shots to come away with a win. Ireland are 2/11 favourites, but they should be backed to be leading at half-time and full-time at 4/9, and to triumph by double figures (-9.5 points) at 4/6.
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MyClubBetting’s Charlotte Thompson says she can take a lot of positives from her first round at the ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open at Clearwater Golf Club in Christchurch.
The 21-year-old from Chelmsford, making her European Tour debut, finished with a solid three-over-par 75, just seven shots behind joint leaders Seonwoo Bae (South Korea) and Stacey Tate (Australia), who each shot four-under-par rounds of 68.
Thompson started brightly, with a birdie at the par-five second and started the front nine with another birdie on hole 10. But a dropped shot on her final hole left her three shots adrift of top British woman and former winner of this tournament Laura Davies, who ended the day on even par.
Thompson (above) said: “It was not my best day golfing, but three-over wasn’t too bad.
“I learned a lot and can take a lot of positives from today’s round. I’m looking forward to tomorrow and it’s still all to play for.”
The field for the 200,000-Euros event could not be more competitive, with five former champions returning, including World No.4 Lydia Ko (New Zealand), the 16-year-old who won the title last year to become the youngest winner in Ladies European Tour history. She is just one shot behind Bae and Tate going into day two.
Thompson is scheduled to tee off for her second round at around 11.50am on Saturday (10.50pm GMT Friday).
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British golfer Charlotte Thompson says she is delighted by the draw she has been handed as she makes her European Tour debut in the ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open at Clearwater Golf Club in Christchurch.
The 21-year-old from Chelmsford tees off in the first trio out on Thursday evening (6.15pm GMT, 7.15am on Friday morning local time), alongside Australian amateur Tyler Kingi and American Anya Alvarez.
Thompson, sponsored by MyClubBetting, is looking forward to the challenge that the 6,526m John Darby and Sir Bob Charles designed par-72 championship course will bring, and is thrilled with the way the course is set-up.
She said: “It’s so lovely over here – the golf course is in fantastic condition and all the members and residents are all so friendly.
“I’m feeling good, feeling up for it and I’m out first, which I love – so that’s a plus.”
Clearwater GC combines elements of links golf inspired by the great Scottish courses with parkland golf, more reminiscent of Florida. It is a difficult course, particularly when the win gets up.
However, the weather conditions should also be favourable for her first round, with a minimum morning temperature of 7°c and light winds, which are expected to pick up in the afternoon.
Thompson added: “I’m just hoping the weather holds and the wind stays down. I am hitting the ball well so looking forward to getting out there. It’s all very exciting. I will do my best as always and I have already had a fantastic experience.”
The field for the Euros 200,000 event could not be more competitive, with five former champions returning to the event: World No.4 Lydia Ko (New Zealand) – the 16-year-old, who won the title last year to become the youngest winner in Ladies European Tour history – Gwladys Nocera (France), Laura Davies (England), and Austalians Kristie Smith and Lindsey Wright.
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Princess the clairvoyant camel is no more. Having correctly tipped the Baltimore Ravens for Super Bowl XLVII victory over the favoured San Francisco 49ers last season – to take her Super Bowl record to 7-1 – many bettors were no doubt ready to rely on her insight once again.
Sadly, the most famous inmate at New York’s Popcorn Park Zoo – who chose the winners of the Vince Lombardi Trophy by eating crackers – died last week.
While he insists he doesn’t have the hump (he’s just at a grumpy age), Britain’s No.1 American Football handicapper and Lindy’s Sports columnist Simon Milham is on hand to tie down the trends, stare at the stats and offer some cool, calculated analysis for Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII, which takes place at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Since 1995, the higher-seeded team has covered the handicap just twice in the last 17 Super Bowls. However, this is only the second time in the past 20 seasons that the No 1 seeds from each conference will meet to decide the championship.
Only five times since 1970 has the No1 offense met the No1 defence in the Super Bowl. The top defence has prevailed four times: Super Bowls XIII (Pittsburgh over Dallas, 35-31), XIX (San Francisco over Miami, 38-16), XXV (Giants over Buffalo, 20-19) and XXXVII (Tampa Bay over Oakland, 48-21).
The top offense won Super Bowl XXIV when the 49ers beat the Broncos 55-10.
Denver boasts the No1 offense. Seattle boasts the No1 defence.
In head-to-head meetings, Seattle trails Denver 19-34. The Seahawks have won just 5 of the last 22 meetings. In 26 games between the pair away from Seattle, the Seahawks have won just 5 times – and each of those victories was by seven points or fewer.
This is the 16th time that the defence that allowed the fewest points in the NFL (Seattle) has made the Super Bowl. The previous 15 teams went 12-3 in those Super Bowls.
This is the 19th time that the top scorers in the regular season (Denver) have reached the Super Bowl. The previous 18 teams were 10-8 in the title game.
Handicap underdogs have covered the spread in nine of the last 12 Super Bowls. Seattle are considered 1.5-point underdogs on Sunday.
Designated away teams have won 27 of 47 Super Bowls to date. White-shirted teams have won 29 of 47 Super Bowls to date. Seattle is the designated ‘away’ team this time and the Seahawks will also wear white shirts.
Sleepless in Seattle? Rest is not so beneficial to the Seahawks. Since 1990, Seattle is 10-14 in season openers and 8-21 coming off their bye week in the regular season or after a week’s rest in the playoffs.
The team whose metropolitan area boasts the lower jobless rate has won 21 of the past 26 Super Bowls. Through November 2013, the unemployment rate for the Seattle metropolitan area was 5.7 percent, compared to 5.8 percent for the Denver metropolitan area.
Dreamland for Denver? The Broncos like their rest. Since the turn of the century, Denver is 12-5 coming off their bye week in the regular season or following a week’s rest in the playoffs. The Broncos are 9-5 in season openers in the last 14 years, too.
Since 2011, in eight games after a bye week or season opener, Denver is 6-2 (their two losses coming each by three points). Including their season opener, this season the Broncos are 3-0 in games after a week’s rest.
Favourites have a 33-14 record in the Super Bowl but are just 26-19-2 against the handicap. There have only been six instances where the favourite won the game but failed to cover the handicap. So if you fancy the favourite, the trends favour also backing them to beat the handicap.
Denver’s Peyton Manning is the fourth quarterback to reach the Super Bowl after leading the NFL in both passing yardage and touchdown passes. The other three – Dan Marino, Kurt Warner and Tom Brady – all lost in that Super Bowl appearance.
Overall, the best team (as measured by regular season record) has won 25 and lost 15 Super Bowls. The other seven games involved teams with identical regular season records. Both Seattle and Denver boast identical 13-3 records.
Teams that allowed fewer points in the regular season are 29-17 in the Super Bowl (in 2004 the Patriots and Eagles allowed the same number of points). The Seattle Seahawks conceded 231 points to Denver’s 399.
In the last 18 Super Bowls, on only three occasions has the favoured team won and the points total gone over the Vegas line (Denver 1999, Baltimore 2000 and Green Bay 2012).
The NFC owns a 25-22 edge over the AFC in the first 47 Super Bowl matchups. Seattle represent the NFC, Denver the AFC.
The points total has gone over the Vegas line in 23 of the 47 Super Bowls, including last season.
The Seahawks haven’t lost by more than a touchdown since the middle of the 2011 season.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson will be the sixth quarterback to start in a Super Bowl in either his first or second season in the league. The previous five went 3-2, with wins by Kurt Warner, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
Referee Terry McAulay (below) has officiated in two previous Super Bowls XXXIX and XLIII: Both went down to the wire and both were won by the AFC representative, by three and four points respectively. Both were favourites, but both failed to cover the handicap.
McAulay, who grew up in Hammond, Louisiana, was a graduate of Louisiana State University – and was a New Orleans Saints fan. Denver’s Peyton Manning still has strong ties in Louisiana, his father Archie having played quarterback for the Saints. Home-team win percentage in games McAulay officiated in 2013 was 46.7%. The league average is 58.3%.
DENVER OFFENSE vs. SEATTLE DEFENCE
Since Washington and Colorado were the first two states to legalise cannabis for recreational use, this has been dubbed the ‘Weed Bowl’, ‘Bong Bowl’ and ‘Marijuana Bowl’ by many on social networking sites. But there is no question of smoke (and mirrors) swirling around two of the key units in Super Bowl XLVIII.
This season Denver ranked No. 1 in scoring, Seattle ranked No. 1 in scoring defence. Stats like scoring totals are an obviously effective measurement. Some like to measure a team in terms of yards gained or conceded. When you look at yardage and their respective averages versus what other teams did in past seasons, the Broncos come out as the 8th-best offense (for yards) in the last 35 years. The Seahawks come out as the No. 11 defence.
But attempting to compare and rank modern-day teams with those of years past is comparing cupcakes and anvils. The changes in the rules, particularly moves to accentuate the passing game and protect the quarterbacks, mean the offensive stats for modern-era teams are favourably skewed.
There is no argument that Peyton Manning is among the elite quarterbacks ever to play the game. He led an offense that averaged 38 points per game this season, while setting records for most passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55) by a QB in a season. Denver ranked 1st in passing offense and 15th in rushing offense. But here’s the asterisk: the Broncos top offense faced the second-easiest defensive schedule in the NFL.
Like Denver, Seattle’s three losses came by seven points or fewer. Their defence conceded a league-low average of 14.4 points per game. They ranked 1st against the pass and 7th against the run. Seattle’s defence was best in the league, allowing only 282 yards per game. But here’s the asterisk: They faced the easiest schedule in the NFL, i.e. the worst slate of offenses.
And that’s a major reason why we have the rarity of two pre-season favourites meeting in the finale.
The edge goes to the Broncos because their trio of receivers are as strong as any in the NFL – each having size and speed, pass-catchers who can stretch the field and locate the ball in traffic. And in Wes Welker (below) they have a great option-rote runner who understands coverage leverage.
Conventional wisdom states that the team with the better rushing attack and the better defence will benefit from the cold. Yet Denver’s rushing attack is well above average. Broncos’ rookie running back Montee Ball has helped take the load off starter Knowshon Moreno and kept defences off balance enough to enable Manning to dominate, while going virtually untouched in the pocket. In the playoffs, the Broncos are averaging 31 carries and 39.5 pass attempts. That balanced attack means Manning has looked all but unstoppable.
DENVER DEFENCE vs. SEATTLE OFFENSE
At 5ft 11in, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is six inches shorter than his Denver counterpart Peyton Manning and, at 25, is also 12 years younger. Wilson is a skilled scrambler in only his second pro season after slipping to the third round of the draft; he’s a guy who had to transfer colleges – he started his college career at North Carolina State and transferred to Wisconsin – to get playing time, and thought about pursuing a baseball career instead.
As good as Wilson is, Seattle’s attack is better defined by the tough between-the-tackle running power of Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch (above). He had 22 carries for 109 yards and a touchdown in the NFL title victory against a stout San Francisco 49ers’ run defence.
One of the more intriguing factors in Super Bowl XLVIII is Denver’s ability to stop the run. So far in the playoffs, they have managed it well. Their defence is anchored securely between the tackles, particularly with Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, a 6ft 3in, 335-pound wrecking ball with exceptionally quick feet. The unheralded free-agent acquisition from Jacksonville has helped hold Denver’s playoff opponents to an average of 64.5 yards rushing per game.
Denver ranked 27th against the pass – stats skewed by opponents forced to abandon the run and air it out – and 8th against the run this year. Denver was 18th in total defence, giving up 350 yards per game, and ranked 20th in takeaways.
Seattle’s 26th passing game is underwhelming. When opponents play to keep Wilson in the pocket, their defence keeps their team in the game. Wilson runs to throw and often finds it tough to locate a receiver from within the pocket within 3.5 seconds. Holding on to the ball creates all sorts of protection problems and Seattle’s pass protection isn’t the best by a long chalk. If Denver largely control his scrambling lanes, then Wilson and the Seahawks will struggle.
The big key is the Denver run defence verses the 4th-ranked Seattle rushing attack. If the Beast is leashed, Denver’s job becomes that much easier.
Seattle was 14th in red zone scoring percentage (from 20-yards or nearer), scoring 53 percent of the time and if they fail (as they did in the NFC Championship) to capitalise on scoring opportunities, Wilson and company may have a tough time keeping pace with the Broncos.
Seattle ranked 27th in the NFL, averaging 21 yards a return, and on punts averaged 11 yards a return. Seattle ranked first in field goal percentage, making 95% of attempts. They ranked 29th in average punt return yardage (42 yards per punt).
Denver ranked 14th in kickoff return yards, averaging 25 yards a return. The Broncos ranked second in field goal percentage, making 94% of attempts. Denver ranked 20th in average punt return yardage (44 yards per punt).
Those are the bare stats, but Seattle has the edge. Golden Tate (above) didn’t have a touchdown on special teams but did setup some short fields thanks to some magnificent returns and were ranked fourth in punt coverage on the leg of Jon Ryan. The only thing that Seattle struggled with on special teams was kickoff returns. The best kickoff returner in 2011 and 2012 was former Minnesota speedster Percy Harvin, who has been injured for much of his first season in Seattle, but he should be fit for the Super Bowl and will want to start repaying some of the faith shown in him.
The punters may be unheralded, but in cold weather games field position is accentuated.
The Weather – The forecast for the first Super Bowl played outdoors at a cold-weather site is a high of 36, a low of 24 and a 30 percent chance of snow. So not exactly beach weather.
Turnovers – Out of 47 Super Bowl champions, only four of them lost the turnover battle in the big game. That’s just 8.5% of all Super Bowl winners: The 2005 Steelers lost it by one, the 1988 49ers lost it by one, the 1979 Steelers lost it by two, and the 1970 Baltimore Colts lost it by three.
Only eight of the 47 Super Bowl winners ended up tying the turnover battle, so overall, 74.4% of the teams that won the Super Bowl also won the turnover battle. The Seahawks are currently +3 in the playoffs, having won the turnover battle in each of their two games. The Broncos are currently -2 in the playoffs, having not forced a single turnover yet and have forced just 10 turnovers over their last 10 games. The Seahawks have forced 22 turnovers in that time.
Manning will be 38 in March. In his 16th NFL season, the 6ft 5in prototypical pocket passer is looking for his second Super Bowl ring and if he does so, he will become the first quarterback to lead two different teams to the title. Cornerback Champ Bailey is 35 and is making his Super Bowl debut. The age of those two leaders lends urgency to the Broncos’ quest. It may not be now or never, but that moment is close. The sentiment will be with Manning and the Broncos.
Denver will look to attack underneath the way they have all year. And Seattle will look to control the perimeter of the field the way they have all season. Seattle will look to control Denver’s running game without compromising their pass defence, but they will have their own problems executing in the red zone. It should be a compelling chess match, which doesn’t figure to produce a blowout.
While the old adage ‘defence wins championships’ may well hold true, we’ll take a wily veteran quarterback to outgun the second-year passer and hope Manning does not throw any pivotal interceptions and secures his legendary status.