SEATTLE SEAHAWKS @ DENVER BRONCOS (11.30pm, Sunday 2 February)
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.
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