NEW YORK — I think I speak for a lot of football fans when I say I’d love to see Peyton Manning win the Super Bowl tonight. My job as a reporter is to be objective. I won’t be disappointed at all if Seattle wins.
But the Denver Broncos’ 37-year-old quarterback has been so great for so long and carried so many teams on his back, justice would be served if he earned a second Super Bowl ring.
Justice doesn’t block or tackle. The more I look at today’s matchup, the more antsy I feel about Denver’s chances.
It’s not necessarily because of the cliché defense wins championships, and Seattle has the best defense in the NFL. It’s more because weak defenses tend to lose championships. Denver’s defense is shaky, especially against the pass.
“Overall, Seattle is a better team,” said retired NFL linebacking great Ray Lewis, now with ESPN. “Denver relies so much on Peyton that if he has an average day it’s not enough.”
The Broncos lost their best pass rusher and best defensive player, Von Miller, to injury the last week of the regular season. Injuries have taken out their best safety, Rahim Moore, and their second best cornerback, Chris Harris.
Denver ranked 27th against the pass this year. Yes, that number is inflated because opponents were playing from behind so much. But aside from top corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, nobody else in the secondary is an asset. Formerly great Champ Bailey is getting by on guile at age 35.
The run defense, which ranked seventh, has been good. Big defensive tackle Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton has played great. But the linebacking corps of Nate Irving, Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan is not that stout or exceptional in coverage. It hasn’t cost Denver yet, but the Broncos haven’t faced a team as good as Seattle. New England, the AFC runner-up, is a shell of its former juggernaut self.
Can Seattle take advantage?
The Seahawks rank only 26th in passing yards. The worst passing team ever to win the Super Bowl was the 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers, who ranked 24th.
But Seattle’s pass attack is better than the numbers suggest. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has played it conservative because he knows his defense is the league’s best. Seattle attempted the second fewest passes in the NFL. Five of Seattle’s last seven games were against defenses ranked in the top eight. Carroll’s focus was limiting turnovers. Seattle will have to play a little more wide-open today, because Manning will put up some points.
So the key for the Seahawks is second-year quarterback Russell Wilson. He’s not a fully developed pocket passer yet. But he’s good when he gets outside the pocket. He extends plays, and Seattle has enough talent at receiver to hurt Denver downfield. The return of elite speedster Percy Harvin is key. Harvin missed 15 regular season games with a bad hip and the NFC final with a concussion. He will line up in the slot against Bailey. Does Bailey have one more good game in him?
Look for Denver’s pass rushers to try to contain Wilson and make him beat them with precise throws from the pocket. I’m not confident they can contain him.
Even though Knighton is a stud, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch should have a decent night, at worst. If Lynch can run on the great 49ers’ defense, he should be productive enough against Denver. San Francisco has allowed only six 100-yard rushing games in the last three years. Lynch is responsible for four of them.
Manning has won a lot of NFL games while carrying an inferior defense.
In his Super Bowl title season of 2006, his Colts ranked 32nd against the run. But that Colts defense got healthier at the end of the season and played great in the playoffs. And the Colts faced a bad offensive foe, Chicago, in the Super Bowl.
This is a tougher challenge. Manning is going to need to be great, and he’s going to need touchdowns when he gets in scoring position, not field goals.
Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy is one of those who has a soft spot for No. 18.
“Seattle’s defense is so dominant, I have to go with that,” Levy said. “I would prefer Denver. I know people with Denver, and I got to know Peyton fairly well. I just really admire his work ethic. He has an unbelievable work ethic that I saw one time I was down there visiting their training camp in Indianapolis. I have great respect for him.”
My colleague Jerry Sullivan and I have had a decade-long debate over whether Manning is better than New England’s Tom Brady. I can imagine him reading this and saying: “You’re making excuses for Manning even before the game starts!”
Maybe so, but teams win championships, not individuals. It’s going to be a great game. I think Seattle may have enough offense tonight to overcome the game’s greatest quarterback. Seattle 31, Denver 27.