A Matchup for the Ages: Super Bowl XLVIII

There will be a plethora of outstanding matchups when the Broncos battle the Seahawks at Super Bowl XLVIII

It’s rare to see a Super Bowl featuring the top two teams in the league; due to the single-elimination playoff system and the inherent unpredictability of the sport, the two teams with the best regular season resumes often will not make it to the championship game. What makes this matchup truly special, however, is not that it features the top seed from each conference, or even that it has the league’s best offense facing the best defense. It’s that we could all have predicted it last summer.

How They Got Here

Both teams entered 2012 with new starters at quarterback. Peyton Manning, just returning after missing a year due to a neck condition, had signed with the Broncos, while the Seahawks third round pick Russell Wilson had surprised many by beating out free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn for the starting job. There were reasonable concerns about both, but they quickly put those concerns to rest. Manning led Denver to the best record in the league, and while Wilson and Seattle had to settle for a wild card spot, they were one of the league’s hottest teams entering the playoffs; the Seahawks were the best team in the NFL that season by Football Outsider’s DVOA, with the Broncos a close second. Neither team made it out of the divisional round, but both made key offseason additions and had high hopes for 2013.

Denver was a heavy preseason favorite: they were the near-consensus pick to win the AFC West, and every one of our site’s staff predictions had the Broncos in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks were a shakier pick by comparison, as they faced stiffer competition in both the conference and their own division (only one of our illustrious staff was wise enough to predict a Super Bowl berth), but they still opened the season number one in our own PTBN NFL Power Rankings.

Neither Seattle nor Denver would finish any week lower than number three in those rankings. The Broncos exceeded some very optimistic expectations and broke more than a few NFL records en route to what might be the greatest offensive season in league history. The Seahawks had a comparatively quiet season, stomping teams out to less fanfare but better results; they topped the Broncos in both scoring differential and DVOA.

There is a lot to love about this Super Bowl. We have a future Hall of Fame QB trying to add a second championship to his lengthy list of accomplishments, facing a potential successor in just his second year. We have one of the best offensive units of all time facing off against a defense that can make the same claim. And best of all, we have the two best teams of the last two years facing off for the title. Enjoy it, because who knows when we will see it again.

The Matchup

You already know that we’ll be seeing the NFL’s number one offense and against the number one defense, but it’s hard to say what that will mean for this game. To this point, we have no idea what a “struggling” Denver offense looks like. During the regular season and playoffs, they were held under 400 yards of offense only three times. Oddly enough, all three of those games were against the San Diego Chargers, who finished dead last in defensive DVOA (let this be your daily reminder that football makes no sense). The Broncos have no obvious weaknesses, as they’re capable of dominating both on the ground and through the air, depending on the opponent, and looking at their losses uncovers no common characteristic for the Seahawks to exploit. It’s boring to say, but the key to slowing down the offense will be preventing big plays, limiting third down conversions, and creating turnovers. The good news is that Seattle is up to that challenge. Their defense has no weaknesses either, and with the best secondary in football, they should be more than capable of covering Denver’s squad of receivers while simultaneously holding up against the run.

The Super Bowl may well be decided in the other matchup, between each team’s less impressive side. Denver’s defense is decidedly mediocre; they were 11th from the bottom in points allowed, 14th worst in yards allowed, and rate as almost exactly average by DVOA. Seattle’s offense, while it can’t compare with the record-breaking Broncos, is still in the top ten in the league. They finished 16th in yards and 8th in points against a tough slate of defenses, including two of the league’s best (San Francisco and Arizona) twice apiece. They rushed for the 4th most yards in the league, and while Russell Wilson’s numbers look paltry next to Manning’s, they compare favorably on a per-play basis; Wilson averages 8.2 yards per attempt, to Manning’s 8.3.

Denver has done a good job of shutting down the run in the postseason, which bodes well for their chances in this game. But they haven’t yet faced a quarterback with Wilson’s ability to evade the rush and create plays on the run. If there is a clear mismatch in this game, that’s probably it.

Why Seattle Will Win

Defense wins championships. Like all well-worn platitudes, that sentence gets thrown around so much that it’s begun to lose meaning, but this is one of those matchups it was created for. Some of the more memorable Super Bowls in recent memory featured a seemingly unstoppable offense thwarted by an extraordinary defensive performance, and this year’s game could easily end up on that list. It would be unrealistic to say that Seattle will shut out the Broncos, but they’re plenty good enough to keep them out of the end zone. Denver head coach John Fox has in the past demonstrated a tendency to be conservative, whether it’s calling for kneel downs against the Ravens last year, or his recent comments about not chasing two-point conversions too early. If he is unwilling to be aggressive on 4th down in this game, it could play into the Seahawks’ hands. Denver has also had suspect special teams at times, as two of their losses saw returners turn the ball over in key spots. And Seattle has a unique advantage in Wilson’s elusiveness, as he can come up with a big play even when Denver’s defense does everything right. When two teams are this evenly matched, the sum of these small advantages can add up to a win.

Why Denver Will Win

The weak point of the Seattle defense, such as it is, is against the run, where they were “only” a top-10 unit. Denver has proven capable of piling up rushing yards when the opportunity presents itself, particularly against the Patriots during the regular season. And as good as Seattle’s secondary is, Denver may be able to overwhelm them with sheer numbers, as they have plenty of receiving options at wide out, tight end and running back. The defense will be at a disadvantage, and the Broncos best hope is to put up big numbers and force Seattle to throw to keep up. Since this is one of the best offenses we’ve ever seen, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Where You Should Watch The Game

While always a difficult decision between the usual hot spots or someplace new, all the work of making that decision can now be made for you using a brand new app called Fanatic. Any iPhone or Android user can download this app and find the best bars near them to watch their favorite teams. This app has been featured on NFL Network, USA Today and sports radio stations throughout the country. So if you are looking for the best Broncos or Seahawks bar in your area, you must first download Fanatic, the ultimate sports fan app.

Final Verdict

These are the best two teams in football, and they are evenly matched, so I would expect a close, exciting game. If there is one thing that separates them, it’s their opponents. Denver faced the easiest schedule in the league (as measured by winning percentage), while Seattle played one of the toughest, including three games against a very good 49ers team. They’re battle-tested, and there is no reason to think they won’t be ready to play on Sunday. Much like the NFC Championship two weeks ago, I’m predicting a low-scoring first half, followed by Seattle taking the lead and holding off Denver in the fourth quarter.


Seattle 27 – Denver 23