NFC West: Peyton Manning
"It’s like playing a computer," Fisher said. "That’s what he is. He runs that offense. He’s going to put them in the best possible position. He’s nearly impossible to fool and is hard to get down. If you rush more than four, the ball's coming out and he’s not going to take the hit. That’s just how he is. He puts that offense in the best possible position every snap. If the run’s not there, then he’s going to pick it up and he’s going to change and he’s going to put the ball down the field. He’s prepared. He’s prepared week after week, year after year. Again, like I said, I think he’s playing his best football right now.”
That's a scary thought for any defense or coach, but especially one who has seen him so many times over the years when Manning was on his way to league MVP awards.
On Thursday evening, Fisher offered an anecdote about a solution they tried in Tennessee in an attempt to keep Manning from so easily picking up on what they were doing from down to down, series to series and quarter to quarter.
“There were years when our whole defense wore wristbands and we changed every quarter because we couldn’t talk, because he recognizes your terminology and your calls and things like that,” Fisher said.
According to Fisher, each wristband had a number on it that represented a different defensive call. The call would come in just as a number. At the end of a quarter, the defense would change the wristband and the individual number would mean something different.
That begs the obvious question: Did it work?
“No," Fisher said, laughing. "It may have for a quarter. I don’t know.”
The reality is, there isn't one simple solution to slowing Manning. The best might be to keep him off the field completely.
"Every time that Peyton’s on the bench, that certainly is important, their offense is on the bench," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "Certainly have played him a lot of times. The times we’ve played well against him, going back to the days with the [New York] Jets … division playoff games, stuff like that, you win the time-of-possession battle. You stay on the field. I think the more opportunities we can do that by being successful running the football, throwing completions will help us do that.”
"He’s a Hall of Fame guy," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "They might change the five-year wait for him. He’s that guy."
But few players in the history of the league are as good or as quick at laying waste to the best laid plans of surging defenses as Manning. Listing his accomplishments would take all day but all that really needs to be known is that Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who has coached against Manning 19 times in his career, says the 37-year old quarterback is playing the best football of his life with the best supporting cast he's ever had.
"Peyton is playing his best football right now," Fisher said. "I’ve faced him many, many times. He’s playing his best football. The things he’s doing with the football and the cast that they have surrounded him with is outstanding. It tests your defense and requires patience."
Fisher points to two keys to slowing the Broncos: running the ball and getting the opposing punter on the field. Neither is easy against the Broncos since they also happen to boast the league's best run defense. For the purpose of this discussion, though, let's focus on the part about how to get the punter on the field.
In an ideal world, the Rams can make like Seattle did in the Super Bowl and lean on their front four to create the pressure that will make Manning's day hectic. That sounds good in theory. It isn't, however, very realistic because the Seahawks not only had a talented front four but the type of secondary that could take away Manning's first and second reads to go with the defensive line pushing the pocket quickly.
The Rams have the front four that would be capable of generating the pressure but the secondary doesn't match up nearly as well. In fact, Manning is second fastest in the league at getting the ball out quickly, releasing his average pass just 2.29 seconds after taking the snap. That wouldn't be such a daunting figure if the Rams were better in coverage but they are last in the league in completion percentage allowed at 69.6 percent.
That means Manning's ability to quickly identify coverages and pressures pre-snap can nullify the Rams' aggressive blitzing approach (they're first in the league in blitz percentage) by getting the ball out with little time wasted.
"You try to show him certain things and try to give consistent looks and do certain things out of the same look," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "So he can’t just look and see this and know it’s this coverage or this blitz is a certain look. If you have a safety down every time and you’re in Cover 3 then, OK, it’s obvious. But sometimes if the safety is down and you are playing [Cover] 2 it can mess with him. You try to change it up."
Once the ball is snapped, the job then becomes to take away Manning's first read to at least buy a little bit of time for the pass rush to get home. Manning is fast enough at moving through his progressions that he can get to a second or third read before the pass rush can get home. That means the best route to get Manning off his spot is a straight line up the middle. Attacking the "A" gaps is something Seattle excelled at against the Broncos and would seem to be one of few favorable matchups the Rams will have this Sunday.
Rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald is extremely disruptive on the inside and the Broncos have been playing musical chairs with the interior of their offensive line.
"You want to get him off his spot," Laurinaitis said. "I don’t care how athletic [pass-rusher Robert Quinn] is, two-point, whatever, around a big old tackle is hard. You have to be able to pressure the middle, you have to get him when he looks at his first read get him to reset and kind of take it back down and look the other way to help with that. Goodness he’s been doing this well for a really long time. Like our linebacker coach said, he’s going to Canton on roller skates downhill. So a lot of respect for him and what an awesome challenge."
A challenge the likes of which the Rams haven't seen in 2014.
And yet, it might not matter as far as an advanced scouting report goes.
Wait, a teenaged Manning used to follow his father Archie to Saints unofficial offseason workouts and throw the ball around with the pros who happened to be in the facility?
“I said, now, there were no formal practices back then,” said Fangio, who was the Saints’ linebackers coach from 1986 through 1994. “OTAs did not exist. It might be 10, 15 guys hanging around. We’d have a little playground-type skelly. Not an OTA that you’re thinking that we have [now].
“I’d say [he was] 14, 15 [years old]. You just knew that he loved football. He was thrilled to be there with some other NFL players, but yet he was focused on the task at hand and he wanted to throw the ball good.”
Their paths crossed again in Indianapolis when Fangio served as the Colts’ defensive coordinator from 1999-2001.
“Vic is an outstanding coach,” Manning said in a conference call with Bay Area reporters on Wednesday. “I enjoyed the [three] years that he and I were together in Indianapolis.
“I used to enjoy talking ball with him and competing against his defenses in practice. It was always very competitive and the different places he’s been, his teams have always been very well coached.”
Fangio recalled a young Manning -- the No. 1 overall pick of the 1998 draft -- being a sponge.
“He would spend a lot of time at the facility,” Fangio said. “I’m talking day and night. Many times, I’d walk by the film room where he was watching tape, he’d pull me in and ask me what the defense was doing here, why they’re doing this or he’d come in my office and ask me. We would always have football conversations.
“He loves football. He really does. He’s 38 years old ... and he still loves the game, loves playing, loves preparing. I’m sure he’s studying just as he always has. He’s a true football junkie.”
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Prime time is the right time for a game between teams that entered the season at the front of the Super Bowl conversation.
At least that is how Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. sees it.
"You face any other top teams in the league, you always want to get up for them," Harris Jr. said. "It’s Sunday night prime time, so we want to have a good showing. We want to go out there and show we’re definitely a contender, definitely one of the top teams. ... They have a great team; they’ve been together for a while, so they know how to play together in these big games."
The San Francisco 49ers will be the fifth team the Broncos (4-1) have played this season that won at least 10 games in 2013 -- "we’ve had a salty schedule," is how Broncos coach John Fox has put it -- and the 49ers (4-2) own the only win against the Dallas Cowboys this season and have won three in a row.
ESPN's 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup:
Legwold: Paul, it seems, at least from the outside, like there has been plenty of turmoil this season with reports 49ers players are tuning Jim Harbaugh out and that Harbaugh won’t return after this season. What’s the mood in the locker room? And how do you think Harbaugh interacts with the team?
Gutierrez: It’s important to note that most, if not all, of these reports have come from national reporters, particularly from a certain league-owned media outlet. And to the conspiracy theorist in me, that means the leaks are coming from within the 49ers and above Harbaugh’s pay grade. As I’ve said before, Harbaugh likes to make his players uncomfortable because he believes that brings out the best in them. I wonder if that same mentality is being thrust upon Harbaugh’s coaching skills. As far as the locker room goes, to a man and on the record, the players say they have Harbaugh’s back, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick saying he would go to "war" with his coach. And technically, Harbaugh still has a year left on his deal. It’s just that talks of extension have been tabled until after the season. It has made for a wild ride thus far, no doubt, and Harbaugh has made a point to wander through the locker room to chat with players during media access periods during the week.
Speaking of bedside manner, Fox has been seen as a folksy players' coach from yesteryear, at least, to the outsider. How much of his personality has rubbed off on the players, and is that a reason the Broncos have been able to shake off the sting of last February’s Super Bowl disaster?
Legwold: When Fox missed four games last season because of heart valve surgery, the word most of the players, as well as the coaches on Fox’s staff, used to describe what was missing while Fox was away was "energy." Those who have worked with him say Fox’s greatest attribute, beyond the on-field work, is giving those in the organization the belief their job is an important part of the process, no matter where the job fits within the organization. Yes, the Broncos have won plenty of games along the way, and having Peyton Manning at quarterback is a spectacular starting point for any head coach, but Fox has support in the locker room, in the executive offices, and a contract extension signed this past offseason. That said, he has also been the guy in charge when the Broncos have come up short, and in the case of the Super Bowl, 35 points short.
Moving toward the field, how have the 49ers' wide receivers helped Kaepernick?
Gutierrez: At first, it was a hot mess. The 49ers seemed to forget they were a team built on a power running game, and Kaepernick looked out of sorts with all of the shiny toys at his disposal, with Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd joining Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin as wideouts, and tight end Vernon Davis. Then, about Week 4, the 49ers rediscovered their identity behind running back Frank Gore and, voila, the passing game blossomed. This past week, Kaepernick threw three touchdown passes to three different wideouts without an interception. Crabtree might be his favorite receiver, and Lloyd has become his most explosive down the left sideline, but Boldin is his Mr. Dependable underneath. It is, without a doubt, helping Kaepernick’s maturation process. Especially since there does not seem to be any selfishness going on with the receivers. Just healthy competition. At least, that’s how it looks when the team is winning.
Manning, meanwhile, does not seem to have missed a beat after losing receivers Eric Decker to the New York Jets and Wes Welker to injury. Is Manning simply so good that he elevates the play of those around him, or is it a scheme thing in Denver?
Legwold: In all that Manning has done in his career, the fact he has lifted his play to its current level following spinal fusion surgery in 2011 -- his fourth neck surgery -- is a remarkable achievement. The guy has started 37 games for the Broncos and thrown 107 touchdown passes in those games. The offense was built for him; he runs it with complete freedom to change any call to any play at any time. And at this stage of his career, with his work habits, he might think the game better than anyone who has played the position. But all of that said, there is a perfect-storm effect in Denver as well. Adam Gase is an innovative risk-taker as an offensive coordinator who paid his coaching dues to earn his spot. Receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are elite players, Welker is routinely called the best slot receiver in the NFL by opposing coaches, and in his time with Manning, Emmanuel Sanders will go from a player folks thought was pretty good to Pro Bowl worthy. So Manning has been very good for the Broncos, and the Broncos, with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway calling the personnel shots for the team, have built a quality landing spot for Manning.
Some teams have been aggressive coming after Manning with the blitz, like the Cardinals, while the Jets consistently dropped eight into coverage last weekend. How do you think the 49ers will approach it?
Gutierrez: Let’s just say, both ways. Yes, the 49ers brought the house against the St. Louis Rams’ Austin Davis, sacking him five times (the total doubled the 49ers’ season sack total to 10) and pressuring him on 44 percent of his dropbacks (a season high for the 49ers), but, as you know, Manning loves it when teams blitz him. His 2.25-second release is the second best in the league, again, per our friends at ESPN Stats & Info. Yet, his 92.8 total rating when not pressured since joining Denver in 2012 is the league’s best, and the 49ers rank 23rd in pressure percentage. So yeah, the best way to affect Manning is by bringing pressure. Just pick your poison in doses, I guess, right? What might make it all a moot point is the potential loss of All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who injured a toe Monday night. We’re talking about a linebacker corps already missing the suspended Aldon Smith and the recuperating NaVorro Bowman.
Manning, who needs two touchdown passes to tie Brett Favre's career record (508), always comes across as disinterested in records and his legacy. But surely, holding the passing touchdown record would mean something to him, right? How important do you think holding the mark would be to him?
Legwold: This is all something he will have to get used to as many of these records approach, especially if he plays one or two more seasons following this one. Certainly his legacy is important to him, but it gets lost sometimes because he is so competitive. People talk about his intellect and his ability to digest information and recall things he has seen in his career. But it would be impossible to play as many consecutive games as he played before his spinal fusion surgery kept him out of the 2011 season (208 consecutive regular-season games) and to push himself as hard as he does if he were not one of the most competitive people in the game. So, in that vein he wants Super Bowls and knows his career clock is winding down. So, though the records will be something he respects, and at some point enjoys, his desire to play for a Super Bowl champion trumps everything right now, including the touchdown mark.
One has been a league power broker, one wants to be.
And when the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals get together Sunday afternoon in Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the Broncos (2-1) will try to knock some of the rough edges off while the Cardinals (3-0), one of just two teams to arrive to Week 5 undefeated, will try to show they are ready to be at the front of the line.
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at the game.
Legwold: At 3-0, how do the Cardinals see themselves? Upstart in NFC? Or team that believes it should have made the playoffs last year and is ready to take the next step to be in this postseason mix this time around?
Weinfuss: If there's one thing the Cardinals don't see themselves as, it's an upstart team. That much was instilled in them by Bruce Arians last season. Especially after upsetting Seattle at home last December, this team believed it should've been in the playoffs. And with how they played in the second half of the season, it's hard to argue with them. But the Cardinals who returned this year learned a lot from last season's first half, most notably how important it is to win those early games. What they're doing now isn't a surprise to those who pay attention to this team, and a lot of it is a direct result of Arians' demeanor. His straight-shooting personality -- curse 'em out on the field but hug 'em off of it -- has rubbed off on everyone in the locker room. It has led to this team to believe it could win for the first time since Kurt Warner was here.
Speaking of learning from last year, what was the main thing the Broncos took away from last season's loss in the Super Bowl, and how have they used it in 2014?
Legwold: The main thing GM John Elway took away was he wanted far better personnel on defense and some more receivers who could battle their way through physical play from defensive backs. The result was an offseason spending spree that reeled in DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward on defense to go with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos also used a first-round pick in the draft on cornerback Bradley Roby and a second-rounder on wide receiver Cody Latimer. So, the 35-point loss certainly forced a roster makeover and for the holdovers it did provide plenty of incentive as they went through the offseason workouts. There is a feeling, after the overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the 2012 playoffs followed by the Super Bowl blowout, of trying to finally close the deal this time around.
In terms of roster makeover, with all that has happened to the Cardinals' defense with the injuries, etc., how have they pushed themselves into the league's top five?
Weinfuss: Nobody expected Arizona to be among the league's top five defenses this year after losing the likes of Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington before the season and then Darnell Dockett during training camp and John Abraham in the first few weeks of the year. But credit must be given to the Cardinals' front office. The brain trust has done a good job of finding veterans who still have gas in the tank, such as linebacker Larry Foote and defensive lineman Tommy Kelly. But the biggest reason for the defense's success is defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. His single-gap scheme revitalized this defense last year and all he has been doing is adding wrinkles here and there to adjust to his personnel. For example, Arizona is running a lot of nickel and dime packages because it gets rookie safety Deone Bucannon on the field. For as good of an offensive mind as Arians is, Bowles is his equal on the defensive side.
Have the additions to the Broncos' defense been paying off? Or is it too early to see a difference? Do you think they'll be the difference between another ring and a consolation prize?
Legwold: The new arrivals have all had impact in the season's early going. Ware leads the team in sacks (2.5), Talib has been every bit the No. 1 corner they hoped he would be and Ward is one of two players on defense who have played every snap in the first three games, having been used in a variety of roles. The Broncos have seen enough from Roby. They've tossed him into the deep end of the pool as the rookie and he has matched up with some of the league's front-line receivers. All of that said, however, the Broncos still haven't consistently shown the kind of play they'll need to hoist a trophy, particularly on third down. As linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who both had ACL injuries last season, continue to work back to full speed, the Broncos should continue to improve. Also, linebacker Danny Trevathan, who was the team's leading tackler last season and who suffered a fracture on the top of his tibia in training camp, will play in his first game of the season Sunday. It will mean the Cardinals will be the first team to face the revamped defense with all of the starters in place.
Sticking to defense, Manning heads into this game with 499 career touchdown passes. Between the two of them, Cardinals' assistant head coach/offense Tom Moore and head coach Bruce Arians have seen many of those up close as former Colts assistants. To that end, with that kind of up-close-and-personal knowledge, how do you think the Cardinals will defend Manning and the Broncos' offense?
Weinfuss: One thing the defense has stayed consistent on this week is that they don't want to tip their hand to Manning before the snap. With that being said, I think they'll blitz him constantly -- all three of his sacks this season have come off the blitz, which, I can imagine, was good news to Bowles. But they won't blitz Manning like they'll blitz other quarterbacks because he's so good at adapting so quickly. Arizona plans on giving Manning the same look every snap. But guys who have played Manning know he'll wait until the very last second to make a decision because the defense will have to show their blitz by then, but the Cardinals will try to hold their disguise as long as possible.
With Manning coming up on such a historic mark, has it been a distraction for this team in the sense of more non-football attention has descended upon them? Are they ready for Manning to pass Brett Favre so they can just get back to focusing on football?
Legwold: One thing about this team is the swirl around them doesn't get to them very often. Last season they had Miller's suspension in training camp, John Fox's open-heart surgery during the bye week and five defensive starters on injured reserve by the time they were preparing to play in the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl loss may have been the first, and worst, time for the Broncos not to play to the level of a game's standing last season. Before the title-game blowout, they had handled everything that had come their way without losing their edge. This time around players here simply assume Manning will hit 500 and then go on and break the record through the natural course of things. The record is nice, but they want another shot at the title and, for the most part, they see whatever happens along the way as issues that must be dealt with to get that chance.
And then there's what Donny Moore does. Moore, who laughingly calls himself a "former sandwich artist who has had the greatest of opportunities, is a 36-year-old guy whose decisions are debated, sifted through and often even used as verbal barbs in not only living rooms across the country, but in locker rooms around the NFL."
And when it comes to the Denver Broncos' game, players will soon discover what NFL defenses did last season -- because quarterback Peyton Manning is at the top of the heap. Manning, who threw for an NFL single-season record 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards last season on the way to this fifth MVP award, is tied for the game's top rating for quarterbacks at 98.
Moore gave Manning and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers a 98 rating -- "it's a 0 to 99 system, there are no 100 ratings in the game," Moore said. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees checked in at 96; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was rated at 93.
And while the debate rages around the league about whether Russell Wilson is a top-10 quarterback, Moore said he will be in this year's "Madden," as Wilson was also given a 93 rating.
Calculating Manning's rating, Moore said, was simply a matter of balancing past production, plenty of advanced metrics on the statistical side, and giving Manning the eye test.
"You're constantly looking at it, having your eyes on everything," Moore said. "It's not only what you see, relative to his peers, relative to the league, but what the metrics tell you as well. A guy like Peyton has such a long track record, from our standpoint it's going to take a lot to push that rating down any. A younger player's rating may be far more volatile ... But we update through the season and through the playoffs."
Moore said Manning's rating in the gaming world represents a complete bounce-back from the quarterback's return from spinal fusion surgery that caused him to miss the 2011 season, which are also the only games Manning has missed in his career. Since signing with the Broncos in 2012, Manning has started every game -- 32 regular-season games to go with four playoff games, with 92 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions.
"There were a lot of unknowns there when he came back, but the feeling was it would affect his throw power," Moore said. "We dropped him down to 84, 85 range, got back up to 89 in 'Madden 13,' I believe. And then to where he is now where we just looked at everything, throw power, awareness, all of those things."
Whether it be on Twitter or in person, Moore said plenty of NFL players have approached him about a ratings adjustment, and that speed tends to be the flashpoint from time to time.
"What usually happens is a big play will happen on Sunday and fans will start tweeting the player, 'Oh man, you did great, you need to talk to 'Madden' to get your rating up,' " Moore said. "And then they'll start following me and we'll go back and forth ... Guys always want to talk about their ratings, they're sort of 80 percent joking, 20 percent serious."
Moore said earlier this year, as he sat "in my cubicle at the office," he could hear Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, on site for a visit, questioning other staffers about how to get his speed rating adjusted. Moore said he then stepped over to meet the quarterback "and I look down and he's got a walking boot on because he just had surgery, so I was kind of going back and forth with him about how a walking boot would affect his speed."
"But in the end we want to just get it right," Moore said. "Whether it's a quarterback everybody knows like Peyton or a long snapper, we want to be right. We strive for perfection, we don't get it, but we always strive for it. But as far as Peyton, I've got a good feeling we're right on that one."
He likes to throw long and deep, and he likes to put up a lot of points. And here’s another thing we know about Arians: He’s had some great quarterbacks.
With the draft less than a week away and speculation increasing that the Arizona Cardinals will take a quarterback with one of their six picks, what kind of quarterback Arians favors has become a hot topic.
Here is what we know: Arians has had a lot of success with taller quarterbacks who don’t run much. Just look at Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. They can run, but don’t in Arians’ system. And most every quarterback that fits those dimensions has succeeded in his scheme.
Here’s a look at the past six quarterbacks Arians has coached and the top 10 quarterback prospects in this year’s draft, according to ESPN:
It was as good as it had to be. Russell Wilson's passer rating was 123.1, eight different players caught his passes and he wasn't sacked or intercepted. Seattle raced out to a huge first-half lead, so Wilson didn't need to put up gaudy stats to win. But he was 4-of-5 for 64 yards on third-down plays in the first quarter, when the game was still in doubt, and he was still flinging it around in the fourth quarter as the Seahawks padded their lead.
Marshawn Lynch struggled to find room against Terrance Knighton and a Broncos defensive front focused on stopping the run. But Seattle's yards-per-carry average got a boost from Percy Harvin's 15-yard and 30-yard runs on jet sweep plays, and Lynch was able to muscle into the end zone on second down from the 1-yard line after a pass interference penalty in the end zone set up the game's first touchdown.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning won his fifth MVP award for a season in which he threw a record 55 touchdown passes. But he was a mess all night against Seattle's pass rush, throwing two interceptions. Led by Cliff Avril, Seattle's line moved Manning off his spot all night and batted down some key passes while the big, physical defensive backs made life miserable for Broncos receivers before and after the catch. The "Legion of Boom" lived up to its name, outmuscling the top-scoring offense in NFL history.
Total domination. And yeah, the Broncos had to get away from the run because they were down 15-0 before they had a chance to run their offense. But Seattle's front bottled up Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, holding Denver to 27 yards rushing on 14 carries, forcing a fumble (that Denver recovered) and stripping the Broncos of any chance to maintain any level of balance on offense.
Harvin barely played all season. Finally healthy, he was a difference-maker in the biggest game of his career. Seattle's 22-0 halftime lead looked tough to overcome, but the 29-0 lead they had 12 seconds into the half after Harvin's 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown looked impossible. Seattle's kick coverage team held electric Denver return man Trindon Holliday in check.
Give Pete Carroll the grade for the full year, as every move he made seemed to pay off. He had enough faith in his defense to let Manning start the game with the ball after he won the coin toss and to kick a first-quarter field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-short inside the Denver 10. He also stayed aggressive even as his team was rolling early, calling timeout on a Denver fourth-and-2 from the Seattle 19 with 1:06 left in the first half. Seattle didn't even try to move the ball in the final minute after stopping the Broncos and taking possession, but it showed a coach in control of the game. You also have to hand Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn the victory over Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase in the matchup of hot head-coaching candidates.
There was a time, when John Elway wore a helmet at work instead of a tie, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were division rivals.
From 1977 to 2001, the two teams did their football business together in the AFC West and now these former division rivals, who have gone their separate ways since -- through good times and bad -- now arrive to Super Bowl XLVIII as the matchup many wanted to see.
The Broncos' league-leading scoring offense -- which produced an NFL record 606 points with Peyton Manning at quarterback -- against Seattle's league-leading defense (14.4 points per game), a physical, brash group that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and interceptions.
It is the first time the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense have met in the Super Bowl since 1990, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants authored a classic, a 20-19 Giants win decided when Scott Norwood's kick drifted wide right.
ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game:
Legwold: Terry, in your mind, what are some of the major decisions John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made to put the Seahawks in this position?
Blount: Jeff, first and foremost, the one decision that almost everyone will point to is selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round draft choice two years ago when so many experts felt Wilson was too short to be an effective starter in today's NFL. That led to another big decision when Carroll named Wilson the starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a big-money deal -- a brave move, to say the least. But pointing to one move doesn't begin to tell the story of a team that Schneider and Carroll completely revamped over the past four seasons. Only four players remain from the team they inherited in 2010. Schneider and Carroll's strengths are their trust in each other and their ability to make stars, or at least quality starters, out of players that other teams overlooked such as cornerback Richard Sherman (a fifth-round pick), slot receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and guard J.R. Sweezy (a seventh-round pick). They also made one of the best trades in team history, acquiring Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo in 2010. It's an example of how Schneider and Carroll are willing to take chances on players who might have had off-the-field issues.
Let me ask you a similar question, Jeff. Elway gets huge props for convincing Manning that Denver was the place for him to end his career, but obviously, it took more than one move to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Aside from Manning, what has made Elway's tenure so successful?
Legwold: Elway's mission, for owner Pat Bowlen, when he took the job, wasn't just to make the team competitive as quickly as possible after the 4-12 finish in 2010, but to fix the cracks in the foundation. This meant addressing the personnel and salary-cap issues that needed to be dealt with if the team was going to succeed over the long term. Elway always says people talk to him about a "win-now philosophy," but he wants the team to win from now on.
Elway and the Broncos' front office cleaned up the cap a bit, and though Elway is a former quarterback, he thinks big picture. They've drafted plenty of defensive players -- 11 of 23 picks under Elway -- and they've made finding the guy they want more important than simply making big-ticket splashes in free agency, other than Manning of course. Signing players to one-year deals with little or no signing bonuses, such as Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), Paris Lenon and Quentin Jammer (two starters and a situational player in the defense), have made it go. Starting center Manny Ramirez was released by the Lions at one point. John Fox, hand-picked by Elway, and his staff also have gotten more from players who were holdovers such as Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Toss in some big-time draft hits -- Von Miller and Julius Thomas -- and you have back-to-back 13-3 finishes.
For their part, the Seahawks have played quality defense all season long. Terry, how do you think they will attack Manning?
Blount: They will line up and say, 'This is who were are and what we do. Beat us if you can.' I honestly don't think they'll change a thing. Whether it's a rookie calling the signals or one of the all-time greats such as Manning, the Seahawks don't believe anyone can outperform their defense. They are as talented a group as I've seen. Two things set them apart: incredible overall speed, especially at the linebacker spots, and a physical approach that borders on all-out violence and intimidation. Calling for crossing patterns over the middle against this bunch is asking for punishment. The one thing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said they will do is change the wording and signals on their calls. And what they must do in this game is get a push up the middle on the defensive front and force Manning to move in the pocket. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald have to outmuscle Denver interior linemen in this game.
Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is an extraordinarily talented group that includes three players who were voted into the Pro Bowl. They play a lot of press coverage and almost dare a quarterback to try to beat them.
Jeff, does man-to-man coverage help or hurt Manning and his receivers?
Legwold: Man coverage almost never hurts Manning, unless those defensive backs consistently knock the Broncos' receivers off their routes, or Mother Nature brings a windy night. And not just a breeze, but something on the order of the 40-mph gusts the team faced on a frigid night at New England this season. But even then Manning was sharp and aggressive on a late drive to tie the game at 31-31. Where some defenses have had some success this season -- Indianapolis, New England and to a certain extent Jacksonville -- was when they essentially tossed aside the idea of adding pressure to try to get Manning, because he gets the ball out too quickly, and play as physically as possible against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt their routes and disrupt the offense's timing. That said, Manning still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts to go with 295 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars. And while the Patriots held him to a season-low 150 yards on Nov. 24, Manning still looked sharp late, throwing the ball in a game in which the Broncos rushed for 280 yards because New England often left six-man fronts after dropping so many players into coverage. In the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, who used much the same philosophy as in November, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The mix for some kind of defensive success is usually to get the Broncos receivers out of sorts and find a way to pressure Manning in the middle of the field so he can't step into the throws.
Staying at quarterback, Terry, how do you think Wilson, certainly well-known for his poise and maturity, will handle his first Super Bowl behind center?
Blount: I realize it's a lot to ask of any second-year quarterback to enter this setting and not have it effect his performance, but Wilson is an extraordinary young man. I've said all season that he has the unusual quality of being at his best when things appear to be at their worst. He thrives on the big stage. I've never seen him rattled, and when he does make a mistake (such as fumbling on the first play in the NFC Championship Game), he acts like it never happened. And I've never seen any athlete who prepares with the time and detail that Wilson prepares. You can't fool him. People often compare him to Fran Tarkenton because of his scrambling ability, which is true. But in some ways, I see him more of a Bart Starr-type quarterback, a man who had the ultimate respect of his teammates, understood the skills of the men around him and made them better. Wilson said his goal every game is to be the calm in the storm and stay in the moment. Well, there's no moment like this one. It's cliché to say, but I think he truly believes he was born for this moment.
Jeff, there has been a lot of talk about how extreme weather conditions could benefit the Seahawks and hinder Manning's ability to throw the football the way he normally would. Do you think that's overblown?
Legwold: There may be no more overblown idea circulating around than Manning's ability to play in the cold. The cold-weather stats are always tossed around, but there are at least two of those games in some of the totals people are using when Manning played only one series because the Colts had their playoff position wrapped up. One of those was in Denver to close out the 2004 regular season (32 degrees at kickoff; Manning threw two passes in the game). The wind has been a far-bigger deal for Manning. Post-surgery, he has had to make some adjustments to his game because of some grip issues in his right hand. He wears a glove on his throwing hand in a variety of temperatures now. This season, he wore it in New England (22 degrees, wind chill of 6 degrees), against Tennessee (18 degrees), as well as in Houston (kickoff temperature was 58 degrees) and at Oakland in the regular-season finale, when the kickoff temperature was 70. And with the glove on his throwing hand in 10 games this season, including both of the Broncos' playoff wins, Manning has thrown 33 touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. He's had four 400-yard games and six games when he attempted at least 40 passes. People have scrutinized every wobble of every pass this season, but somehow he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. And wobbles or not, Manning has not been sacked and the Broncos have punted only once in this postseason.
In the Seahawks' defense, Terry, how big of an impact did signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency have on that group?
Blount: It's this simple: The Seahawks would not be playing in the Super Bowl without them. Seattle's big weakness last year was the lack of a consistent pass rush and a lack of depth on the defensive line. Not anymore. Along with those two, Seattle also signed veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a mountain of a guy who has been a disruptive force inside. Bennett may be the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He has been everything the Seahawks hoped for as a hybrid down linemen who can play end or tackle effectively. He is a relentless, high-motor guy who never takes a play off. Avril is a gifted speed-rusher whose claim to fame is his uncanny ability to knock the ball out of a quarterback's hands and force a fumble, something he has done five times this season and 13 times over the past three years.
Jeff, everyone talks about the matchup between the Seahawks' No. 1 defense against the Broncos' No. 1 offense, but how do you think Denver's defense matches up against Seattle's offense and its power-running game with Lynch?
Legwold: Since Champ Bailey's full return from a left foot injury he originally suffered against the Seahawks in the preseason -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season and was shut down for several weeks after a failed return in early December -- the team has played far better. It's surrendered 17 or fewer points in each of the past four games, including both playoff wins. And while Denver's numbers, as well as its play at times for that matter, haven't always been pretty, the Broncos do play better out of their base defense.
They will be in their base defense against the Seahawks if Seattle chooses to pound Lynch out of a two-tight-end or two-back set. They inserted a veteran, Lenon, into the middle linebacker spot down the stretch in the base to add some bulk. With Lenon, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan at linebacker, they have speed to the ball if their defensive end can consistently set the edge. Against some of the power teams they have faced this season, including those with some read-option things in the offense such as Washington and Oakland, the Broncos showed a little more of a 3-4 look on early downs. It will be intriguing if the Seahawks -- seeing the Broncos have done far better in the heavier looks -- try to run against the nickel and dime packages and how the Broncos respond.
Terry, if the Seahawks win, what players beyond Wilson will have had the biggest roles to make it happen?
Blount: Probably the defensive linemen we mentioned earlier: Bennent, Avril and the defensive tackles getting pressure on Manning. If they do, the Legion of Boom will shine and come up with an interception or two that could change the outcome. No matter how well this rugged defense performs, it won't matter unless Wilson can throw effectively. Having receiver Percy Harvin on the field could help, but it really comes down to the same story all season. If Lynch has a punishing day running the ball, someone will be open for a big play in the passing game.
Jeff, if you had to pick one thing that Denver must do to win this game what would it be?
Legwold: Overall, they have to manage the moment. Teams don't win the Super Bowl as they go through all the build-up, but plenty have lost it when they got distracted by the bright lights and attention only to forget why they were in the Super Bowl city in the first place. As Phillips put it: "If guys want to party in New York, New York will still be there next week." But on the field, they have to keep Manning clean, give him some space to work in the pocket and with that their receivers have to play with an edge, fight for both their real estate and the ball.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll was asked Friday how serious those negotiations became at the time.
Carroll can joke about it now because the Seahawks went on to draft Russell Wilson, who became the rookie starter as a third-round pick. Would they have drafted Wilson if Manning had signed with the Seahawks?
“Yes," Carroll said. “And knowing what we know now, we would have drafted him a lot sooner. Obviously, we've all moved on, but it is interesting that we're playing each other now in this setting. It’s pretty cool.”
Seahawks general manager John Schneider was asked if he wonders how things might have turned out had the team signed Manning.
“Yeah, often,” Schneider said. “I think we would have continued to do things the way we do them. We would not have been able to afford several players we have now, but we would have competed in other areas to compensate.”
The Seattle Seahawks don't care. They won't be listening in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Seattle defense knows Manning says a lot of things while he's making his play-calling decisions before each snap, but the Seahawks won't try to translate it like some on-the-field United Nations interpreter.
"You can't be a genie and think what he's thinking," Seattle free safety Earl Thomas said. "Obviously, you don't know what's coming. That's why you just have to be ready for anything. You just have to think principled ball. Why are you out there? It's best to just line up and do what you do."
What they do, in becoming the No. 1 defense in the NFL, is play aggressively and be physical at the point of attack with press coverage. The Seahawks aren't going to change things to try to second-guess Manning's constant audibles.
"Certainly for us, we have a real style about how we play," Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. "We have to focus on our style and our football. We know that part of those checks [Manning's signals] are dummy calls at the line of scrimmage.
"So for us, it's more about how we play than the checks and the information that they're doing on the other side."
Seattle strong safety Kam Chancellor said it comes down to the communications between the guys on defense more than deciphering Manning's codes.
"It's not worth it trying to figure out what he's saying," Chancellor said. "Just play your defense, play your coverage, know what you have to do on your side of the ball and just be sound at it."
And, for the record, what's does Chancellor think "Omaha" means?
"I have no clue," he said.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. “They’re an unbelievable, record-setting offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback. That’s as good as it gets. And that’s as tough a game as you can get in the Super Bowl.
“The No. 1 defense [Seattle] against the No. 1 offense [Denver]. It doesn’t happen like this too often where both No. 1 seeds make it. It’s a testament to the hard work on both teams. I’m sure it’s going to be a fantastic game."
It may be the first snowy game in a Super Bowl. Temperatures in MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2 could be in the teens, and snow always is a possibility that time of year in New Jersey.
“We’re ready for it,” Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “Whatever happens, we don’t care about the weather. We just want to go out there and win the game."
And winning against one of the all-time greats would add to the moment for many of the Seahawks.
“Going heads-up with Peyton Manning is special," Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith said. “Just knowing all the things he’s done for football, it’s really an exciting opportunity.”
Free safety Earl Thomas can't wait to test his skills against Manning.
“As a competitor, you always want to play the best,” Thomas said. “We know what’s at stake. We know a chance like this is rare.”
On Monday, ESPN's Dan Graziano wrote something that I felt was worth leading this space with and is certainly worth your time to read. In the column, Graziano makes the argument that instead of nitpicking every little thing about great players such as Peyton Manning, we should stop and savor his greatness. The same can be said for other great players around the league.
The larger point to the column is that we are often so quick to judge, compare and rank players that we often forget to really enjoy watching legends at work. It's a point I agree wholeheartedly with.
Graziano argues that Manning is the greatest quarterback of all time and doesn't need any more validation to have that crown. I don't necessarily agree with that because I don't believe you can compare players across generations in such simple terms. But that's really not the point.
The column got me to thinking about how it pertains to the Rams. Things have been so bad for the franchise in the past decade that the mere mention of the "Greatest Show on Turf" elicits chills and nostalgia from fans. The further removed from that special team we get, the easier it is to long for those glory days. It's been a long time since Rams fans have had something like that to watch with such wonder and enthusiasm.
It's worth noting now as a means to have greater appreciation for what players like Manning are doing now. Like him, love him, rank him ahead or below of your favorite quarterback but enjoy what he does because you never know when he'll be gone or when something like it will come along again.
A roundup of Monday's Rams stories appearing on ESPN.com. ... In the Ram-blings, we looked back at the classic NFC Championship Game waged by NFC West division rivals Seattle and San Francisco and where the Rams have to get to catch up to them. ... Next, we offered a look at this week's Senior Bowl and how the Rams have used it to add talent in the past two drafts. ... Finally, we began our "plays that shaped the season" series with No. 10, end Robert Quinn's franchise record-setting sack.
At stltoday.com, columnist Bernie Miklasz discusses the Rams' need to make big moves despite public comments to the contrary.
In his daily video, Miklasz takes an early peek at the Super Bowl matchup.
Jim Thomas writes about the value of the Senior Bowl for the Rams under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead.
Another week, another mock draft courtesy of Turf Show Times.
Carroll was fired after that season and went on to win a national championship as the head coach at Southern Cal. Manning played 13 seasons and won a Super Bowl for the Colts and then moved on to Denver last season.
The Seahawks haven't played a game against Manning, other than preseason, since Carroll took over as the coach in 2010. But Carroll is excited about the Seahawks playing against the future Hall of Famer.
“What a great challenge,” Carroll said. “I think it’s an extraordinary opportunity to go against a guy that set all the records in the history of the game, and the incredible production that they put up this year.
“He deserves to be there because of what he's done this year with his team. We’re not going to take this challenge lightly. We’re going to go after this thing, and we’re not going into this game any other way but thinking that we’re going to win. These guys don't know any other way.”
I saw first-hand how a city fell in love with its quarterback and showed him the utmost respect. Manning and the Colts parted ways while I was in grad school. It's a scene I'll never forget. I was at an internship and the news conference announcing Manning's departure went on in every TV in the building. People stopped what they were doing, put down their work, paused meetings, all to watch Manning say goodbye. The entire city of Indianapolis was on hold. People cried.
So, it doesn't surprise me that he's the most respected player in the NFL. In a survey of the Arizona Cardinals locker room, six of 10 players said Manning was their most respected player. His work ethic is second to none around the league and his intensity is tough to rival. And when a player can command an offense, a locker room, a team, a city or a state the way Manning has, it's hard to argue with the title of Most Respected.