NFC West: Shaun Phillips
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.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee previews the 49ers' matchup against San Diego. Barrows: "No quarterback likes to throw deep as much as Philip Rivers, and the San Diego signal caller has several big-bodied targets. San Francisco's defense usually handles big receivers well, but the secondary is susceptible to the long ball."
Also from Barrows: thoughts on Mike Singletary's job security in relation to how the 49ers finish. Barrows: "At this point, the 49ers are a long shot to win the division, and the best they can finish is 8-8. Strong, or at least solid, finishes have become a 49ers trademark in recent seasons. Mike Nolan did it in 2006 and 2007. Singletary went 3-1 in 2008 and 2009. But those rallies, in my opinion, only helped mask the stench of the season and provided false hope for the year ahead."
More from Barrows: Alex Smith looks back fondly on his time with Norv Turner as 49ers offensive coordinator.
Sam Good of 49ers.com says the 49ers got strong play from nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin against Seattle.
Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Smith hadn't even thought about playing a homecoming game against San Diego. Smith: "San Diego (7-6) boats the league's top-ranked pass defense (173.4 yards a game) and is three weeks removed from flummoxing Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, who tossed four interceptions in a 36-14 loss to the visiting Chargers on Nov. 28. Opposing quarterbacks have a 72.9 rating against San Diego, the second-lowest figure in the NFL."
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Smith misses Turner. Brown: "Of all the 49ers offensive coordinators to come and go, Turner's departure stings most for Smith. The quarterback describes 2006, his lone year with Turner, as the best of his career. Smith threw for a career-high 2,890 yards that season as his passer rating improved from the 40.8 he posted as a rookie to 74.8. A year after throwing one touchdown pass against 11 interceptions, the numbers jumped to 16 and 16. That's not exactly Joe Montana-type stuff, but Smith felt as if he was trending upward."
Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News offers thoughts as 49ers defensive end Justin Smith prepares to make his 153rd consecutive start, this one on a short week.
David White of the San Francisco Chronicle offers more on Alex Smith's reunion with Turner.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Ron Bartell is eager to get back on the field as the Rams fight for a playoff spot. Bartell was a rookie in 2006 when the Rams had a shot at the playoffs late in the season. Bartell: "At this point, it's now or never. I've been here six years, and I haven't been in this situation before. The excitement that everybody has, I want to be a part of that. Sitting out last weekend was tough enough. So there's no way in the world I'll be sitting out again. I'm going to play regardless."
Also from Coats: The Rams say they are preparing more for the Chiefs' offensive system than for a specific quarterback.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams need to shore up their perimeter run defense and become more efficient on offense in the red zone.
Also from Miklasz: where Sam Bradford stands heading into Week 15. Miklasz: "Bradford has had his moments, including the two-minute drill to tie the game at San Francisco at the end of the fourth quarter. He's made other money throws to put opponents away late in games. But if you want to go by the raw numbers, there's this. In the fourth quarter of games this season, Bradford has two touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 59.3."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Saints' blitzes against the Rams worked well enough for upcoming opponents to copy them. Thomas: "The Saints got after Bradford like nobody else has this season, with the possible exception of Arizona in the season opener. According to Post-Dispatch count, New Orleans blitzed Bradford 25 times. Overall, including plays where the Saints got to him with just a four-man rush, they sacked him three times and hit him seven additional times. Even on plays when Bradford wasn't hit, the pressure was enough to disrupt several other pass plays, forcing Bradford to throw the ball away or throw it with less accuracy, preventing him from stepping into the throw or leading to a tipped pass."
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says Bradford is re-growing the beard he wore while playing well in November.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Seattle receivers Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu caught passes in practice Wednesday. Both are returning from injuries. Williams on his foot/ankle situation: "It feels OK, I feel OK. I’m excited. It’s been a very frustrating last few weeks. I was trying to get into my groove, but then had a couple of bumps. I’m excited to get back out here and bring the energy and try to be a shot in the arm for our group and for our offense."
Also from Farnsworth: Seattle's Jordan Babineaux faces a Falcons team featuring brother Jonathan Babineaux.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Obomanu is not yet catching the ball naturally. Obomanu: "You just have to adapt a little bit. The thing about receiver is you want to be able to catch the ball naturally. But at the same time, I'm trying to adjust and figure out some things. It's a day-by-day thing, and hopefully by the end of the week, I'll be comfortable with some kind of way to make it work to help the team out Sunday."
Also from O'Neil: Seahawks veteran Lawyer Milloy is happy to be in the playoff race.
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune points to Red Bryant's knee injury as a turning point for Seattle this season. Boling: "Chris Clemons continues to be the most consistently dependable defender, having upped his sacks total to 10 with admirable energy and effort. But it is in keeping with the theme of irony that on one play in the Oakland game, when Clemons was hustling in to make a play, that he accidentally struck Bryant and caused the injury that seemingly triggered the defense’s downfall. It’s been that kind of a season."
Liz Mathews of 710ESPN Seattle says Falcons receiver Roddy White credits Jim Mora for helping him develop into a top player.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says two years and multiple quarterbacks separate Arizona and Carolina from the NFC postseason game they played following the 2008 season. Somers: "Since August, the Cardinals have gone from Matt Leinart to Derek Anderson to rookie Max Hall, back to Anderson and now to rookie John Skelton. The Panthers have gone from Matt Moore to rookie Jimmy Clausen, back to Moore, back to Clausen, to Brian St. Pierre, and back to Clausen."
Also from Somers: Skelton wants to improve his completion percentage.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com touches on Skelton's development before noting that Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt wants to make measured use of LaRod Stephens-Howling on offense. Whisenhunt: "You’ve got to make sure to track how many plays he’s been getting. You don’t want to lose him."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Thoughts and observations from the Cardinals' game against the Chargers on Saturday night:
- Tim Hightower looked good. He carried nine times for 42 yards and broke one for a 19-yard gain. Beanie Wells appeared to be favoring his injured ankle during warm-ups. He did not play. Hightower is getting a better feel for the offense. He effectively chipped Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips deep in Arizona territory to help the Cardinals pick up a first down. Backup running back Jason Wright missed Shawne Merriman in protection. It's looking like Arizona can trust Hightower.
- Calais Campbell is sustaining it. The second-year defensive end held up against the Chargers' Pro Bowl left guard, Kris Dielman. Campbell beat Dielman one-on-one for a sack. Dielman later cleared out Campbell effectively on a running play, but Campbell answered by shedding Dielman to deck LaDainian Tomlinson.
- The offense was out of sync. Kurt Warner and Brian St. Pierre both threw interceptions in the red zone, curious for a team that fared so well inside the 20 last season. Arizona used an unusual mix of personnel -- two running backs and three wide receivers -- on the play ending with Warner's interception. Arizona used that general grouping five times in the red zone last season and 39 times overall, including 17 times against Carolina and Washington. It's not a group I expect to see much this season unless the Cardinals suffer injuries at receiver and/or tight end. Injuries to Steve Breaston and Early Doucet have limited the Cardinals' four-receiver options this summer.
- The starting tight end must block. As much as the Cardinals would like to have a versatile tight end, their strength at receiver means they do not need lots of receptions from the position. The tight end must block in this offense. That's why I think Stephen Spach has the edge if he's healthy. Arizona used Spach and Ben Patrick effectively in clearing out defenders for an 8-yard gain on the ground, with Patrick leading.
- The sideline featured intensity. Todd Haley's offseason departure deprived the Cardinals of a passionate and sometimes combative presence. Haley's style worked well in challenging some of the Cardinals' best players, including Larry Fitzgerald. Cameras showed an animated Warner explaining something to receiver Anquan Boldin after they combined on a pass play that failed to gain first-down yardage.
- The pass rush was effective. Darnell Dockett, Bryan Robinson, Karlos Dansby and Campbell each had sacks against the Chargers' first-team offense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Seahawks removed quite a few starters, including Matt Hasselbeck, following the first quarter of their exhibition opener against the Chargers. A few thoughts so far:
- Matt Hasselbeck: The veteran quarterback looked about how he has looked during practice, which is good. He scrambled and threw away the ball to avoid an onrushing Shaun Phillips. He found T.J. Houshmandzadeh underneath to convert on third down. He and tight end John Carlson had a miscommunication on another third-down play, leading to an incompletion even though Carlson was open.
- Aaron Curry: The Seahawks took him off the field on some third downs and also one time when the Chargers spread the field. Darryl Tapp replaced Curry on some of the plays when Curry came off the field. Curry played coverage quite a bit, without much action. He rushed from right defensive end against backups and didn't make an impact. The staff did leave Curry on the field for a third-and-3. Curry dropped into coverage. Safety Deon Grant broke up the pass. Curry did buckle Chargers tight end Brandon Manumaleuna on the running play Brandon Mebane blew up.
- Mebane and Colin Cole: They definitely give Seattle some stoutness against the run.
- Zone blocking: The offensive line was able to spring Julius Jones for a couple of effective runs early. I also noticed fullback Owen Schmitt getting to the perimeter and going low to take out a linebacker. Nice play by Schmitt.