Commentary

SB XLVIII Q&A: Manning and beyond

Denver QB is the No. 1 story, especially with difficult weather a distinct possibility

Originally Published: January 19, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Who's No. 1? In Super Bowl XLVIII, aces are wild.

The Denver Broncos had the No. 1 offense in the regular season. The Seattle Seahawks had the No. 1 defense. Both teams were the No. 1 seeds in their conferences.

And the No. 1 story is Peyton Manning, returning to the Super Bowl for the third time and trying to earn his second ring. For the NFL, it doesn't get any better than that.

In the big picture, it's also an amazing shift. About four years ago, the AFC West and NFC West were the two worst divisions in the league. John Elway, who made the Broncos a Super Bowl contender as a player, has proved to be equally successful as a front-office executive.

He signed Manning, produced 13 regular-season wins in two consecutive years and now is hoping to get another ring.

Pete Carroll completely turned around the Seahawks, modeling the rebuild on his restoration of USC into a national power. He's going for his first Super Bowl win as a coach.

Here are the 10 most important questions for Super Bowl XLVIII.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsPeyton Manning's numbers take a significant dip when the temperature drops below 40 degrees.

1. Which team will be affected most by the New York-New Jersey weather? The hype during the next two weeks will be the weather and how it affects Manning. Cold weather does have a negative effect on Manning. Early forecasts indicate it will be around 37 degrees with a low of 19. Snow is also in the forecast.

During his career, Manning has had 15 regular-season games in temperatures below 40. His career 65.5 percent completion percentage drops to 63.7 and he has 14 interceptions in those 15 games. Things have gotten worse in the playoffs. He is a 56.4 percent passer in cold postseason games. The scary number is the interceptions. He has nine picks in playoff games where the temperature is less than 40 degrees.

Another alarming stat is his yards per attempt in those games (5.53). The cold air will affect his throws more now that he's older. His passes wobble a lot more than they did in his younger days. The Seahawks shouldn't be too affected. They are a team built to win with a ground attack and a great defense.

2. How will officiating affect the Super Bowl? Neither team should have any complaints in this one. Terry McAulay lets players play and doesn't litter the field with flags. He officiated the Seahawks-New Orleans Saints divisional-round game in Seattle. In that game, his crew called 15 penalties, 14 of which were accepted.

The umpire will be Carl Paganelli, which should warn both teams to be careful about offensive holding. Paganelli called two holding penalties each on the Saints and Seahawks.

Both teams should be able to get away with aggressive man-to-man coverage. Steve Freeman is the back judge. He did the Carolina-San Francisco divisional-round game. There was only one defensive pass interference penalty in that game. Officials are allowing extra grabbing by defensive backs. A classic example was how Patriots safety Devin McCourty mauled Broncos tight end Julius Thomas on a pass from the 10-yard line in the first quarter of the AFC Championship Game.

In 10 playoff games, only seven defensive pass interferences have been called. This should benefit the Seahawks, who play as aggressive man coverage as there is in football.

3. What are the injury situations? Denver running back Knowshon Moreno suffered a chest injury Sunday against the Patriots. Coach John Fox didn't sound too panicked about it. Of course, injuries have been a story for the Broncos all season. Five defensive starters and left tackle Ryan Clady have been lost for the season. By winning 13 regular-season games and advancing to the Super Bowl, the Broncos showed how resilient and well-coached they are.

The Seahawks hope to have wide receiver Percy Harvin available for the Super Bowl and there is a decent chance he will be. Harvin was scratched Sunday because of a concussion. Carroll said Harvin should clear concussion protocol by midweek and should be able to practice. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett and wide receiver Doug Baldwin were banged up Sunday but continued playing. The Seahawks should be in good shape for the game.

4. What will be the Broncos' offensive strategy? Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase came up with a great game plan to beat the Patriots. The Patriots have a physical group of cornerbacks who play man. Gase mixed in a lot of crossing patterns and stacked formations to counter that.

"If you are running all straight and vertical routes down the field, that's tough," Manning said.

What was effective about the Broncos' offensive game plan was how it wore down Patriots defensive players. The Pats started six defensive starters who were in their first or second seasons. This was the Patriots' first road game in the playoffs since 2006. The altitude was a weapon for the Broncos because Pats players could wear down, and they did.

Denver ran 71 plays, one below its average, but the Broncos held the ball for more than 35 minutes. Manning needed only eight drives to win the game, and five of those drives went for eight plays or more. Gase did a great job of spreading the field with pass-catchers who were better than the guys who covered them.

5. Is there recent film of these teams going head-to-head? Yes, the teams met in the preseason and the Seahawks had a big edge, winning 40-10. The Seahawks jumped out to a 17-7 first-quarter lead. Manning then started moving the ball through the air. He was 11-for-16 for 163 yards and was gaining momentum.

But the Seahawks' offense tore up the Broncos' defense. Manning came out of the game in the second quarter, trailing 27-7. When Brock Osweiler entered, the game turned into a blowout. He couldn't do anything against Seattle's D.

6. What themes will be stressed in this Super Bowl? The Seahawks are old-school. They run a conservative, run-oriented offense that focuses on avoiding turnovers. Manning runs a three-receiver spread offense that sometimes uses tempo and pace to tire out opponents.

The problem facing the Broncos is that it's hard to tire out the Seahawks' defense. The Seahawks found out late last season that they lacked an adequate pass rush. Starting defensive end Chris Clemons blew out his knee in the wild-card round and the Seahawks were starved for a rush against Atlanta and lost in the final seconds.

General manager John Schneider not only added defensive end Cliff Avril, but he added Bennett. That allowed Bruce Irvin to move to outside linebacker. Now the Seahawks can rotate four pass-rushers. They rotate defensive linemen and linebackers. The Seahawks are six to seven players deep for quality along the defensive line and at least four deep for quality linebackers. At times in the win over San Francisco Sunday, they even used some 3-4 alignments.

Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, in his first year on the job, has made the Seahawks a versatile group on defense. He blitzes more than his predecessor, Gus Bradley, who is head coach in Jacksonville. Quinn's success could earn him a head-coaching position. He's under consideration for the Cleveland Browns' job. But so is Gase. If the Browns don't hire a coach before the Super Bowl, one of these two coaches could end up in Cleveland.

7. What will be the Broncos' favorite meal for the Super Bowl? Pot roast. Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton was signed during the offseason to stuff the run. His presence could be the difference in whether the Broncos win or lose. Knighton not only took away the running attack of the Patriots, but he added a pass-rush element.

Knighton's role will be stopping the run and Marshawn Lynch. He has an advantage. Max Unger, the Seahawks' Pro Bowl center, has battled injuries all season. The Seahawks have problems at guard. The guard position is so unsettled, Michael Bowie, who started the divisional-round game against the Saints, was inactive for the NFC Championship Game even though he was healthy.

The Seahawks used J.R. Sweezy at right guard and James Carpenter, a first-round disappointment, at left guard. Carpenter shared the position with Paul McQuistan. It's anyone's guess who starts at left guard in the Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeSeattle Seahawks
Lui Kit Wong/Tacoma News Tribune/Getty ImagesThanks to Richard Sherman and others, the Seahawks' secondary has star power and depth.

8. How can the Seahawks do better than New England on defense? No team is as deep as the Seahawks in the secondary. Richard Sherman is arguably the game's best cornerback. Byron Maxwell has played like a star since replacing the suspended Brandon Browner. Walter Thurmond and Jeremy Lane are excellent covering the slot.

Bill Belichick is known for taking away an offense's best weapon. Aqib Talib is the Patriots' best corner, but once he went down in the first half, the Patriots couldn't stop Manning. The Seahawks can give Manning trouble with coverages and with the pass rush.

9. Which players will be the sleepers? Moreno is a key for the Broncos. He had only 59 yards on 14 carries in the AFC championship, but he has the ability to create balance for Manning. With snow possible, the Broncos just can't expect to win a one-dimensional passing game.

Seattle QB Russell Wilson comes into the Super Bowl under the radar. He's struggled down the stretch, but things opened up for him a little in the NFC Championship Game. After averaging 13.6 completions on 24 attempts for 157.6 yards in the Seahawks' previous five games, Wilson improved against the 49ers. He was 16-of-25 for 215 yards. But the offensive-line blocking was bad so he was sacked four times and had to scramble for his life.

Harvin could also be a sleeper. He's been on the field for only 37 plays, but his speed is incredible. The Seahawks used more three- and four-receiver sets against the 49ers than normal. They also used offensive lineman Alvin Bailey as a sixth offensive-line blocker to help with the protection.

10. Who will win the Super Bowl? The Seahawks have arguably been the best team in football all season and I think they can do enough to win the Super Bowl. They can't afford to get into a high-scoring game because they don't have the offense to stay with Manning. But they have the ability -- particularly in the cold and snow -- to slow down Manning. The oddsmakers believe Denver is a slight favorite.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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