NEW YORK — Legacy, the Lombardi Trophy and the weather.
Those are the three storylines to watch when the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks and AFC kingpins Denver Broncos meet in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in the first outdoor, cold weather title game.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning pilots the best offense in the history of the NFL, while Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman spearheads the NFL’s No. 1 defense, the first time since Super Bowl XXV (Buffalo and the New York Giants) in which the team that scored the most points in the NFL’s regular season will do battle with the club that allowed the fewest for the Lombardi Trophy.
The contest also marks the first time the No. 1 seed from each conference has matched up in the title game since Super Bowl XLIV between New Orleans and Indianapolis after the 2009 season.
“It doesn’t happen like this too often when both No. 1 seeds make it,” Sherman said. “It’s a testament to the hard work of both teams and I’m sure it’s going to be a fantastic game.”
Sort of like the irresistible force getting ready to go against the immovable object. Denver led the NFL with a league record 606 points scored while Seattle allowed an NFL-low 231 points. The Broncos also topped the NFL by gaining 457.3 yards per game and the Seahawks allowed just 273.6 ypg, the fewest in the league.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” continued Sherman. “They’re an unbelievable record-setting offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback. That’s as tough as it gets. The No. 1 defense against the No. 1 offense.”
“It’s the Super Bowl, so it’s going to be tough,” countered Denver Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas. “Nothing is going to come easy. This is for all the marbles, so I’m pretty sure it will be a tough game all around.”
The Seahawks and Broncos both advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII with home wins on Championship Sunday less than two weeks ago. Seattle defeated San Francisco 23-17 in the NFC Championship Game and Denver knocked off Tom Brady and the New England Patriots 26-16, in the AFC title tilt.
On the NFC side, the Seahawks erased a 10-point deficit and then held on to top their NFC West rivals in the seventh consecutive NFC conference title game decided by seven points or fewer.
Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown to spark the offense and Seattle’s vaunted defense forced three turnovers, including an interception in the end zone off a brilliant pass breakup by Sherman with 22 seconds remaining to seal the win.
“That’s the way we’ve played the whole season,” said Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who had a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery against the Niners. “These guys are relentless. All we do is practice turnovers on defense and we wanted to be in that situation where the game was on our backs.”
Offensively Seattle is spearheaded by Lynch, the only NFL player to rush for at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of the past three seasons. He also has four 100-yard rushing performances in six career postseason games, including both playoff contests in 2014.
Meanwhile, second-year quarterback Russell Wilson has won 27 games — including the playoffs — in his first two seasons as a starter and is on the verge of joining Kurt Warner, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger as the only signal callers to win a Super Bowl in their rookie or sophomore campaigns.
“To get to the Super Bowl, we’re excited about it,” said Wilson. “But at the end of the day, we haven’t done anything yet. We won the NFC West, which was one of our goals. We won the NFC Championship Game, which isn’t easy. But only one team gets the prize. That’s what we’re focused on and we’re moving on to play the Denver Broncos.”
The defense is where the Seahawks bread is buttered. During the regular season, Seattle not only led the NFL in points allowed (231), total defense (273.6 ypg) but also in pass defense (172.0 ypg), takeaways (39), interceptions (28) and turnover differential (plus-20).
Sherman led the league with eight interceptions and his 20 pick since entering the NFL in 2011 are the most during that span, while his running mate in the defensive backfield, All-Pro safety Earl Thomas, is the only player on the last line of defense in the past decade to record at least 100 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles in a single season.
“As a competitor, you always want to play the best,” Thomas said when talking about the Super Bowl matchup. “We’re here to play. We love football. We know what’s at stake. We know this chance is rare. I’m excited about this.”
The Broncos will be making their seventh Super Bowl appearance, one shy of the NFL record held by Dallas and Pittsburgh.
Manning completed 32-of-43 passes for 400 yards with two touchdowns and a 118.4 passer rating in the AFC Championship Game win over the Pats, marking only the fifth time in NFL postseason history a quarterback threw for at least 400 yards without an interception in a game.
The Broncos scored on six consecutive drives (two touchdowns, four field goals) in the contest, the longest such streak ever recorded in an AFC or NFC Championship Game.
“It’s an exciting feeling,” said Manning, who is set to take home his record fifth MVP award the day before the Super Bowl, said. “You take a moment to realize that we’ve done something special here and you certainly want to win one more game.”
Manning, who was named the MVP of Super Bowl XLI while with Indianapolis, is on the precipice of becoming just the sixth player in NFL history to win multiple Super Bowl MVP awards.
“Peyton Manning is a Hall of Fame quarterback,” said Wilson. “I have a ton of respect for him. I love him to death. He’s a great person and obviously a great football player.”
During the regular season, Denver became the first team in NFL history to score 600 points in a single season. The Broncos also are the only team in NFL lore to have five players each score at least 10 touchdowns in the same season: wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (14), running back Knowshon Moreno (13), Julius Thomas (12) and wide receivers Eric Decker (11) and Wes Welker (10).
The offense also averaged 340.3 passing yards per game behind Manning, who set NFL single-season passing records with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns.
“We’ve spread the ball around so well all season, so it’s hard for teams to know who to key on,” said Manning. “On any given play, a number of guys could get the ball. That puts pressure on a defense.”
A Broncos “D” with the star power of Von Miller for all 16 games and an in- his-prime Champ Bailey would still have likely been overshadowed by Manning and Co. this season.
The current group hasn’t even gotten noticed in New York after allowing 356 yards per game (19th in the NFL) and 24.9 points per game (22nd).
Denver is 2-4 all-time in Super Bowls but won its past two appearances, Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII). Seattle lost its only previous try in the big game, a 21-10 setback to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL.
The knock on one of the greatest QBs of all-time is the fact that most believe the colder it gets, the tougher it is for Manning to throw the football, a laughable criticism because it’s such an obvious dart to throw and could be hurled at any signal caller.
Manning, however, is 8-11 in his career — including 0-4 in the postseason — when the temperature is below 40 degrees at kickoff.
Some simply believe Wilson and the Seahawks are better equipped to handle the elements because Seattle is a team which generally doesn’t rely on airing it out even in pristine conditions. Meanwhile, while vertically challenged, Wilson possesses very large hands, measured at 10 1/4 inches, an attribute scouts are very big on these days because in theory, a larger hand allows you to handle the football properly in any conditions.
It’s indisputable that shaky conditions do favor the running game and defense over all else. And it’s Seattle which possesses Lynch and the game’s No. 1-rated defensive unit.