Five things to watch
•Can the Seahawks sack Peyton Manning?
Denver quarterback Peyton Manning was the least-sacked passer in the NFL, going down 18 times in 677 dropbacks. And that’s in a season in which he lost his starting left tackle, Pro Bowler Ryan Clady, after two games and his starting center, Dan Koppen, before the season. Is Manning’s rebuilt offensive line responsible? Or is it his fast decision-making and quick release? The Seahawks, led by Michael Bennett’s 8 1/2 sacks, ranked tied for eighth with 44 sacks and need to hit and hurry Manning even if they can’t sack him.
Manning and Seattle’s second-year quarterback Russell Wilson are never out of games. Twice this season, Wilson overcame huge deficits and produced overtime wins. The Seahawks trailed Houston 20-6 in the fourth quarter Sept. 29 before winning. And on Nov. 3, the Seahawks trailed Tampa Bay 21-0 in the second quarter and won 27-24, posting the franchise’s largest come-from-behind victory. Wilson, in two years, has produced 10 victories after his team trailed or was tied in the fourth quarter, including the NFC championship game. Manning is the NFL’s career leader in fourth-quarter comebacks with 50.
•Taking it away:
Seattle led the NFL by forcing 39 turnovers in 2013, including season-best five takeaways against San Francisco on Sept. 15 and against the New York Giants on Dec. 15. Cornerback Richard Sherman’s eight interceptions led the league, and free safety Earl Thomas had five, helping the Seahawks lead the league with 28 interceptions and a plus-20 turnover differential. Manning threw just 10 picks, but the Broncos lost 16 fumbles, and running backs Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball have a bit of a history with fumbles.
•Spreading the wealth:
The Broncos spread the ball around better than any team in NFL history. They were the first team to have five players score 10 or more touchdowns in a season — wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (14), Eric Decker (11) and Wes Welker (10), tight end Julius Thomas (12) and running back Moreno (13). And they’re the first team to have players catch 60 passes in a season — Demaryius Thomas (92), Decker (87), Welker (73), Julius Thomas (65) and Moreno (60).
•There will be flags flying:
Expect a lot of penalties from these two teams, especially on Seattle’s aggressive defense and Denver’s pass-protecting offense. Seattle led the NFL in penalties with 142 and in penalty yardage with 1,311. Denver was fifth with 127 penalties, and third in yardage, 1,084. Sherman and Broncos tackle Orlando Franklin were flagged 10 times, tied for seventh-most in the league; while Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett was penalized nine times and Denver offensive tackle Chris Clark seven times.
Face to face
•Broncos QB Peyton Manning vs. Seahawks FS Earl Thomas:
Manning will be calling out OMAHA! OMAHA! as he calls plays at the line and makes adjustments in the Broncos’ pass protections and receiver routes. It will be up to Thomas to decipher those signals and make sure he’s in the right place, either helping cornerbacks in coverage or supporting linebackers against the run. Manning has thrown six TD passes and one interception in the postseason; Thomas, who had five picks in the regular season, has made 17 tackles in two playoff games.
•Seahawks QB Russell Wilson vs. Broncos MLB Wesley Woodyard:
Wilson was not only the NFL’s seventh-best-rated passer in 2013, he rushed 96 times for 539 yards (a 5.6-yard average), and somebody has to keep an eye on him. Woodyard will likely draw the assignment of spying Wilson. Woodyard is an undersized and overachieving player who ranked second on the team with 83 tackles, added 1 1/2 sacks, eight quarterback hits and had one interception — against the Chiefs.
•Seahawks CB Richard Sherman vs. Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas:
This is the show everyone will want to see, whether the verbose Sherman can live up to all of the hype he created and defend Thomas, who ranked fourth in the NFL with 1,430 receiving yards and second with a career-best 14 TDs. Thomas had six 100-yard receiving games this year (two against the Chiefs), plus a seven-catch, 134-yard outing in the AFC championship game. Sherman led the NFL with eight interceptions and broke up the 49ers’ final pass in the end zone in the NFC championship.
•Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch vs. Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno:
The quarterbacks get a lot of attention but Lynch and Moreno are key components to their respective offense. The Seahawks are one of the few teams to run the ball more than they pass, and it’s because Lynch gets in Beast Mode. Lynch carried 301 times, second-most in the league, for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns, and has had a huge postseason, rushing for 140 yards, including TD runs of 15 and 31 against New Orleans and 109 yards with a 40-yard TD against San Francisco. Moreno, who rushed for 1,038 yards in the regular season, will be playing in front of his hometown fans, and his contract expires after the season, giving him two big incentives for a big game.
•Broncos K Matt Prater vs. Seahawks K Steven Hauschka:
Between the two of them, Prater and Hauschka attempted 180 kicks in 2013 and missed three. Prater made 25 of 26 field-goal attempts, including an NFL-record 64-yarder. He led the league with six 50-yard field goals, and his only miss was from 52 against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium after he had made a 52-yarder earlier in the game. Hauschka was nearly as good. He made 33 of 35 field-goal attempts, and is six for six in the postseason. This could be the first Super Bowl to come down to a game-winning kick in 10 years, or when New England’s Adam Vinatieri made a 41-yarder that beat Carolina, coached by John Fox, 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Everyone’s been talking about the weather all week, and both teams appear prepared to deal with the conditions of MetLife Stadium. Temperatures are expected to be near 40 at kickoff, but it will be chilly in the evening, especially when the wind howls. Manning has a career record of 8-11 playing outdoors when the temperature is below 40 degrees, with 30 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. He’s 1-2 this season with losses to New England and San Diego in night games and a win over Tennessee in an afternoon game. In Seattle’s one game this season in which the temperature was below 40, the Seahawks beat the Giants 23-0 at MetLife in 36 degree conditions.
Three reasons Seahawks will win
• The Seattle defense is tough and battle tested. The Seahawks led the NFL in fewest points and fewest yards allowed. And they manhandled the prolific offenses of New Orleans and San Francisco twice each in the past seven weeks.
• Seahawks could have an advantage in special teams. Denver’s coverage units ranked last in the NFL, allowing 29.3 yards an attempt, and kicker Matt Prater won’t have the benefit of mile-high altitude for booting touchbacks. Percy Harvin could be available for returning kicks and Doug Baldwin returned a kickoff 69 yards in the NFC championship.
• Quarterback Russell Wilson has the it factor. Nothing fazes him, not losing a fumble on the first offensive play of the NFC championship game, not facing fourth and 7 when he threw a 35-yard TD pass against San Francisco. Tom Brady won his Super Bowl debut in his second season …
Three reasons Broncos will win
• The Denver offense, which scored more points and threw for more yards and touchdowns than any team in NFL history, operates with amazing precision, something Seattle hasn’t seen, not even from the Saints or 49ers. Peyton Manning seems to have someone open all of the time.
• The Broncos defense, despite losing several key players to injury, has been stout against the run in the playoffs. Denver held San Diego to 65 yards in 18 carries and bottled up New England’s red-hot LeGarrette Blount to six yards in five carries and the Patriots to a total 64 yards in 16 tries.
• Peyton Manning is on a mission. This is why he endured four neck surgeries and signed with the Broncos. He has had two weeks to prepare for the Seahawks and wants that second Super Bowl title in the worst way. His teammates will do anything it can to make it happen.
Randy Covitz’s prediction