Super Bowl 48 Observations

While staying in NY last Tuesday, I dreamt I had somehow overslept the start of the Super Bowl without posting my Beating the Book article or getting any bets in. I had already declared strongly for Seattle after the conference title games, but I was anguished I hadn't gotten the pick in officially or put money down. I rushed to the TV in a panic. It was early in the fourth quarter, and the Seahawks were up 94-6.

When I woke up, I was relieved to have time to write the column and make my bets (Went with SEA +2, SEA -7.5 at 3:1, Marshawn Lynch to score the first TD at 5:1 and Russell Wilson to win MVP at 3:1). And I was more convinced the Seahawks were an unusually good value - even my unconscious mind was on board*.

While most of the RotoWire guys, Mark Stopa, Jeff Erickson and Kevin Payne agreed Seattle would win convincingly, as the week went on, I heard a lot of people making the case for Denver, including commenters in the article. That was good. Too much unanimity and certainty is inversely correlated with accuracy.

Their were four main reasons I loved Seattle: (1) Elite defensive teams have almost always prevailed (many with ease) in Super Bowls; (2) While watching the conference title games, the AFC looked slow and sloppy while the NFC was 100 mph, crisp and fierce; (3) The Seahawks seemed to match up perfectly against the Broncos with an elite secondary and very little blitzing or pre-snap machinations for Peyton Manning to read; and (4) Seattle's schedule, especially in the playoffs, was so much tougher than Denver's.

I also liked that the public was on Denver, that Seattle had a big coaching advantage and that Peyton Manning for whatever reason didn't seem to do well with two weeks off in the past or in big games.

But beyond all the logic, I just had an unusually strong sense the game would go Seattle's way. I even encouraged people to grab alternative lines like Seattle -14.5 at 6:1 if they could find them and told my family and friends to get in on it, something I almost never do. (Jeff Erickson and I discussed it in a video two weeks ago):

So that's was my backdrop for watching the game that more or less lived up to my dream about it.

What surprised me most was how ill-prepared Denver was from the start. The first snap over Manning's head cost them only two points (and a possession), but it was as if the Broncos were not psychologically ready for the challenge they faced.

After that, you could see the Seahawks' loose and aggressive play calling, handing off to Percy Harvin, having a flea flicker (it didn't work) and moving Wilson all over the place in the pocket. On the other side of the ball, Denver completed short passes to receivers over the middle (many of which turned into huge plays this year against their crappy opponents), but the Seahawk defenders annihilated them the moment they touched the ball. Even when Manning did complete outside throws to Demaryius Thomas, he was always well covered, and had to make a tough back-shoulder catch.

When the Seahawks got pressure (and I didn't feel their line dominated the way the Giants one did against Tom Brady in 2007 and 2011), Manning was exposed as a pocket-only quarterback that's not nearly as effective when he has to move his feet. Colin Kaepernick had more success in Seattle two weeks ago with his scrambling and ability to throw on the move. At first it shocked me that Manning could play such a poor game on that stage after a season for the ages, but when you consider what he is - a guy who reads the defense, who knows where to go with the ball, who gets rid of it quickly, who delivers it accurately - he was overmatched in a way a more improvisational talent (like Wilson or Ben Roethlisberger) might not be. It was similar to the second half of the Patriots-Jets divisional playoff game in 2010 where Tom Brady stood around looking at covered receivers and didn't know what to do.

Late in the game Troy Aikman said this performance should in no way affect Manning's legacy, and like most of the output from him and Joe Buck, it was preposterous. If losing 43-8 in a game of that magnitude has no effect on his legacy, then nothing possibly could. But for a quarterback who's now 1-2 in Super Bowls, the lone win coming against the Rex Grossman-led Bears (Manning had 6.5 YPA, one TD, one pick in that game), beating (or at least playing well against) a world-class Seahawks defense would show Manning's dominance of regular-season defenses indeed translated as the quality of opposition rose. While every quarterback drops off as he faces better opponents, it's far from obvious every one would do so equally.

This legacy-measuring exercise might not be as relevant if Manning were Joe Montana on the Chiefs, still good but past his prime, trying to get them deep into the playoffs for one final run. But this was arguably Manning's greatest regular season ever (2004 was also comparable), and so we have to assume this is the peak version - and the 2004 version managed only three points against the Patriots elite defense in the AFC title game.

When you look at Manning's overall playoff stats (7.4 YPA, 37/24 TD/INT in 23 games), they're not that bad, but that's deceiving because he's massively bolstered by two first-round blowout wins against the Broncos in 2003 (377 yards, 14.5 YPA, 5 TDs, 0 INT) and 2004 (458 yards, 13.9 YPA, 4 TDs, 1 INT). Those Broncos defenses were 18th and 17th, respectively, in adjusted YPA (includes sacks).

Of course, we're only talking about whether Manning is one of the 10 greatest players of all time or the greatest, so in some ways I'm picking nits. But to the extent we care about comparing players across eras and asking the question, Sunday's game put him closer to the Dan Marino tier than the Montana one.

The other main current running through the game was the battle between an all-time offense and an all-time defense, and as usual the defense prevailed. "Defense wins championships" might be a cliche, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. As a Giants fan, I grew up watching them beat the Montana-Rice Niners 49-3 in 1986, and lose to them 7-3 in 1990 before beating them 15-13 in that NFC title game that year. We know what happened in the 2001, 2002, 2007 and 2011 Super Bowls to elite offenses when the level of opposition got too tough. Even the 1999 greatest-show-on-turf Rams barely squeaked by the Bucs in 1999, winning the NFC title game 11-6 despite being indoors on their speedy turf.

If elite defense really does prevail against elite offense, there must be a reason why. Perhaps it's because top passing attacks rely so much on timing, and once the receivers are jammed and quarterback is hit and hurried, the entire machine grinds to a halt. Most of the best offenses rely on pocket passers from Warner's Rams, to Brady's Pats, to Manning's Colts and Broncos, and there's not much else they can do. Or maybe there's some other reason.

In any event, it's satisfying to be right about something. It's my job to make a lot of predictions, whether I have a strong feeling about them or not, and when they don't pan out, you wonder how much of an edge you actually have. But when a big one for which you went to the mat comes through, it's a reminder that your observations and experience can sometimes trump the collective wisdom or the Vegas lines. You just have to pick your spots.

*This is in stark contrast to an incident in Vegas three weeks ago when a nearly blacked-out Brad Evans told me to bet Washington +3.5 with him in the second half against Cal. We went to the window, and he said: "Cal in the second half for $20." The clerk printed out the ticket, and just then Brad realized he had said the wrong team and asked the clerk to void it. But I thought: "This is a very bad sign," and, before he could undo the Cal bet, said: "I'll buy that ticket."

Brad knows a ton of college basketball, and to me the Freudian slip was more revealing of his true insight about that game. When Brandon Funston, who by comparison made Evans seem as sober as a nun, saw what happened (and knew with 100 percent certainty I made the right call), but mumbled: "I'm a Washington fan," and subsequently donated his $20 to the Bellagio Sports Book, I knew it was a lock. And of course Cal won by 26.


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