Super Bowl pits strength vs. strength

While most of America spent the day after the NFC Championship game reacting to Richard Sherman’s postgame antics, the Seahawks cornerback was already immersed in film study.

“With Peyton,” Sherman said, “you have to be on it quick, because I know he was on it quick.”

When it comes to preparing for quarterback Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos’ offense, an extra week between games is probably one or two weeks too few, which is why Sherman and the Seahawks defense, despite being the best in the NFL, know they have their hands full this weekend.

All season this Super Bowl matchup seemed like destiny. In the AFC, the 37-year-old Manning enjoyed the best season of what will surely be a Hall-of-Fame career, shattering passing records while leading the Broncos to an NFL record for points in a season.

Seattle, meanwhile, earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed thanks in large part to a defense that became the first since the 1985 Chicago Bears to lead the NFL in fewest points (14.4) and fewest yards allowed (273.6) as well as takeaways (39). When you factor in the pass-happy era we’re in, Seattle’s pass defense wasn’t just great, it was one of the best of all-time.

So when Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick’s pass to Malcolm Smith for the game-clinching interception in the NFC title game, it didn’t just secure a Super Bowl berth for Seattle, it also set up one of the most intriguing Super Bowl matchups in recent memory, a classic meeting of an unstoppable force and an immoveable object.

“We really embrace that, man,” Sherman said. “As a defense, we respect the heck out of Peyton Manning, but as a true competitor, as competitive as our team is, you wouldn’t want to have it any other way. You want the best of the best, otherwise you don’t feel like you’re getting the biggest challenge of your life. … It’s just a competitive drive in you. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. So that’s the only way it can go.”

And there is no arguing that this is a best-vs.-best matchup. Manning, whose career was in danger less than three years ago following multiple neck surgeries, established single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55). He carved up opposing defense by spreading the ball around to a group of pass-catchers with diverse skill sets, ranging from a prototypical No. 1 receiver in Demaryius Thomas to a speedy slot receiver in Wes Welker to an athletic tight end in Julius Thomas. And of all the crazy stats the Broncos put up, the most stunning might be that they had four pass-catchers produce 10-plus touchdown seasons: Thomas, Thomas, Welker and Eric Decker. For a little perspective on how crazy that is, there were just nine other receivers and tight ends on the NFL’s 31 other teams to accomplish that feat.

So it’s no surprise that the Broncos are confident in their offense, no matter who is lined up across from them.

“They are the No. 1 defense,” Demaryius Thomas told reporters in Denver. “They have a great defense and we have a great offense. This is what you play for. I think we’ll be fine.”

Yet as confident as the Broncos may be, it’s safe to say they’ve yet to see anything quite like this Seattle defense, which didn’t just have the best pass defense in the league, but the best by a significant margin.

Seattle allowed 172.0 passing yards per game, 22.1 fewer than the No. 2 team. The Seahawks’ opponents’ passer rating of 63.4 is 10.8 points better than the next best team. The website FootballPerspective.com came up with a formula to rate pass defense in a historical context by using adjusted net yards per attempt — meaning it factors in sacks, not just actual pass attempts — then factored in a standard deviation relative to the average pass defense that year, and came away with the conclusion that the Seahawks have the fourth-best pass defense since 1950 behind 2002 Tampa Bay, 1988 Minnesota and the 1970 Vikings. Those ‘02 Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, and it should be noted that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was the defensive backs coach of the ‘88 Vikings.

Seattle’s secondary deservedly saw three players, Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, yet it’s safe to say they’ve yet to see anything quite like Denver’s offense.

But Seahawks fans might take comfort knowing that in the previous four Super Bowls to match the league’s No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense in terms of yards, the defensive team won three times. Not only is Denver’s offense talented, it’s also a challenge because Manning has so much freedom at the line of scrimmage, essentially serving as, as Sherman called him, “an offensive coordinator out there.”

“Nobody has ever taken more command of the game than he has at this stage of his career,” Carroll said. “And the coaching staff has allowed that to happen where he can be in total command of what’s going on.”

One thing Carroll and his defense know well is that stopping Denver’s passing game isn’t only about the players covering Manning’s targets. If the Seahawks can somehow generate a pass rush to disrupt Manning’s timing, they’ll be doing something few teams have this season. The Broncos allowed a league-low 19 sacks this season, 18 on Manning, and that number clearly isn’t a testament to Manning’s mobility. Instead the Broncos rely on solid pass protection and, even more important, a quarterback who through years of experience has learned precisely when to get rid of the ball and where to throw it.

The Seahawks added Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to improve their pass rush, and it worked, with Seattle registering 44 sacks this season, but even with a strong group of pass-rushers, pressuring Manning, like stopping the entire Broncos offense, will be a challenge even for the league’s best defense.

“We have to be able to do everything,” Carroll said. “We have to be able to pressure him, we have to be able to play zone and man, do all of the things. Hopefully give him some new looks he can’t prepare for. We have to find a way to get him out of his normal rhythm. Very few teams have been able to do that. So it’s a big challenge.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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