NFL Week 3 Predictions: Broncos vs. Seahawks, Take Two

I never wrote a formal recap of  the stunning domination that was Super Bowl XLVIII by Seattle over Denver. It’s the only time since the 2011 season I didn’t write a weekly recap of the NFL’s close games, because it’s the only week there weren’t any close games. We have been spoiled by great Super Bowls, and this one had all the right ingredients for a classic. It was the highest-scoring offense against a great defense. Then the highest-scoring offense in NFL history couldn’t execute a snap on the first play from scrimmage, and it was all downhill from there.

It’s probably the biggest disappointment I’ve experienced as an NFL fan in general. 43-8? Thanks for the unique score, I guess. Whatever happens in Week 3, where the schedule is seemingly titled to give this “rematch” full focus, won’t make up for the lack of competitiveness in February.

For me, the Seahawks need this win more, because they’re 1-1 in a tougher division and Denver is 2-0. It’s not like Seattle can’t rebound from 1-2, but some doubt will creep up for a team that’s as much of a favorite to repeat as any we’ve seen in years.

I think the Broncos need to show February was just an outlier. If these teams met 50 times, I’m not sure it would ever get more lopsided in Seattle’s favor than the one result that counted. Denver can’t afford a repeat, or else there will be major doubt in its ability to hang with this Seattle team. There’s nothing even close to a guarantee they’ll have to get through them to win a championship this year, but it’s certainly possible. Denver winning this game in Seattle, where we know the Seahawks are 18-1 with Russell Wilson at QB and have been extra dominant defensively, would be a big confidence builder and would help lower Seattle’s playoff chances in the process.

So what the hell went wrong on February 2, and what has really changed in seven months to expect a different outcome this time?

I wrote a really long preview for the Super Bowl, and some of it turned out to be relevant. Marshawn Lynch wasn’t a factor, Percy Harvin’s kick return value iced the game, and Seattle’s third-down pass defense was extremely decisive with two interceptions.

Denver had to be sick when watching the film on this game if only for the simple fact that the Seahawks wrapped this thing up on the strength of a couple of plays.

By the time it was 22-0 in the second quarter, Peyton Manning had thrown two incompletions of consequence.

Both were interceptions and both were the result of quick edge pressure. Now don’t get me wrong. Seattle made sure every yard and first down was like pulling teeth for the Broncos, but a long Denver drive was building when it was 15-0, then that fateful 3rd-and-13 happened. Cliff Avril again got the pressure, but this time he hit Manning while throwing and the ball just so happened to land in Malcolm Smith’s possession for a pick-six. That pretty much wrapped it up there, but Harvin’s kick return to make it 29-0 guaranteed the second half would be irrelevant.

The game was about pressure. Denver’s offense allowed the lowest rate of pressure all season, but Seattle’s defense generated the most of any defense in the last four years. Manning was only pressured about five percentage points more often than usual in this game, but it was extremely effective to get interceptions on third down. Meanwhile, no offense allowed more pressure than Seattle, but Wilson was not hit or sacked in this game by Denver’s defense, which also came away with zero takeaways (not even a forced fumble) in three playoff games last year.

Pressure’s not very consistent from year to year, but if Seattle can get some in key spots at home, they’re going to disrupt this offense again. The reconfiguration of Denver’s offensive line should help with a superior player like Ryan Clady at left tackle, but the noise is going to be an issue. Denver stupidly didn’t prepare for crowd noise in the neutral-site Super Bowl, despite having a head coach that’s been there before and Manning also should have known better. I’m sure a tactic like the silent count has been worked on this week and we’ll see Denver more prepared for the noise, but it’s obviously a significant factor in playing at Seattle.

Besides Clady, what else has changed? Seattle still looks very similar on paper, but the Broncos have 13 new starters compared to who started at each position in February. That includes a secondary Seattle didn’t see any of with Rahim Moore (IR), TJ Ward (CLE), Aqib Talib (NE) and Chris Harris (IR) plus rookie CB Bradley Roby. That also includes DeMarcus Ware (DAL) and Von Miller (IR), who must generate pressure on Wilson to have success in this game. On offense there’s Emmanuel Sanders, who will take over for Eric “Charmin Soft” Decker, who had a pathetic performance in the big game. That’s a lot of guys that don’t know anything about 43-8, because they didn’t play that day.

For Denver to keep it close in Seattle, this new defense must get after Wilson and continue containing Lynch on the ground. Keep in mind Seattle actually ranks second to Denver in points per drive thru Week 2 this year. Denver’s defense has had two suspect performances at home against the Colts and Chiefs. Alex Smith was moving well and dealing on third down last week. Denver’s new-look defense looks a lot like last year’s struggling unit despite all the changes. Harvin gave them some nightmares with the jet sweep, but defenses league-wide have to start getting prepared for that better. Seattle may also chill a bit after a horrible time to run it in San Diego with the game on the line last week (the play lost six yards).

Offensively, I would imagine Sanders or Andre Caldwell will occupy Richard Sherman, but I strongly disagree with the strategy to avoid him for the entire game like we saw in Week 1 with Green Bay. You can’t just surrender a side of the field to the defense like that. If the guy Sherman’s covering is open, throw it there. Philip Rivers didn’t show that fear last week and it turned out fine for him. Denver can keep Demaryius away from Sherman, but there’s no reason to purposely stay away from him all game long.

Demaryius also hasn’t played that well to start this season. He had an interesting Super Bowl with a lot catches, but not for a lot of yards, because Seattle’s defense swarmed and tackled so well. There just wasn’t much YAC, and that’s the kind of offense Denver has evolved into with “Old Peyton”. He’s going to have to try loosening them up a bit more with intermediate (15-25 yards) routes. It can’t be a lot of screens or Seattle will continue stifling this offense.

The key to this game is Julius Thomas, but after the trouble Antonio Gates gave Seattle last week, don’t you think both sides expect that? Julius has looked great this year, but I’m skeptical he can make the tough catches the veteran Gates did last week. He’s still young and learning. He wasn’t much of a factor in the Super Bowl, but for Denver to win this game, he has to play big this week. I’m not fond of Wes Welker’s return to a physical matchup like this one. He might leave with yet another concussion. No matter who Peyton targets, you know the ball is coming out very quick. It was still coming out in 2.6 seconds in the Super Bowl, but that wasn’t enough against some of that crucial edge pressure.

What Denver must do differently is stick with the running game even if it’s not that efficient. Before two garbage-time carries by C.J. Anderson in the Super Bowl, the Broncos had 11 carries for 18 yards — the same numbers Denver had in a Week 15 loss to San Diego. That’s the worst rushing support Manning’s had in his 265-game career. The score had a lot to do with that, but Denver still abandoned the run.

San Diego stuck with the run despite its inefficiency last week so that Rivers didn’t have to make every play. He also got his running backs involved with nine catches, which I think Manning needs to do more of with Montee Ball and Anderson. Attack the short middle of the field and flats. I feel like last year Denver watched San Diego shred Dallas, albeit a horrific defense, and used some of that knowledge (similar offense with Mike McCoy) in the following week in that classic 51-48 win in Dallas. The Broncos could once again learn a few things from San Diego’s trial run against Seattle.

All the talk after the Super Bowl was that Denver’s just not physical enough to beat Seattle (or San Francisco). Well, it just so happens they caught a break with the schedule and will play this NFC West this year. So the first litmus test is this week in the toughest place to play in the NFL right now. I’m not sure how a team gets “tougher” without a simple dose of more running plays. This is still a Manning-led offense, which has pretty much looked the same as it always has this season. It’s always been about execution, but rarely has the execution ever been so poor as it was that night in February, and while Seattle had a lot to do with that, there are some opportunities for Denver to make corrections and give us a more competitive game this time.

I think that’s enough analysis for a Week 3 game, so onto the prediction.

Final prediction: Seahawks 27, Broncos 20

NFL Week 3 Predictions

Can we get a Thursday game that’s not won by 20+ points by the home team? I picked Atlanta to win, but that was embarrassing, Tampa Bay. I’m glad I picked you to finish last place in the division, but 7-9 is looking far too kind.

Winners in bold:

  • Ravens at Browns
  • Chargers at Bills
  • Vikings at Saints
  • Texans at Giants
  • Colts at Jaguars
  • Cowboys at Rams
  • Titans at Bengals
  • Raiders at Patriots
  • Packers at Lions
  • Redskins at Eagles
  • 49ers at Cardinals
  • Broncos at Seahawks
  • Chiefs at Dolphins
  • Steelers at Panthers
  • Bears at Jets

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Total: 17-15

I only picked six of them, but I like a lot of the road teams this week. Ravens can certainly win, but I like Cleveland’s rushing attack right now and maybe the football gods will intervene here if you’ve been following the news.

Super Bowl XLVIII Predictions: Peyton Manning’s Legacy vs. NFL’s Next Great Team

The Denver Broncos are as likely as any team to win Super Bowl XLVIII.

That was the opening line to my March preview of the 2013 Broncos. I have been riding the Denver bandwagon for a long time now. In April I called it “The Year of the Broncos” after the schedule came out. On numerous occasions I have compared the 1996-97 Broncos to the 2012-13 Broncos, thinking they’d bounce back and go the distance this season. I picked them before the season started in spite of the Von Miller suspension.  I only wavered when San Diego was the first opponent in the playoffs, actually believing the Chargers had the right stuff to pull the upset. I was wrong.

So how can I go against Denver now that they’ve reached the destination I always believed they were headed for?

With Wilson’s development and continuous improvement to the roster, the Seattle Seahawks are primed to have the NFL’s next dynasty.

That was the closing line to my piece last May on the NFL’s next dynasty. I chose Seattle and a championship this season would certainly put the Seahawks on the right path to becoming that.

So both of my babies have made it and we get the perfect Super Bowl matchup. These were the two best teams down the stretch last year and both had heart-breaking losses in the Divisional Round, surrendering the lead in the final 40 seconds. They were the best teams again this year and make this only the second Super Bowl between No. 1 seeds in the salary cap era (1994-present).

We have all the potential for an instant classic and I have a ton of thoughts to share on this game, which may not flow together well, but my goal was to finish this in less time than it will take me to watch the game.

I’m all about that action, boss.

NO. 1 DECIDING FACTOR: HOW WELL THE RECEIVERS ARE COVERED

I cannot see anything more decisive in this game than how well each defense covers the receivers. We know Seattle’s going to get grabby and physical and there is concern over whether or not Denver’s group of receivers can handle that for 60 minutes. The Seahawks are mostly built like the 2001-04 Patriots where it’s hard to key in on any one receiver and they’re all capable of making a big play. And you can bet Russell Wilson will be looking for the bombs, either off play-action or one of his Fran Tarkenton-esque scrambles. Denver’s had some big problems with covering receivers down the field.

If you’re expecting some pass interference calls, don’t. In the last 10 Super Bowls, only two defensive pass interference penalties have been called (4 OPI). The receivers are going to have to work hard on Sunday to win battles.

DENVER’S OFFENSE SHOULD WIN BIG MATCHUP WITH SEATTLE’S DEFENSE

First the big disclaimer: Denver’s offense has not played a defense anything close to Seattle. Seattle’s defense has not played an offense anything close to Denver. It’s a big step up in competition for both sides.

The more I think about this dream matchup the more I think it favors Denver. Sure, things will not look as pretty as they have this postseason (SD/NE) and Denver will probably have more punts by the end of the first quarter than the one they have this whole playoffs. Seattle’s defense will win some battles (series), but I think Denver’s going to win the war (overall matchup).

These units are amazingly talented and rely on that talent to execute what is not an overly complex scheme built on variety, trickery and deception. Denver’s going to load up in “11” personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) for most of the game with Manning often in the shotgun. Seattle’s going to mostly rush four, not blitz much, play a lot of Cover-3 and you can count on Richard Sherman lining up on the defensive left and Earl Thomas often in the middle.

When you give Peyton Manning two weeks to prepare for such a defense, I have to believe he’s going to figure out the mismatches quickly. Seattle’s vaunted pass rush is something I don’t remember hearing much about until the last two weeks. The attention was all about the secondary. Manning gets the ball out so quickly that most of the rush gets neutralized when the ball’s coming out in under 2.5 seconds. Kansas City was supposed to have a great pass rush and could barely breathe on Manning in the first meeting this season when Tamba Hali and Justin Houston were healthy. Those are more talented rushers than Seattle’s and Manning’s not playing his first game with a taped-up high ankle sprain like he did that night.

The Seahawks rotate in a lot of guys to rush the QB, but Manning, the least-pressured QB in the league, should be able to stop that by going with the no-huddle offense and not allowing for substitutions. So much of Denver’s offense works with the 11 personnel and they still have flexibility. Julius Thomas can line up at wide receiver and create a mismatch thru speed with any linebacker or even Earl Thomas. The three wide receivers are a lot for Seattle to cover even if Sherman locks up Demaryius Thomas.

I also don’t see Sherman being a big factor for the reason that he does not shadow the top receiver from side to side. Manning’s old offense was more rigid in how Reggie Wayne would almost always line up on the left. In the 2010 playoffs against the Jets and Darrelle Revis, Manning showed Revis too much respect, throwing just one target (a screen) to Wayne all night.

But in Denver, guys move around and I fully expect Demaryius to get his targets on the offensive left with a guy like Byron Maxwell in coverage. I saw the 49ers accomplish that with Michael Crabtree, but Kaepernick was not seeing the field or throwing the ball as well as Manning.

STATS LLC show that Manning does not favor one side of the field over the other and is great in every area:

PMSTATSLLC

Demaryius will likely not have a huge game, but he’s going to get Sherman-free opportunities in this one.

Seattle’s worst defensive game of the season was in Indianapolis (season-high 27 points allowed). The Colts have arguably the closest comparison to the Broncos in terms of a good QB and multiple receiving options (Saints just didn’t have the horses on the outside this year; so much of it was RBs and Jimmy Graham, who played really soft in press coverage in 2013). Remember, that was the Colts with Reggie Wayne.

In that game against the Colts, the Seahawks faced a season-high 46 snaps from 11 personnel used by Indy. Denver used 11 personnel 33 times against New England…in the first half alone of the AFC Championship. Yeah, that’s their base offense and Seattle’s going to get a ton of looks at it.

As Aaron Schatz notes, the Seahawks only faced shotgun on a league-low 45 percent of snaps. They were still No. 1 against shotgun offense. The Broncos used shotgun a league-high 78 percent of the time, so once again Denver will be running an offense with more talent than Seattle has seen and in formations the Seahawks are not as used to having to defend this year.

I’m a strong believer in any defense Matt Schaub and Mike Glennon can have success against, Peyton Manning can have success against too.

I also think the running back screen will be more important than those wide receiver screens that Seattle snuffs out very well. Seattle has been vulnerable to passes in the short middle and we may see Knowshon Moreno/Montee Ball eat up some catches. Remember, Joseph Addai had 10 catches in SB 41 from Manning who was playing a very good, but also very predictable Tampa-2 defense from Chicago, so he should know where to pick and prod. The crossing routes and pick plays will also give Seattle some trouble.

Manning has already played the six best passing defenses for a playoff team since 2006, based on defensive passer rating. His results speak for themselves:

pmtDEF

Running backs in general are important for Denver in this game, though I think a 30-carry, 110-yard night would be more than adequate to get the win. It can’t be Manning throwing 50 times into that secondary, but this does not have to be a huge rushing performance. When the pre-snap look is there, Manning has shown he’s willing to take it.

I just think unless Seattle does show some defensive wrinkles exclusively for the SB, then Manning has an opportunity to pick them apart. Remember, the Saints had a different game plan for every quarter of SB 44. I’m not sure any of them really worked, but all it takes is one play for a corner to jump a route and that can be the ballgame.  Of course, Seattle’s offense matching the potent efficiency of the 2009 Saints sounds very unrealistic based on the last six games of the season.

WHICH SEATTLE OFFENSE SHOWS UP?

Remember how brilliant Russell Wilson looked in Week 13 on MNF against the Saints? I think it was after that night I started picturing this matchup and how Wilson and Lynch could give this Denver defense fits in New Jersey. Well, a lot has changed in two months. Seattle’s really resorted to relying on big plays on offense and getting great field position from mistakes to score points on short fields. The defense of course obliges them, but this is not a game the Seahawks can win with a low score. The offense, which ranks 30th on third down since Week 14, needs to step up.

While Marshawn Lynch should get his touches and opportunities, the game really comes down to young Wilson. He threw a great game-winning TD pass on fourth down against San Francisco, but the rest of his game was very uneven. He was impotent against the Saints as well, showing some major accuracy issues on easy slants. Some point to the defensive schedule in recent weeks, but then look at how the Broncos have stepped up and held down better offenses from San Diego and New England. The defensive line is getting it done with the emergence of “Potroast” and a surprisingly good pass rush without Von Miller. Now Wilson is far more mobile than Brady or Rivers and I expect him to rush for 40+ yards and give Denver fits, but many of his wild scrambles are also unproductive plays for Seattle. He’s the most pressured QB, so I expect Denver will have some success, but the secondary better plaster downfield. Champ Bailey is back for Denver, but he hasn’t been tested much at all (3 targets in the playoffs).

Wilson will need to exploit the secondary of Denver and hit on some deep balls, which is a strength of his. The Seahawks love to use play-action. Brady had the perfect play-action bomb setup on Denver in the AFC-C, but terribly missed a wide open Julian Edelman. Wilson is better on those throws, though I wonder if his accuracy will be an issue early if nerves get to the 25-year-old.

I don’t expect nerves to be a problem by the end of the game for Wilson, but for that portion to matter, he’s going to need some help.

BEAST MODE?

Who knew Lynch was like a prisoner on a chain gang from Cool Hand Luke? “Wiping it off here, boss!” The shame is if he has a bad game or a big fumble, some will blame his handling of the media for why he blew it. Let’s do the right thing and give Denver credit or Lynch some criticism.

Lynch is a trendy pick for Super Bowl MVP, but I don’t see it. Denver’s been very good against the run all season, so Lynch gashing the Broncos would be a surprise. Lynch has only topped 100 rushing yards five times in 18 games this year. That’s really not impressive for an elite RB. Someone asked me how many 95-yard games he had, but who cares? If Lynch has 95 yards, advantage Broncos. If Lynch has a game like he did in the NFC Championship where half of his production (3 carries for 56 yards, TD) came on one drive, then advantage Broncos (unless it’s late in the game and he puts Seattle ahead with that TD, but you feel me, boss). For Lynch to truly dominate and have a MVP performance, he’ll need to consistently rip off good runs and have a 25-carry, 150-yard night. I don’t see that happening.

Then I hear how there’s “Playoff Lynch” where he “raises his game” in the playoffs. Nope, don’t buy it. One week after he put himself on the map with that TD run against the Saints, Lynch had 4 carries for 2 yards in Chicago. Last season he had 16 carries for 46 yards in Atlanta (a “soft” defense) in the playoffs. He’s also had multiple fumbles in his playoff career. His numbers look fine the last two weeks, but Denver’s defensive line has really stepped up and this game is more on Wilson’s arm to win it, not Lynch’s legs.

Should Denver score like they’re capable of, that just makes it even less likely Lynch has a big impact.

WILSON NEEDS TO FINISH, MANNING NEEDS TO START AND FINISH

While I think Wilson has to come through for Seattle to win, he may only need to play his best in the fourth quarter instead of all four quarters, which is exactly what Manning needs to do for his offense to work against this defense. Wilson can get by with a pedestrian start, which I think will happen. He’s young and we’ve seen nerves get the best of quarterbacks before. Colin Kaepernick looked a bit shaky last year before getting back on track in the second half. Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Hasselbeck never really calmed down in SB XL. I think Wilson’s a gamer and will be at his best in the fourth quarter.

CLOSE GAME?

The last 10 Super Bowls have had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity (only 13 of the first 37 did). Hopefully that streak continues, because I want to watch something great. It should given these teams’ competitiveness.

Manning has had a fourth-quarter lead in 13 straight playoff games (NFL record).

Seattle has been at least within one score in the fourth quarter in 50 straight games. Seattle’s led in the fourth quarter of 29 straight games:

SEA50GM

Going back to college, Wilson is on a 64-game streak of being this close late and not getting blown out. Denver actually just ended New England’s 63-game streak in the AFC Championship, keeping the Patriots down by 10+ the entire second half. Breaking Seattle’s streak too would be epic, but I wouldn’t bet on that happening. Seattle’s too good and balanced.

BIG COMEBACK?

Yep, the Super Bowls have been much closer, but remember when it was 28-6 Baltimore last year shortly after Beyonce shit the house down (in the words of Joe Theismann)? Well, it still ended up close eventually, which is my saying for all Russell Wilson games.

But which team is more likely to make a big comeback in the second half? Believe it or not, I lean towards Seattle, just because of the difference in defenses. That would be very tough on Manning to abandon the run and keep throwing against that defense and pass rush. For Wilson, look no further than the way the Broncos have let up in the fourth quarter with three-score leads to the Chargers and Patriots. But you might think taking advantage of a prevent requires cutting down on risk and Rivers/Brady are far more likely to take what the defense gives them while Wilson looks for big plays.

That sounds logical, but then I remember Wilson being down 27-7 in the fourth quarter in Atlanta last postseason and making big play after big play to put his team ahead in the final minute. Can he do it again in this game? Absolutely, because that plays right into Denver’s weakness (big passes) and away from their strength (stopping the run). I actually think Wilson’s best playoff game was the only one he lost.

Seattle is 34-5 (.872) under Pete Carroll when leading by 7+ points at any time in the game. Only the Steelers (4) have fewer losses in that time. The Seahawks have lost three games after leading by 10+ points since 2010. Denver certainly has the firepower to pull it off, but both teams better stay close. Super Bowls aren’t known for big comeback wins:

SBDEF

MOTHER NATURE

Looks like Manning’s Law, where anything that can go wrong will go wrong for Peyton Manning’s teams in the playoffs, is getting a break. The weather was fantastic for the AFC Championship and it looks like the weather should not be a factor on Sunday night. Manning doesn’t magically turn into Scott Mitchell when the temperature dips below 40 anyway, but there’s no doubt good conditions (that’s more about wind and precipitation than temperature) are a big positive for the pass-heavy team.

PERCY HARVIN: SUPER BOWL MVP?

Though if there is some Manning’s Law at work here, it would be Percy Harvin having a monster game and MVP performance after giving the Seahawks nothing all year. We don’t really know what Seattle’s offense with Harvin looks like since they never had him healthy long enough. He can definitely have a big impact even if it doesn’t show up in his individual stats. Denver being down their top pass-rusher and a very good cornerback (Chris Harris) makes the passing matchup difficult, but I’ll be surprised if Harvin has a lot of catches. He just hasn’t had the reps with Wilson, who is not exactly playing his best football right now. Harivn’s also a bit of an overrated receiver. He’s known for big plays, yet his longest catch in the NFL is 53 yards (that’s out of 281 receptions). In three career playoff games, he has 9 catches for 60 yards, or the Trent Richardson equivalent for a wide receiver.

Where Harvin can dangerously impact the game is with kick returns. He could be like Desmond Howard for the 1996 Packers. But of course, more kick return opportunities only come after Denver scoring drives.

SH!+ I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT

  • Tim Tebow having anything to do with any NFL team, but especially the 2013 Broncos.
  • The officiating in Super Bowl XL.
  • Dominic Rhodes being the real MVP of Super Bowl XLI. Seriously, did people not see how well Manning threw the ball in the rain? Look at the six drops that cost him a 300-yard day.
  • Denver “only” averaging 25 PPG in the playoffs. Look at the freakin’ drive stats. More efficient than regular season.
  • Anything about “Omaha.”

BRUNO MARS

So he’s like a 2010’s version of Prince? Not interested.

SCORE BIG TO BEAT MANNING

All seven of Denver’s losses under Manning have seen the opponent score 27+ points (Denver had at least 20+ too). Manning is 80-0 when he starts and finishes a game where his team allows 0-16 points. You’re not going to beat him 16-10 (Jim Sorgi on the other hand…).

UNUSUAL PASSING PRODUCTION FOR A CHAMPION

No matter which team wins, it will be historic for passing standards. The Broncos set a NFL record with 5,444 net passing yards. Those teams never win a Super Bowl. The Seahawks ranked just 26th with 3,236 passing yards. That would be the lowest ranking in passing for any Super Bowl winner.

Wilson had a season-high 25 completions in Week 1. Manning’s had 25+ completions in 15/18 games this year. Different strokes…

ERIC DECKER

I get the feeling Decker’s going to have some really pathetic play that turns into an interception for Seattle. He needs to play his most physical game to match up with Seattle’s secondary. That goes for all of Denver’s skill players, but especially the reality TV star looking for big bucks in free agency.

WES WELKER

I know you don’t really make that catch in Super Bowl XLVI, Wes, but how about catching the ones in your wheelhouse this week? Too many drops from this guy in the last few years and he should be an important part of Denver’s success if he’s up to it. A big performance and a ring could be a difference maker for his legacy when you’re talking about the Hall of Fame. Manning and Champ Bailey could play the worst games in Super Bowl history and both should still be first-ballot HOFers. Welker will be viewed as the guy who redefined the slot receiver in his era, but he could use a signature moment here.

TIPPED BALLS

According to the NFL Network, Seattle has 18 of its 30 interceptions off tipped balls this season. That sounds way too high to be random luck, so there’s some skill involved here. Richard Sherman’s tip-to-a-pick in the NFC Championship is a replica of a play he made to force Eli Manning’s fifth interception last month.

BALL SECURITY

Turnovers are always huge in the Super Bowl. This is an area that strongly favors Seattle, which is +20 in turnover differential this season compared to 0 for Denver.

Since 2012 (including playoffs), Seattle is +37 in turnover differential compared to -5 for Denver.

That’s just a stunning difference, and yet Denver has reached the same playoff round in both years as Seattle. But this is not a game that can be won with a poor turnover differential. Seattle capitalizes too well on mistakes. Denver has the #ObligatoryDenverFumble to worry about and Seattle is very good at stripping and tipping the ball. That could be huge.

THIRD DOWN

I did a big third-down study for this game last week at ESPN Insider.

In summary, Seattle’s offense is mediocre, has been poor lately, but Denver’s pass defense is historically bad in these third-down situations. Seattle has the best third-down pass defense since 1989 by DVOA, but Manning’s still pretty elite on these plays too.

The big stat: quarterbacks are 1/39 at converting on 3rd-and-11 or longer against Seattle this season.

Yep, Carson Palmer somehow had the one conversion. I believe Manning has 7 such conversions in 2013.

NEUTRAL-FIELD ADVANTAGE?

These are two teams that actually have a tangible home-field advantage they won’t have this week in New Jersey. I think the neutral field favors Denver, just because the Seahawks have a decade of evidence that they really do play much better in Seattle than on the road. In terms of DVOA, Denver is basically the same offensive team on the road versus at home and a bit worse on defense, but the Seahawks have considerably larger declines on the road on both defense and offense. They’re still the No. 1 road defense, but not as dominant.

HRS

Seattle also hasn’t played a road game since going to MetLife a month ago.

COMPARISONS TO PAST SUPER BOWLS

This is one of those meaningless things we talk about before the game and can better answer after the game. I see a lot of comparisons to the 2007 Giants/Patriots. I don’t think the game will be like that and the New England offense was slumping down the stretch anyway. Giants showed some cracks in that matchup in Week 17.

I’ve seen comparisons to 1990 Bills/Giants. I highly doubt the Seahawks will hold the ball for 40+ minutes and keep Denver to 1/8 on third down. Seattle’s boom or bust on offense right now. It takes a lot of successful plays to do ball-control offense.

Carolina (8) is the only offense to have fewer than nine possessions against Seattle this year.

2002 Bucs/Raiders – kill that noise. Jon Gruden knew what plays were coming and the 2002 Bucs had the best pass defense this century. Denver’s offense is much better than Oakland’s and these teams have little familiarity at all.

The game I actually might think compare best is Super Bowl 34 between the 1999 Rams/Titans. I think Denver will move the ball well, but may struggle in the red zone while the Titans struggle for the better part of three quarters before mounting a comeback behind their mobile QB. No, Demaryius Thomas won’t beat Richard Sherman with a great move for a 73-yard touchdown like Isaac Bruce had, and there won’t be a bad slant from Wilson to Harvin that gets stopped at the 1-yard line, but I think that might be the Super Bowl this compares to best when it’s over.

COACHES

John Fox and Pete Carroll are two of the league’s better coaches. I don’t see any significant advantage in this area of the game. This isn’t like Jim “Bernie” Caldwell matching blank stares with the calculated, aggressive genius of Sean Payton. Both had equal time to prepare and like I said earlier, their strong units really are more about execution than the scheme.  Denver is usually a dominant second-half team, though that did start to slip after Fox had his heart surgery and Jack Del Rio took over on an interim basis. In the last four games, the Broncos have allowed a total of 16 points in the first three quarters (that’s 12 quarters total), and only 3 points in the last 3 games, but obviously the late prevent is giving up points.

I don’t put stock in preseason games. These teams haven’t met since 2010, but have changed dramatically from that year to the point where it’s not even worth any analysis.

One thing I did find interesting is how Seattle struggled with the AFC South this year. Indy beat them, Houston had them down big, the Titans were tied in the 4th quarter in Seattle and well, the Jags were the Jags. What’s interesting is Carroll never coached against that AFC South, which last played Seattle in the 2009 season, a year before Carroll was hired.

So unfamiliarity is an interesting topic in this game, but I imagine these teams will quickly get acquainted with each other Sunday night.

SPECIAL TEAMS

This favors Seattle, but it’s a game involving Peyton Manning, so what do you expect? Take the last 47 Super Bowls and the 94 teams and rank them by special teams performance on Super Sunday. I’d be shocked if the 2006 Colts and 2009 Colts didn’t rank 93rd and 94th. In 2006, the Colts allowed an opening-game kickoff score to Devin Hester, botched an extra point and missed an easy field goal in the first half. That’s an 11-point difference, which is the only reason the Colts didn’t win in a blowout. In 2009, the Colts had the third-worst starting field position in any playoff game I have studied (2nd worst for a Super Bowl) and of course Hank Baskett botched the onside kick recovery to start the third quarter. Matt Stover missed a long field goal in the fourth quarter while New Orleans’ Garrett Hartley was great on his long kicks.

Trindon Holliday has been very quiet and still hard to trust with fumbling.

I trust Matt Prater, who has missed twice all season (incl. playoffs), not to pull a Scott Norwood, but there will be no Denver altitude here. His ability to get touchbacks is another huge part of the game as Harvin is likely to get some opportunities to give Seattle great field position.

FIELD POSITION

Oh, and in case you missed it, Wilson’s had the best starting field position in the playoffs (34.81) of any quarterback I’ve studied, and this is in the era where starting at the 20 is oh so common. Manning (27.34) ranks 30th out of 32. Could be a lot more shorter fields for Seattle.

MANNING AFTER A BYE WEEK

I was asked by a few people how Manning’s done with a bye/extra week to prepare. I think that’s lessened in the Super Bowl when both teams have the same time, but here’s the table:

PMBYE

As you might expect, the results are favorable. Manning’s worst game was in his rookie year (his 8th career game). In the 23 games, Manning had at least 224 yards and scored at least 16 points all 23 times.

Oh noes, he’s 3-5 in the playoffs!!

Yeah, I think I’ve handled those games before. Not concerned with his play. He’ll be prepared.

MANNING VS. ELITE PASS DEFENSES

Clearly Denver did not get here with records by playing a tough defensive schedule. The highest-ranked pass defense Manning played was Kansas City (7th) twice. Of course, had the Chiefs not played Manning twice, they may have ranked in the top five, but it is what it is.

I had the table earlier about Manning against the top pass defenses, but that was for playoff teams and based on DPR. Based on DVOA, here’s Manning since 2003 against top 5 pass defenses (playoffs in blue, Weeks 16-17 rest games in tan):

PMT5DVOA

Again, a lot of favorable results.

Since I’m getting into “Manning table” mode, might as well jump into the next section before I make my final prediction.

PEYTON MANNING’S LEGACY

She’d have been a legend with or without that god damn song.Quote from a bad movie that works better in a song

I promised I was not going to walk down Idiocy Boulevard with another Peyton Manning Super Bowl appearance. I spent the week on it four years ago when the narrative was “with a win on Sunday, Manning will be the greatest quarterback in NFL history!”

That’s a label that will never reach a consensus, and there’s nothing to stop me from already saying Manning is the greatest ever regardless of what happens on Sunday. We know even with a win, all it will take is a close playoff loss at home next year coupled with a Tom Brady Super Bowl win for the conversation to change again. I’ll just let 15 years of evidence speak for itself when I talk about who is the greatest.

When asked about his legacy this week, Manning had the perfect response:

“If I had my choice, what my legacy would be, would be that I played my butt off for every team that I ever played on, I was a really good teammate and I did everything I could to win. Whatever happens along in that time is fine with me. Those are things that I care about.” – Peyton Manning

That’s basically become my go-to argument for Manning over the years. No quarterback has ever done more to put his team in a position to win regardless of circumstances. That’s all you can ask for from the quarterback in this team game.

Now don’t get me wrong. Winning on Sunday night by any means necessary would be huge for Manning — about as huge of a win as any quarterback could ever have. There’s far more to gain with a win and hardly nothing to lose with a loss this week for Manning.

Becoming the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams would be the perfect accomplishment for Manning’s career. It proves his style works and that he was able to transplant it perfectly from Indianapolis to Denver, even after four neck surgeries. He’d have won it his way (twice), not putting the share of the offense on a young running back like his boss John Elway did at the end of his career. He’d put a cherry on top to the greatest quarterback season ever, even surpassing what Joe Montana did in 1989 with a loaded San Francisco team. Montana was very good in Kansas City, but he wasn’t dominant like Manning’s been in Denver. Brett Favre’s first year in Minnesota was great, but how did the encore go?

Can anyone picture Tom Brady, without Bill Belichick, going to any of the 31 other teams in the league and having the type of impact Manning’s had in Denver? Not a chance. Manning’s in his third Super Bowl with his third head coach. Someone like Bart Starr was an embarrassment without Vince Lombardi. Manning’s impact on a whole team is unlike any other quarterback’s impact.

Yet somehow being “the best regular-season quarterback” has become an insult. The same regular season that makes up 91.3 percent of Manning’s career starts somehow takes a backseat to the postseason, where Manning has been one of the best playoff quarterbacks by every measure except the one he has the least control over: the win-loss record. He can get over .500 with a win and pick up his 12th playoff win (sixth most).

By recognizing Manning as the greatest regular-season quarterback ever, you’ve just eliminated over 99 percent of the competition for the GOAT. And there is no argument against that either. No quarterback has ever been so individually decorated with 5 MVP awards, 7 1st-Team All-Pro selections and 13 Pro Bowls. He has the records and longevity to back that up.

For those who care about more intangible things, a record 13 postseason berths (#winning) and changing the standards of the game with regards to the no-huddle offense and how to call plays is more than enough proof of his legacy.

So at the end of the day, we’re talking about the postseason. Manning will pass Brady for the most passing yards in playoff history, doing so in three fewer games. He’s already engineered some of the best playoff games in NFL history, including the largest comeback in a championship game ever. With one more win, he would have beaten the league’s No. 1 defense in the playoffs in all three of his Super Bowl runs. If Manning should lead a game-winning drive against Seattle, it would be his 52nd, moving him past Dan Marino for the all-time record.

Then there’s the fact that no leader in passing yards has ever won a Super Bowl (0-47). Manning would do that, all while likely throwing over 60 touchdowns and for over 6,400 yards (another record). Of all the 48 Super Bowl wins, this one would be the most quarterback-dependent of them all.

That’s a hell of a lot to gain from one game, so no pressure, Peyton. But even if he comes up short, show me another quarterback capable of having a chance to accomplish all of these things.

I do not expect Manning to retire even with a win, but there would never be a better opportunity to go out on top. There is nothing he has left to prove, and that’s just as true on February 1 as it will be tomorrow night.

THE NUMBER 24

I think the number 24 is huge in this game, and that’s not really a reference to Marshawn Lynch. I’m talking about points. Seattle’s only exceeded that point threshold in half of their games (9 games with 27+, 9 games with <24). Denver’s hit 24+ in 17/18 games and can join the 1983 Raiders as the only teams to score 20+ in 19/19 games.

It’s very difficult to score that much on Seattle, but if any offense can do it, it’s this one. The Seahawks have allowed 24+ points only five times since 2012 and they are 1-4 in those games with an overtime win over Tampa Bay this year.

If Denver has even one of its worst games of the season, that should still force Seattle to have to score 24+ to get the win.

FINAL PREDICTION

So what more can I even say? A lot of the numbers and history tell me to go with the Seahawks, because they’re the more balanced team for both offense/defense and run/pass. They’re younger and more physical. They’re even better on special teams and have the health bonus (though it’s no given Harvin lasts long). The offensive juggernaut with the MVP QB tends to flame out against the No. 1 scoring defense, which is 12-3 in the big game.

I tried to hide the heart from the head.Rites of Spring

I make no secrets about it: I want Manning to win. I love having a real rooting interest in the Super Bowl and have been fortunate to have a lot of them in the last decade.

But I really do like Denver’s chances this week. I just don’t love them and can see many reasons why Seattle could (should?) win the game.

In the end I see Denver protecting a 4-point lead and the most fitting ending would have to be a Hail Mary from Russell Wilson. Fans of Wisconsin and the Packers know how big that play has been in his football career. It’s the play both teams have to overcome from last season. Golden Tate needs a Hail Mary everyone believes he caught. The Broncos need to get over the Rahim Moore debacle. Knock it down if there’s no one trailing the play. I really do think it comes down to the last drive, producing an instant classic.

It’s a game like this that makes you wish the NFL would stop all talks of expanding the playoff field and instead make a best-of-3 Super Bowl.

Win or lose, Seattle should be the favorite to win it all next season. This is Denver’s best chance as the roster is going to experience a lot of changes. Denver started the season in historic fashion with a 7 TD takedown of the defending champions. Why not end it with another groundbreaking performance over a proud defense?

Final prediction: Broncos 24, Seahawks 20

Super Bowl MVP: Peyton Manning

2013 NFL Predictions

It’s time the tale were told…of how I see the 2013 NFL season unfolding. With some help from The Smiths, each team gets a song title to summarize the theme of their season, a key fact and the record I predicted by going through each game of the season.

Here are last year’s picks. You can bookmark this and shove it in my face when it goes horribly wrong, but I was not accounting for future injuries and at least I stuck my neck out there with a vision of what is virtually unpredictable.

NFC EAST

1. New York Giants (10-6)

The Smiths say: “What Difference Does It Make?”

The Fact: Tom Coughlin’s Giants have started 5-2 or better in nine consecutive seasons, tying the NFL record (1975-83 Cowboys).

Every year we know this team gets off to a strong start, hits a midseason slump, then it’s a matter of recovering for a Super Bowl run or missing the playoffs entirely. The Giants have actually missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. Many of the key pieces return, so that should help. At the end of the day, it does not matter what happens all season. With the NFC East, it will come down to the Week 17 game in New Jersey between the Giants and Redskins. I have the Giants winning that one, hence the division title.

2. Washington Redskins (10-6)

The Smiths say: “These Things Take Time”

The Fact: According to Football Outsiders, the 2012 Redskins used play-action passing more than any offense since 2005 (about 42%).

Operation patience indeed. However, the Redskins are wasting no time in bringing Robert Griffin III back from the ACL injury. He did not finish three games due to injury last season. That’s as many as Peyton Manning (0), Tom Brady (1) and Aaron Rodgers (2) have combined for their careers. I want to see him take better care of himself as he took many big hits when running. I also want to see him improve in obvious passing situations. RG3 saw his passing YPA drop to 5.84 on third down compared to 8.98 on all other downs. That’s a massive difference. The offense will still be efficient and balanced, the defense should get better with Brian Orakpo’s return, but I still have too many questions about this team before picking them to reach the next level. These things do take time.

3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

The Smiths say: “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (video)

The Fact: Jason Garrett has coached 40 games for Dallas (21-19 record). Twenty-eight times the Cowboys and/or their opponent had the ball in the fourth quarter in a one-score game. Eleven times the Cowboys lost by surrendering a game-winning drive.

I was drinking the Dallas Kool-Aid last season. They sure sweeten it each year as no matter if the team is coming off consecutive 8-8 seasons or the fact they have one playoff win since 1997, the Cowboys are always in the spotlight. I know Romo’s better than most give him credit for. He is the highest-rated fourth-quarter passer in NFL history (100.7 passer rating including playoffs) and he did have five comebacks last year to make Week 17 relevant. Dez Bryant’s a star, Monte Kiffin should get more out of the defense than Rob Ryan ever could, but there’s still too many holes on the offensive line and the general inconsistent play from this team that I cannot pick anything better than 8-8 again for them.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”

The Fact: When expanding out the Bill Walsh Coaching Tree, 28 of the 32 current head coaches fit on its branches. Chip Kelly is the only to have no NFL coaching experience.

I know there’s real excitement for Oregon’s Chip Kelly making the jump to the NFL, but I just do not see the impact in year one, especially with a declining quarterback like Michael Vick as the starter. Turnovers have killed the Eagles since the late portion of the 2010 season. This must be cleaned up, but Vick running a quick-decision, gimmicky offense sounds like a recipe for disaster. Three-and-out much? I hope Kelly finds himself the right quarterback as I would like to see what innovations he can bring to the NFL.

AFC EAST

1. New England Patriots (12-4)

The Smiths say: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

The Fact: Patriots have played all 12 teams to make the Super Bowl since 2006. They are 5-11 in those games (0-5 since 2011). They are 2-9 against the eventual champion.

You can put 12 wins in the bank for New England. A white, undrafted slot receiver from Texas Tech will lead the team in targets and receptions. Rob Gronkowski will return, dominate and probably get hurt again. The running game and offensive line will be great. The defense will play a bend-but-don’t-break style and rely on takeaways and big stops. Then in the playoffs, the Patriots will lose in a game they were favored to win over a team they played much better against in the regular season. If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is in large part what the team has done over the last eight years since last winning a Super Bowl. This year just throws in a murder plot to shake things up. The seven playoff exits have all come to teams the Patriots played in the regular season. New England will play Denver, Houston, Baltimore and the NFC South this season.

2. Miami Dolphins (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”

The Fact: Dolphins are the only team since 2000 to not have a quarterback pass for either 4,000 yards or throw more than 20 touchdowns.

The falsely reported demise of the Patriots seemed to favor Miami more than anyone in the East, but this division looks awful to me once you get past New England. Mike Wallace is a high-priced signing the Dolphins will learn to regret. Sure, he’ll help out an offense who had three touchdown passes to wide receivers in 2012, but he will not run every route and will not adjust to the ball as well as Brian Hartline did last year. Ryan Tannehill’s improvement is the biggest factor for this team, but I still see the offense holding them back from doing anything significant.

3. Buffalo Bills (3-13)

The Smiths say: “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” (video)

The Fact: Buffalo is the only NFL team who has failed to make the playoffs since 2000.

But sometimes I’d feel more fulfilled, making Christmas cards with the mentally ill.

Honestly, the Bills corrode my soul. For as long as I have been following the NFL closely, they are as boring as any team. They are onto their sixth era in terms of a coach/quarterback since having Marv Levy/Jim Kelly. This team did spend many resources on the defensive line, fired defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt (always a good idea) and they have some exciting skill players in Stevie Johnson and C.J. Spiller. There’s something to build on here, but where’s the quarterback? EJ Manuel was an iffy pick as the first quarterback off the board at No. 16, which usually means bad things, and now he’s hurt. Jeff Tuel? An impending Week 1 massacre at the hands of the Patriots could send this team on a downward spiral to where they are wondering how good Teddy Bridgewater would look in Buffalo.

4. New York Jets (3-13)

The Smiths say: “Bigmouth Strikes Again”

The Fact: Games involving the 2009, 2010 and 2012 Jets account for the three lowest completion percentages (team and opponent combined) in the NFL since 2005. The 2011 Jets rank 10th. That’s a sample size of 256 teams.

With Miami’s offense in the post-Marino era, the Bills and the Jets, it’s no wonder New England has owned this division since 2001. I think this is the end of the road for Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez in New York. It almost has to be. They made a run at it the first two years, but it’s time to blow this thing up and start over. Trading away your best player in Darrelle Revis was one of those steps, but there’s more to be done. Ryan should stick to being a defensive coordinator. Sanchez may want to see if ESPN will start him over Jesse Palmer in the booth.

NFC NORTH

1. Green Bay Packers (12-4)

The Smiths say: “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”

The Fact: Aaron Rodgers is 0-18 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities against teams .500 or better.

As long as Rodgers is playing at a high level, you have to like the Packers in this division. One of the most competitive teams in the league, there were some cracks last year against the Giants and 49ers. That’s worrisome as we already know too well about this team’s failure in close games. They usually do not get blown out, but the stunningly bad playoff loss in San Francisco was an eye opener.

It looks clear that 2010 was the outlier for Green Bay, especially in regards to Dom Capers’ defense. In 2009, the Packers were lit up by elite quarterbacks and allowed 45 points in regulation to Arizona in the playoffs. The Giants scored 37 in Green Bay in the 2011 NFC Divisional, including a Hail Mary before halftime. Then last season, Colin Kaepernick ran for a NFL QB-record 181 yards and piles up 45 points and 579 yards in his playoff debut. The regular season is not a big challenge, but good luck to this team avoiding all those talented NFC teams in the playoffs who have the right pieces to beat them.

2. Chicago Bears (9-7)

The Smiths say: “Well I Wonder”

The Fact: Marc Trestman has worked under 11 different NFL head coaches before finally getting his first crack at the job.

Chicago is one of the teams that interest me as there are some real unknowns here with Trestman coming over from the CFL. Yes, he has plenty of NFL experience, but this is his first year on the job and the first time Chicago’s gone offensive-minded at coach in decades. There’s no more Brian Urlacher on the defense and Jay Cutler may have his best offense in place. This team has potential to make the playoffs, but Cutler’s lack of career progression and the expected regression on defense keeps them at 9-7 and out of the playoffs for me. But this is a major dark horse candidate who could be exciting to watch.

3. Detroit Lions (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Pretty Girls Make Graves”

The Fact: Matthew Stafford is 1-23 against teams with a winning record.

I wanted to pick a few more wins for this team after last year’s close losses, but the schedule was too tough, which brings us to the fact. I wanted to pick something different since I have used this one so much this offseason, but it’s still very much a defining part of this Jim Schwartz/Stafford era. Detroit cannot beat the good teams and the Lions will likely be playing many of them this season with this schedule. The song title references how the Lions have a history of a great skill player (Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson) dominating each year in stunning fashion, but at the end of the day that individual greatness cannot compensate for overall team weakness.

4. Minnesota Vikings (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Accept Yourself”

The Fact: Minnesota played with the lead 58.7 percent of the time (credit to Chase Stuart’s research) in 2012, which ranked second.

This is one projection I have not sugarcoated. I think the Vikings overachieved with the 10-6 record. I think the defense is mediocre and not improved enough or good enough to play with the lead as often this year. I do not believe in dink-and-dunk Christian Ponder, who has to shine for this team to take the next step as Adrian Peterson will not be as great this year. He’s superhuman if he does. The “constant eight-man front” stuff is still a myth. I also hated the Cordarrelle Patterson trade-up pick and the Greg Jennings signing for that matter.

I do at least love second-year kicker Blair Walsh. Add it all up and I see double-digit losses with that schedule and this roster.

AFC NORTH

1. Cincinnati Bengals (13-3)

The Smiths say: “The Headmaster Ritual”

The Fact: Cincinnati’s 22-year drought without a playoff win is the fifth longest in the Super Bowl era.

It’s not even funny how uncomfortable I feel giving the Bengals 13 wins, but it’s probably just me trying to build too specific of a story in the AFC as you will see. I do think this team has the potential to field the best defense in the league. Andy Dalton was horrific on third down (converted 28.3%), but maybe adding TE Tyler Eifert and a third year with stud A.J. Green and others will aid a breakout season. The AFC is very top heavy.

It also should be do-or-die time for Marvin Lewis as I cannot see him returning without either a first-round bye or a playoff win. Ten years in one place without a playoff win has only been done by Jim Mora (New Orleans). Lewis would be at 11 years if the Bengals fail again this postseason, assuming they get there. It would be a franchise first to make the playoffs three years in a row.

2. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

The Smiths say: “I Know It’s Over” (video)

The Fact: Baltimore has won a playoff game in five consecutive seasons. Only the 1991-96 Dallas Cowboys won at least one playoff game in six consecutive seasons.

The last seven defending Super Bowl champions have failed to win a single playoff game. It truly is a whole new season, and it should be easier for the Ravens to accept that last year was the past. Look at the partial list of players who have left the team: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Anquan Boldin, Bernard Pollard, Stringer Bell, etc. Everyone’s leaving Baltimore, which might make it the rich Joe Flacco’s team, but is he great enough to carry them? Fortunately the defense may be better and Terrell Suggs probably has a big enough mouth to fire the team up before the game.

I still have Baltimore making the playoffs, but they will not advance once this time. I think last year was reaching the summit after a five-year journey and things will be much different moving forward as they try to return.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)

The Smiths say: “Cemetry Gates”

The Fact: Steelers have been on a pattern of playoffs-playoffs-no playoffs every year since 2001. Last year was the “no playoffs” year.

My uncle does not have the internet and he wanted me to let you know that “you heard it here first” that the Steelers will not even be a .500 team, which last happened in 2003 (6-10). Even if they finish 7-9, he may end up more right than I am as I already regret this pick of 10 wins. I just think the schedule is very favorable, though when do the Steelers ever capitalize on all of the winnable games on their schedule? The offensive line also looks to be as bad as ever, which is really saying something given past standards. It’s also not smart to pick three teams to win 10+ games in the same division, but so be it.

The AFC has, at best, eight quality teams, and I still have the Steelers missing the playoffs on tie-breakers with teams like the Ravens and Colts. The core talent is here to win now, but the problem is so much of it is brittle and susceptible to injury at any moment. Then without proper depth, you lose games. This defense is on borrowed time and Ben Roethlisberger’s not getting any younger. Any shot at doing something great must be realized now before it’s too late.

4. Cleveland Browns (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Unloveable”

The Fact: The Browns have lost 11+ games in five straight seasons.

Different year, same old shit. Okay, so a few more touchdowns, a better year from Trent Richardson and an improved defense, but still a very incomplete project.

NFC SOUTH

1. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

The Smiths say: “How Soon Is Now?” (video)

The Fact: No team has won the NFC South in consecutive years, but the Falcons (5) now have the longest streak ever of consecutive winning seasons by any of the four teams in the division.

How soon is now? Clearly it’s Super Bowl or bust as Tony Gonzalez plans to retire after the year (for good, I assume). That will leave an awfully big hole in this offense without any real replacement or great receiver depth after the great Roddy White and Julio Jones. This is Matt Ryan’s year to shine (again). If he is the next Peyton Manning, then year six (2003) was a huge climb to MVP status, so let’s see what Ryan can do with a familiar offense that has added Steven Jackson, who should only be a marginal upgrade to Michael Turner. The defense is shaky, but they usually play well at home. I do not expect them to repeat as the No. 1 seed as no team has claimed the league’s best record in back-to-back years since the 1989-90 49ers.

I expect big things from this team.

2. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

The Smiths say: “Back to the Old House”

The Fact: Games involving the 2012 Saints included 13,616 yards of offense; the most in NFL history.

Sean Payton’s back, so is everything okay in New Orleans? Not quite if we are talking about Super Bowl aspirations. The defense is very much a work in progress, and Rob Ryan was a terrible hire if you ask me. Losing so many players to injury (Victor Butler, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma) is a bad start to the year for a unit who will likely hold the team back in the end. Expecting a more efficient year from Drew Brees now that he has a real coach again.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Shoplifters of the World Unite” (video)

The Fact: Since winning Super Bowl XXXVII, Tampa Bay is 69-91 (.431) in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs.

Last year the offense was revamped by bringing in Vincent Jackson and drafting Doug Martin. The Buccaneers went at it again on defense this time with the trade for Darrelle Revis and big signing of Dashon Goldson. Stealing those assets from other teams should help a defense who really struggled against the pass. This is another team I wanted to pick more wins for, but it’s hard to predict much more than six. The schedule’s tough and Josh Freeman’s wildly inconsistent. Maybe an improved defense will help him settle down, knowing he has a running game and does not have to score as many points to win.

4. Carolina Panthers (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Nowhere Fast”

The Fact: Cam Newton is 2-15 (.118) at game-winning drive opportunities; the worst record among active starters.

The Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era has been plagued by an inability to close games. I was surprised to come back with a 5-11 record, as I see a team who improved on defense, but changed really nothing on offense. For that reason, the offense should be very similar, which is sometimes a good thing. Do not buy into the read-option myth. If this team could have closed more games in crunch time the last two years, they would have won 9-10 games. If they play the same way this year and do close, they can win 9-10, but still I come up with 5-11. We must see improvement from Newton and the bleeding must stop late in the game or else Rivera will be fired. I also fear for this offense should Steve Smith (34) suddenly fall off. They have not developed any other receivers and the running backs are overpaid and underutilized.

AFC SOUTH

1. Houston Texans (13-3)

The Smiths say: “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”

The Fact: Against playoff teams, Matt Schaub is 11-24 (.314) as a starter, including a 7-11 record since 2010.

Before the Colts find more talent to put around Andrew Luck, these are crucial seasons for Houston, who has gone from expansion to .500 to a team who expects to be in Super Bowl contention. Matt Schaub was hurt in 2011, while the defense had no answers for Tom Brady and similar quarterbacks last year. That’s a problem when you play in the AFC. Houston has to get over the hump by beating a team better than Cincinnati in the postseason. This year should provide another chance as I think they should have a better team after finally adding a wide receiver to pair up with Andre Johnson, J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the NFL, Brian Cushing is back and the running game is still going to be very good. They just need to finish the job and play some more home games in January. Falling to the No. 3 seed was a killer in 2012.

2. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)

The Smiths say: “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”

The Fact: Indianapolis has 32 takeaways since 2011; the fewest in any two-season span in NFL history.

Many will want to pick the Colts to regress sharply after last season’s crazy results, but this schedule looks pretty favorable to me. In fact Football Outsiders predicts it to be the easiest in the league. The Colts may start no better than 4-4, but there’s not a game in the second half of the season they cannot win. I see 10 wins and another Wild Card as Andrew Luck plays more efficiently under Pep Hamilton, T.Y. Hilton takes some of the torch from Reggie Wayne and at least one of the young tight ends explodes. It would be nice if the defense could actually get some takeaways for a change, but that unit’s going to be a work in progress as will the marginally-improved offensive line.

This is the team of the future in the AFC, but they just do not have the talent or track record right now to be in serious contention for Super Bowl XLVIII.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)

The Smiths say: “London” and “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”

The Fact: Cecil Shorts and Vincent Jackson (TB) were the only receivers with at least 50 receptions, 900 yards, 7 touchdowns and 17.0 YPC in 2012. (Hey, we’re looking for a positive.)

The Jaguars get two songs, because the jokes about moving the team to London have not stopped. It’s a sign that this team needs to get back to winning to end that silliness. They seem to be moving in the right direction with a new coach and some franchise-type talent on the offensive side of the ball, but it’s going to come down to the quarterback. I do not believe in Blaine Gabbert as the long-term answer, but the next quarterback may be. How would Tajh Boyd feel about Jacksonville?

4. Tennessee Titans (4-12)

The Smiths say: “Panic” (video)

The Fact: Tennessee was odd in that it had a 3-2 record at comeback opportunities, yet finished 6-10 overall. That is due to having six losses by at least 21 points, which was the highest total in 2012.

As has been my customary line on the Titans lately, I have no idea what Mike Munchak wants from this team. Jake Locker is a mobile, inaccurate quarterback, yet they keep drafting all kinds of receivers for him to miss. Chris Johnson is annoyingly boom-or-bust and the defense was dreadful last season. There’s just no sense of direction here and nothing on this roster that gets you excited about the future. Maybe this is the Jadeveon Clowney destination.

NFC WEST

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

The Smiths say: “You’ve Got Everything Now”

The Fact: Seattle outscored its last eight opponents 272-111 (+161). Only the 2010 Patriots (+174) and 1984 49ers (+177) finished a regular season in more dominant fashion.

Well, I did pick Seattle to be the league’s next dynasty, so winning a division title would be a step in the right direction. The Seahawks are loaded and could be the league’s most balanced team in terms of the run and pass over both sides of the ball. They finished 2012 in great fashion with Russell Wilson playing out of his mind. He’s not a rookie anymore and you can win a Super Bowl with a sophomore quarterback. They return the same offense for the most part. Should Percy Harvin return late in the season, that’s just an added dimension to this offense. If this team gets home-field advantage, watch out NFC.

2. San Francisco 49ers (12-4)

The Smiths say: “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours”

The Fact: Including playoffs and excluding kneel downs, Colin Kaepernick averaged 8.77 YPA passing and 8.75 YPC rushing in 2012.

No team may have a more poetic song choice than the 49ers, for if they would have called better plays in the red zone in the Super Bowl, they may have been 6-0 in the big game. The red zone has been a serious issue for this offense the last two years. It’s really one of the few flaws for Jim Harbaugh’s squad, which dominates the trenches, turnovers and running game. Colin Kaepernick was incredible in his shortened season, making his first full year as a starter one of the most anticipated ever. With some offseason injuries, I think Seattle pulls out the head-to-head games to allow for them to win the division, but we could see a third matchup between these two.

3. St. Louis Rams (6-10)

The Smiths say: “Stretch Out and Wait”

The Fact: After beating the Cardinals to go to 3-2 last season, the Rams ended a 71-month streak of not being over .500.

Sort of like the Dolphins of the NFC. This is just not a team I believe in right now. Sam Bradford must show franchise-caliber play, because if it does not happen by year four (where he’s at now), then it rarely ever does. Bradford is 2-21-1 (.104) when the Rams allow more than 17 points. They have added more weapons around him, but he is still the one operating things. The defense should keep them in many games, but I think most teams on the Rams’ schedule are better than they are, hence another losing record.

4. Arizona Cardinals (5-11)

The Smiths say: “Paint a Vulgar Picture”

The Fact: Arizona led the league with a 71.2 defensive passer rating; the highest rating ever for a league leader.

This is another one I feel strongly about. If Bruce Arians does not adjust his usual style of offense, it will be a disaster in Arizona. Carson Palmer cannot do the things Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck did under pressure. The king of garbage time will find Larry Fitzgerald with the ball quite a bit, but issues in the red zone and a lack of a good tight end will hurt the scoring numbers. Not to mention the offensive line still stinks and guard Jonathan Cooper is done for the year with a broken leg. The defense is also going to regress from last season, so any offensive improvement will likely be negated. I can’t see any more than six wins from this team.

AFC WEST

1. Denver Broncos (13-3)

The Smiths say: “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” (video)

The Fact: In games where he had a fourth-quarter lead since 2006, Peyton Manning is 74-5 (.937) in the regular season and 6-5 (.545) in the playoffs. The 74-5 includes a 40-5 record when protecting a one-score lead.

Teams give us a million reasons to not pick them to win the Super Bowl, but only a few reasons to pick them. If you did not already know, Denver has been my Super Bowl pick all year. They certainly had a discouraging offseason from executives with DUIs, Elvis Dumervil’s fax fiasco, Von Miller’s six-game suspension, injuries to notable players and more bad fumble luck in the preseason. Brandon Stokley has joined Dumervil in Baltimore, so Wes Welker cannot afford to get hurt.

Is it not all about finishing in the playoffs for this team? We know Manning can lead a team to 10 wins blindfolded. Miller will be back soon enough and fresher. Denver will play many notable games in the regular season.  It’s just a matter of finishing in January, because Manning will put this team in a position to do so. He’s had a fourth-quarter lead in 11 straight playoff games. That’s never been done. The fact his teams are 6-5 in those games is appalling. Just look at the fact above.

Good times for a change. See, the luck I’ve had can make a good man turn bad.

What more can I say about the BS Manning playoff narrative? (Don’t worry, I will have more in January on it). No quarterback has had more bad luck with things happening out of his control. It’s gotten to the point where in a big game, you should expect him to play well, but something unusual is going to happen that will lead to a loss. Rahim Moore was about as unusual as it gets last season, but that also got me thinking.

Sometimes you have to suffer a bad defeat to come back stronger the next year. Baltimore’s loss in New England in 2011 was as hard as they get with Lee Evans not holding onto the ball and then Billy Cundiff missing the field goal. They rebounded. The Giants blew their season in 2010 by giving up a 21-point lead to Philadelphia (that’s bad enough) before the DeSean Jackson punt return touchdown. They rebounded. Aaron Rodgers missed a game-winning touchdown pass and then had a fumble-six in Arizona in 2009. They rebounded.

Look at Manning’s 2005 Colts, who like the 2012 Broncos, won at least 11 straight games by 7+ points. They both lost the first playoff game in epic fashion. The 2006 Colts rebounded. Manning led an efficient offense and terrible defense in the regular season, but the defense actually showed up for the playoffs. That’s all he wants to see again this year. I do think Denver’s defense will be mediocre, but if Miller comes back and they get hot late, that’s all you need to win a championship.

Manning is 77-0 in games he finishes when his team allows 0-16 points. He doesn’t even need that strong of an effort. Just protect the lead in the playoffs for a change. All five of his playoff losses since 2007 have been comebacks by the opponent.

What Denver must avoid is letting last year’s Baltimore loss beat them twice. Do not get too overly aggressive in the four-minute offense with the lead. Do not get too crazy with the blitz on defense. Just play smart, which Rahim Moore failed to do. The talent is on this team, who can be their own worst enemy at times, to win a championship. They can win any game they play.

But if winning the Super Bowl is about getting hot late, then maybe a slow start is exactly what this team needs. I still ended up giving them 13 wins, but I strategically placed them into the No. 3 seed. If winning a Super Bowl means overcoming adversity, Denver has certainly set up a path to do that this season.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

The Smiths say: “Is It Really So Strange?”

The Fact: The Chiefs have gone 414 games since a quarterback they drafted started and won a regular-season game. That will continue after the Alex Smith trade.

After the worst season in franchise history and holding the No. 1 pick, the Chiefs are actually in a good position to get to .500 right away. 8-8 is the record I have consistently paired them with this offseason. There’s potential for more in a weak division and conference. The roster has been turned over a lot with new additions at the key jobs of coach and quarterback. Andy Reid and Alex Smith are a good match, but time will tell if it’s great. Reid has been mostly mediocre since the Super Bowl loss and Smith only has 1.5 seasons of quality play on his track record. Still, it should make fans forget about the misery of last season.

3. San Diego Chargers (7-9)

The Smiths say: “Still Ill”

The Fact:  Philip Rivers is 2-19 in his last 21 game-winning drive opportunities. He’s turned the ball over 16 times in the clutch in those losses.

There’s not too much that Rivers needs to fix in general. His failures have been largely situational since 2010 (red zone and close games). It’s hard to fully blame the evaporating talent around him when he can look great for three quarters and turn into a pumpkin in the fourth. Just look at that Tampa Bay game last year as a great example. Only a handful of Rivers’ interceptions have been under pressure the last two years. This team has been in position to win many games since 2010, but he has turned the ball over late in historic fashion with unparalleled consistency. I am not sure Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt are the right offensive minds to fix this, but I do think the Chargers will win about seven games again.

4. Oakland Raiders (2-14)

The Smiths say: “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” (video)

The Fact: It has been 10 straight seasons in Oakland of not winning and not making the playoffs. At least the NFL record is 20 (1967-86 Saints).

How do you make an awful team (2012 Raiders who swept Kansas City to get to 4-12) even worse? You do whatever Oakland has done to chop this roster down into one of the least talented in recent memory. Two wins sounds like a good ceiling for this squad. At least it should bring in the No. 1 pick, which probably should be Teddy Bridgewater. Then again, many smart football minds had Matt Barkley going No. 1 a year ago at this time. But really Oakland, get a quarterback and then your roster moves won’t look so bad. The black hole of losing is going to continue until that guy is found.

PLAYOFFS

AFC

  • 1. Houston (13-3)
  • 2. Cincinnati (13-3)
  • 3. Denver (13-3)
  • 4. New England (12-4)
  • 5. Baltimore (10-6)
  • 6. Indianapolis (10-6)

Yep, the same six teams from last year, though the AFC has been shaping up this way the last few years. Talk about some dream matchups with Andrew Luck going to Denver and a rematch of Patriots/Ravens on Wild Card weekend. Like 2006, Manning and Brady will pull off the road wins on Divisional weekend and meet in Denver for the AFC Championship. Hard to top the classic that was that game, but this could do it as Denver gets the high-scoring win.

NFC

  • 1. Seattle (12-4)
  • 2. Green Bay (12-4)
  • 3. Atlanta (11-5)
  • 4. New York (10-6)
  • 5. San Francisco (12-4)
  • 6. New Orleans (11-5)

We’ll call this the Atlanta Revenge Tour. They beat the Saints in the Wild Card game. San Francisco gets swept by the Seahawks to lose the division, but spoils their season with a win in Seattle. The Falcons make Green Bay go one-and-done (2010 payback). Then in a rematch of last year’s NFC Championship, the Falcons hold on this time to down the 49ers.

SUPER BOWL XLVIII

Denver Broncos 24, Atlanta Falcons 13

Last year’s No. 1 seeds, they overcome adversity as No. 3 seeds this year to meet in the Super Bowl. I have compared the 2012 Broncos to the 1996 Broncos before. This will be a mixture of the 1997-98 teams. You have the Super Bowl between the veteran (Manning) and the young gun (Ryan). You have Denver and Atlanta (Super Bowl XXXIII rematch). Manning will hope the “retiring player winning a Super Bowl” thing does not happen to him for a third time (Jerome Bettis and Ray Lewis) with Gonzalez.

Oh and the game will be in New Jersey in February. It’s the same site the Falcons scored 0 offensive points in a loss to the Giants. Bad weather would hurt both of these pass-heavy teams, which should hopefully signal the end of having a Super Bowl in cold, outdoor stadiums.

In the end, Manning leads Denver to the sloppy win, ensuring that detractors can complain about his Super Bowl MVP after winning the two worst weather games in Super Bowl history. Always having that distinction as being the first quarterback to lead two franchises to a Super Bowl is the best thing you can have if you were not fortunate enough to be on a team who won 3-4 rings.

More than any team, that’s a lot of specific Denver predictions, but this is just my vision, my story of the 2013 season. There are countless possibilities to get from Thursday night to Super Bowl XLVIII.

Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.