By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) – If styles make fights, as they used to say in the heyday of world championship boxing, Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks would be billed as the “Fight of the Century.”
Call it the Irresistible Force vs the Immovable Object as Peyton Manning and the National Football League’s top-ranked Denver offense go toe-to-toe against Richard Sherman and the No. 1 rated Seattle defense in an East Rutherford, New Jersey, winter setting at MetLife Stadium.
Manning, in the argument as professional football’s greatest quarterback, set NFL records for most passing yards and most touchdown passes in a season for the 13-3 Broncos, who averaged 38 points a game.
Sherman, the trash-talking cornerback who led the NFL in interceptions, is the face of a supremely effective Seattle defense that limited opposition offenses to a mere 14 points a game in the Seahawks’ 13-3 campaign.
The points margin is the widest in 48 Super Bowls and fuels speculation on whether either team can impose their will.
Profiles of those impressive opposing units set up a fascinating study of strength against strength in a game where Denver is rated a slight favorite.
Gunning to become the first starting quarterback to win Super Bowl titles with two different teams, following an NFL title with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning has a brilliant quartet of receivers to throw to.
The cerebral quarterback, renowned for figuring out the best options against a defense in the moments prior to the snap, has been an equal opportunity thrower.
Targets Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas have each caught at least 60 passes and registered at least 10 touchdowns.
As daunting as those combinations are, they are up against the most formidable part of Seattle’s stifling defense.
Sherman and fellow Pro Bowlers Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor at safety, along with cornerback Byron Maxwell, often dare quarterbacks to throw their way with tight man-to-man coverage confident in their own ball-hawking skills.
A classic drop-back quarterback, Manning uses his quick mind and quick release to stay a beat ahead of pass-rushers and after Denver led the regular season in fewest sacks allowed, he has not been sacked once this postseason.
Seattle uses a deep rotation of defensive linemen, including sack leaders Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, to apply pressure.
Making Manning uncomfortable is a Seattle goal.
“It’s really about his timing,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “He’s so quick with the football and his decision making is so precise, that the ball’s just not in his hands long enough to get there, for the most part.
“We can’t give into that. We have to rush the passer, we have to try to get him off the spot, we have to try to move him, and to get that done, we’re going to have to cover them (receivers) very well.”
Weather conditions and officiating could impact the tantalizing clash.
While seasonable temperatures have been forecast for Sunday, the strength of winds that often swirl around the stadium built on swamplands is a wild card.
Gusting winds could impair Manning, whose arm strength is not of the highest order, drawing Sherman to comment on the wobbly “ducks” that the Broncos quarterback sometimes throws.
A closely called game in which officials crack down on overly physical play, could cost the super aggressive play of Seattle defenders.
When Seattle has the ball, second-year quarterback Russell Wilson manages a ball-control attack but is capable of producing a big play with his skills as a scrambler and has tied for the most wins ever by an NFL quarterback in his first two seasons.
The go-to man is bruising running back Marshawn Lynch, who after an uncomfortable week fidgeting and ducking from the glare of media attention will finally get to do what comes naturally for him – run with the ball.
Lynch’s power runs set up throws by Russell to a solid crew of receivers including Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and big-play threat Percy Harvin.
Harvin, signed to a $67 million contract before the season, has played in parts of just two games for Seattle due to injuries but is raring to go, and hopes to pay dividends in the Super Bowl as a receiver, runner and kick returner.
Both teams are dangerous on special teams, with Seattle holding an edge, and a long kickoff or punt return could sway the balance in what many observers expect to be a taut battle.
“The number one scoring offense against the number one scoring defense. The running game of Seattle versus the passing of the Broncos,” Gil Brandt, the former long-time personnel chief of the Dallas Cowboys, summarized when asked by Reuters to evaluate the game.
Brandt said chilled fans might get to see a Super Bowl first on Sunday.
“This might be the first overtime game we ever play,” he concluded.
COACHES: UNEXPECTED LIKELY TO DECIDE SUPER BOWL
Look for the unexpected to determine the Super Bowl battle pitting the NFL’s top-scoring Denver Broncos against the league-leading Seattle Seahawks defenders, the head coaches suggested on Friday.
Denver’s John Fox and Seattle’s Pete Carroll, sitting on either side of the Lombardi Trophy in their final media appearance before Sunday’s game, said the hotly anticipated cold-weather game could hinge on unsung players.
“At the end of the day, it’s a team game,” Fox said. “I remind everybody that there’s three phases of the game and my experience, in whether it’s been one of these games or any big spot, is who executes the best and who performs the best.”
Fox wanted to make sure he was including his defense and specials teams that cover punts and kickoffs, return them, and kick field goals as potential difference makers in the title game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
“There always seems to be the unknown guy that makes a critical play, whether it’s in the kicking game, Lord knows where it’s going to come from,” the Denver coach said.
“My experience has been that there’s (always) been one of those events. I think you express that to your team … I think it’s going to be a total team effort, at least in my view.”
Said Carroll: “I really couldn’t agree more. It’s obvious that there’s an attraction to the defense and the offense, a logical match-up to look for, but this game is going to be involving so many different aspects of it.
“It will be interesting to see if that is the story. Is it our defense versus their offense? I really don’t believe that’s what it’s going to be.”
All that said, when each coach was asked what he envied about the other team, the conversation swung back to the Seattle defense and their shut-down secondary led by Richard Sherman, and the prolific Denver offense orchestrated by quarterback Peyton Manning.
“Being a defensive coach, I have a little preference to the defense,” said Fox, a former defensive coordinator. “They have very good speed. They really have a stable of rushers that do an outstanding job, they cause havoc. On the back end, they probably have the most talented secondary in the league.
“They have great length, great speed. I think probably the length and athleticism of their defense is what I look at and it sticks out on tape.”
Carroll, also a former defensive coordinator, thought wistfully about the record-setting scoring numbers put up by Manning and his outstanding crew of receivers.
“We’d like to have their points,” he said.
SPOTLIGHT ON NEW YORK, NEW JERSEY
By Scott Malone and Victoria Cavaliere
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Some 80,000 football fans from around the world are set to pack into New Jersey’s Met Life Stadium on Sunday for the first NFL Super Bowl championship played in the New York area, an event that has shone a fresh spotlight on the region.
The weather forecast is mild, rather than the below-freezing conditions that had been feared for the first outdoor cold-weather Super Bowl, and police have so far faced just one highly visible threat, a Friday hoax in which suspicious but harmless powder was sent to hotels around the region.
For fans from the New York area, the game presents a rare opportunity to see a Super Bowl without traveling to Florida, California or other warm-weather locations that often host what is typically the most-watched sporting event in the United States.
“I normally watch the game on TV and get wings and whatever, but the combination of the location and the fact that one of my coworkers could get the tickets at face value, meant we could go and pay only a moderately exorbitant amount of money,” said Julia Lunetta, a 33-year-old tech worker from Dobbs Ferry, New York, who plans to attend the Denver Broncos-Seattle Seahawks matchup with friends from work.
The game’s location, at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, some 10 miles west of New York City, has posed logistical challenges for organizers, with events in the week leading up to the 6:25 p.m. ET (2300 GMT) kickoff spread among New York City, Jersey City and Newark, New Jersey.
On Sunday, police will be out in force, inspecting fans even as they board the trains and buses that are expected to carry about 30,000 people to the stadium.
Officials from more than 100 state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation, are monitoring the region from a command center located at an undisclosed site near the stadium.
“There’s been a lot of planning for a lot of months and even years in making this Super Bowl successful, and that’s in large part because of the broad metropolitan area that we’re in,” said Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League. “It’s more complex being in a larger area where you’re crossing over states and different jurisdictions, but everyone has been fantastic.
Despite earlier expectations for bitter cold and possible snow at the 48th Super Bowl, Sunday brought mild temperatures, with a forecast high of 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius), with lows expected to drop to just about freezing. The National Weather Service warned there was a chance of rain.
Online ticket resellers showed seats starting at about $1,600 and rising above $2,000, up from opening prices of about $1,300 a week earlier.
BOOST FOR NEW JERSEY
While much of the focus has been on New York, where a 3/4-mile stretch of taken over by a four-day street fair where fans could try to kick a field goal, get a player’s autograph or ride a 60-foot-high (18-meter-high) toboggan slide, the game has also been a boost to New Jersey.
The Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos both stayed in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, and fans could be seen roaming near the hotels the teams had taken over, trying to catch a glimpse of the players.
Troy Maragos, a 29-year-old pastor from Chicago, opted to spend a few nights in that city of 254,441 people ahead of the game.
“I’m impressed by how clean everything is,” Maragos said as he boarded a train. “The subway system is great, it’s been nice that it’s so easy to get back and forth from New York.”
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said having both teams stay had been a boost for local businesses.
“From an economic point of view, we won’t have the full sense of it until sometime after the Super Bowl, but the restaurants are more full than usual, there are fans visiting here,” Fulop said. “It’s going to be a benefit to New York, it’s going to be a benefit to New Jersey, it’s going to benefit the whole region.”
READY FOR IT TO BE OVER
Even as the estimated 400,000 people who are believed to have traveled into the region for the game and related events geared up for kickoff, some New Yorkers were looking forward to seeing the crowds thin out on Monday.
At a United Parcel Service Inc store on Broadway that faced the Super Bowl Boulevard street fair, Mello Smith complained that the crowds slowed things down.
“This is hard for the customers, too,” Smith said. “They are complaining. They want their deliveries or they want to drop off, and it’s a hassle.”
Likewise, Dustin Drankoski, a 27-year-old a photo editor, said the added crowds in an already congested area of Manhattan had made his commute to his office near Times Square even more difficult.
“The real annoyance is all the tourists and the lines of people,” Drankoski said. “There are lines of people in the subway station waiting to go through the stalls and they don’t know how to use their MetroCards, so you just have to wait,” he said. “The people who are really impacted are the drivers. There’s no way to get around this area.”