Super Bowl XLVIII is on tap for Sunday evening and I’ll be breaking down the NFL’s grand finale from a betting perspective. I recommended a pair of wagers in the Conference Championship games two weeks ago, going 2-0 in the process. None of that will matter if I can’t predict the outcome of the Super Bowl this year though.
In case you’re wondering about my Super Bowl track record, I incorrectly took the 49ers to cover against the Ravens last year. In all honesty, I really didn’t love that play all that much, but I won’t bore you with excuses. Previous to that, I had correctly predicted the ATS outcome of the previous six Super Bowls (not all of these are documented so you’ll have to just take my word on it), with the last losing selection coming in Super Bowl XL when the referees handed the Steelers a victory over the Seahawks—that’s a story for another day.
It’s been a very strong season overall and hopefully I can provide one last winner to cap off the season with a bang.
The Nickel Package Record: 51-36-3 ATS (58.3%)
Recommended Wagers Record: 64-50-3 ATS (56.0%)
Denver Broncos vs. Seattle Seahawks
Friday Line: Broncos -2, total of 48.5
Public Consensus: 71% on the Broncos, 61% on the under
The Pick: Super Bowl XLVIII pits the league’s top-ranked offense against the league’s top-ranked defense. The Broncos will be looking to win their third Super Bowl, while the Seahawks are in search of their first. As we get closer and closer to the day of the big game it’s sounding less and less like weather will play a factor. Each team has played at MetLife Stadium this season with the Broncos scoring 41 points against the Giants in Week 2 and the Seahawks shutting out the Giants in Week 15.
Handicapping this game begins and ends with Peyton Manning. His ability to find success against the Seahawk secondary will be what makes or breaks the Broncos on Sunday. Manning can make some history if he can lead Denver to a win, as a second ring would level him with the two that his brother Eli already has (just typing that made me ill), and he’d love to do it on Eli’s home turf after the Giants won Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. A win would also make Peyton the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with two different teams.
We all know about the 5,000+ passing yards and the 55 touchdowns, but how can we expect Peyton to fare against Seattle’s top-ranked pass defense? As prolific as the Denver offense has been this season, Seattle’s pass defense has been impressive in its own right. The unit plays as one of the most physical units in recent memory, bumping players at the line and relying on two great safeties in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas to back them up over the top. The team is also well aware of the fact that the NFL has become a passing league, so it isn’t unusual to see linebackers drop back into coverage, even on early downs. The unit has gained so much respect around the league that officials have taken notice and are seemingly allowing them to get away with a little extra, similar to the way that Wayne Gretzky got away with a little extra stick work here and there, and Greg Maddux got the benefit of the doubt on borderline pitches.
The Seahawks have allowed a league-low 14.4 points per game, the fewest yards of any team, and they’ve also recorded the most takeaways in the process. Amazingly, the unit has only gotten better as the season has progressed as they’ve allowed opposing passers to throw for just 196.6 yards per game and a 4-to-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio in their last five games.
While Denver has thrived on picking up yardage in chunks (wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has 35 receptions of 25+ yards over the last two seasons, most in the league), Seattle’s stellar secondary could take that away on Sunday, as they’ve allowed just 15 pass plays of 25+ yards this season. While Richard Sherman says he won’t be lining up across from Thomas, you can be sure that someone is going to be hitting him in the mouth at the line of scrimmage much in the way that Aqib Talib did in the AFC Championship Game, limiting Thomas’s production early on, and with it, the productivity of Denver’s offense.
Many will point to the fact that the Broncos have weapons other than Thomas, becoming the first team in NFL history to produce four receiving threats with double-digit touchdowns in the same season. Not to take anything away from what the team accomplished this year, but it is worth noting that the Broncos entered the season with the most favorable strength of schedule in football. The top three defenses and five of the top seven played their football in the NFC this season. Even still, we’ve seen the Broncos have some trouble, particularly of late. Denver has played a downright bad San Diego defense twice in their last five games and managed only 44 points in those two games. They also scored only two touchdowns against a battered and bruised New England defense in the AFC title game.
Further to that, and as much as it pains me to write this, we can learn a little something from Denver’s matchup with Jacksonville earlier this season, as Alen Dumonjic noted on Thursday.
Maybe I’m being a little dramatic there, but I hate the way the Jaguars play football more than I hate that stupid new McDonald’s commercial. Even still, the Jaguars limited Manning and the Broncos to one of their worst outings of the season back in Week 6. Manning had thrown for 414 yards and four touchdowns against the Cowboys the week before, but the Jaguars limited Manning to 7.0 YPA, his third-worst mark of the season. Why is all of this relevant? The Jaguars are coached by Gus Bradley – the same Gus Bradley that served as the Seahawks defensive coordinator from 2009-12. Not surprisingly, the Seahawks employ a very similar defensive scheme. Most notably, the team rarely blitzes yet still gets to the quarterback by sending three or four rushers. The Seahawks were able to get to the quarterback for sacks on 9.0 percent of dropbacks in 18 games this season. That poses a problem for the Broncos because Manning loves to throw against the blitz, in large part due to the fact that he’s unreal at figuring out who the blitzers will be and how to exploit that look. A simple pass rush means that Manning loses that advantage and all his shouting and cries for audibles at the line of scrimmage will be for not. On top of that, the Seahawks are a wee bit more talented than the hapless Jaguars.
As much as we’d all like to analyze and overanalyze what we expect to happen on the other side of the ball, the matchup between Seattle’s offense and Denver’s defense is one we need to evaluate as well. The Seahawks didn’t enjoy the kind of cupcake schedule that the Broncos did so their numbers don’t jump off the page. Instead, the team played four of its games against San Francisco and Arizona, teams that ranked third and seventh respectively in points allowed this season. They also had games against Carolina and New Orleans, who ranked second and fourth respectively in that category.
Seattle’s offense goes through running back Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks’ bruising back accounted for 29 percent of Seattle’s yards from scrimmage in the 2013 season, and 43 percent of their production in the postseason. Lynch finished second in rushing attempts and sixth in rushing yards this year, eclipsing the 100-yard mark five times. Quarterback Russell Wilson hasn’t had the kinds of flashy numbers other quarterbacks have been able to put up, but he has led Seattle to 10 wins in the fourth quarter in his two seasons, and he can be downright dominant when he gets out on the edge. He’s only 25-years-old, but Wilson has displayed the poise of a veteran well beyond his years, and will already be playing in his fifth playoff game on Sunday. He also has experience out in the cold after playing his senior year of college ball at Wisconsin. Wilson will also get some help from the return of top wideout Percy Harvin, whose speed and elusiveness force opponents to account for where he is on the field at all times. That added dimension will help Seattle in a big way this weekend, creating space for Lynch to operate and helping the team’s other receivers get separation in the secondary.
Many have pointed to the fact that only one running back has rushed for 100 yards against Denver this season, but that has a more to do with that fact that the Broncos have spent much of their games with the lead, forcing opponents to throw early and often. Lynch has experience breaking down elite run stopping units, as he showed in the NFC title game with a 109-yard effort on 22 carries against San Francisco. After getting hardened by a difficult schedule, a date with a Bronco defense that is without top pass rusher Von Miller and one of its top defensive backs in Chris Harris will come as a welcome break.
That’s going to be a key as San Diego helped to provide the blueprint on how to beat Denver, and the key to that is ball control, which keeps Peyton Manning off the field. Seattle ranked in the top 10 in time of possession during the regular year, and the Seattle defense can help that cause as well. During the regular season, the Seahawk defense ranked 10th in the league in third down percentage, stopping their opponent on 64.8 percent of third down attempts.
On the sidelines, John Fox has long proven that he is far too conservative to win the big game, while Pete Carroll hasn’t been afraid to make a bold call or two. While Carroll may sometimes be guilty of being overaggressive, I prefer that coaching mentality to the conventional and unadventurous mentality that we see far too often across the league. Carroll has also transformed the Seahawks from a team that relied far too heavily on its home field advantage into a team that can win on the road, as the Seahawks have won nine of their last 12 road contests, going 10-2 ATS in those games.
As is often the case in big games like this one, the turnover battle is going to go a long way in deciding a winner. That should be an easy win for a Seahawks team that was plus-23 in turnover margin this season, compared with a minus-2 margin for the Broncos. Seattle defensive backs Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas combined for 17 interceptions this year—more interceptions than 18 other teams recorded in total!
Looking at the factors at play in this game, I don’t see either side running away with it. Seattle is known for playing close games away from home, and Denver certainly has the ability to score late and keep this game close. In the end, I think the Seahawks are the better team here, having played through the far tougher slate of games, and I expect them to prevail on Sunday. Seahawks 24, Broncos 20
The Wager: As you will have probably gathered from the analysis above, I think the wrong team is favored in this game. Prior to the Conference Championship games two weeks ago, sportsbooks were posting advanced Super Bowl lines, listing the NFC as a 2.5 to 3-point favorite over the AFC. Nothing has changed since that time, except for public perception. Seattle +3 (BoDog), if you can find +2.5 consider buying a ½ point up to +3, or else take Seahawks +115 ML instead.
The Trend: The Seahawks are 17-3 ATS in their last 20 games versus opponents with a winning record.