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Seahawks Should Fear Stampeding Broncos

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Peyton Manning (18) has had the Denver Broncos’ offense pointed in the right direction all season long. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Peyton Manning (18) has had the Denver Broncos’ offense pointed in the right direction all season long. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks may hold the reputation as one of the most intimidating teams in the NFL, but when they step onto the field at MetLife Stadium next weekend, they have just as many reasons to be frightened of their Super Bowl XLVIII opponent. As I wrote last week http://www.football.com/en-us/mile-high-expectations/, the Denver Broncos unveiled a new and improved, championship-caliber team identity in their divisional round victory over the San Diego Chargers, displaying a will to win not seen in Denver since the days of John Elway. Then, in last weekend’s conference championship drubbing of New England’s Evil Empire, they reinforced that their previous week’s dominance was no fluke.

For the second straight week, the Broncos executed an aggressive and balanced game plan that was effective on both sides of the ball and left their opponent helpless to fight back. After a week of nonstop Brady vs. Manning hype and hoopla, the game ended up being so one-sided that it was difficult to distinguish the postseason New England Patriots from the preseason Oakland Raiders. After the Patriots ravaged the Indianapolis Colts the week before in Foxborough, putting up 43 points in a ground-and-pound onslaught, their offense looked anemic and out of sync and their defense appeared even more clueless against Denver. Last Sunday, the Broncos played like a team that had heard enough from those doubting their toughness and killer instinct, causing a seemingly formidable opponent to look, in the words of Richard Sherman, “mediocre. At best.”

All season long, Denver blasted through its competition, averaging an absurd 38 points per game and racking up 76 total touchdowns (4.75 per game). So far in the playoffs, Denver has averaged only 25 points and 2.5 touchdowns per game, yet the Broncos have ostensibly cruised to a title shot. If we had been told before the postseason began that Denver would not exceed 30 points against both the Patriots and the San Diego Chargers (the No. 2 and No. 3 offenses this year, respectively, per footballoutsiders.com DVOA ratings: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/dvoa-ratings/2013/final-2013-dvoa-ratings), few would have believed that the Broncos would be playing at the Meadowlands this coming Groundhog Day. Yet despite their relatively modest scoring rate against prolific offenses, the Denver Broncos have not trailed for even one second in the playoffs.

So, what has been different about the postseason Broncos and why has it been working?

1.  Adapting the Offense

In the postseason, Peyton Manning and offensive coordinator Adam Gase have changed their approach to scoring. Throughout the regular season, the Broncos averaged two minutes and 17 seconds per scoring drive (according to footballperspective.com), an unbelievably efficient, rapid-fire rate. This allowed Denver to build sizeable early leads against inferior competition and put its defense in a form of prevent for entire halves (or more!) of games. It was only when the top-level teams were able to disrupt Manning’s rhythm and keep him off the field that the Broncos struggled to put games away this year.

When the only AFC teams remaining in the playoffs coincidentally turned out to be the three teams to have beaten Denver in the regular season, Manning and Gase decided to veer away from these break-neck pace scoring drives that resulted in historic levels of production all year and daringly opt for long, methodical, clock-killing drives. The Broncos effectively turned the tables on the teams that had somewhat solved the Bronco-beating puzzle.

Facing elite offenses and sub-par defenses in the playoffs, Manning & Co. put together Denver’s three longest scoring drives of the entire year, (7:01 against San Diego, 7:50 and 7:52 against New England) more than tripling their regular-season average and controlling time of possession. Manning was nearly flawless in this game script, marking the first time in NFL postseason history that a quarterback threw for 400 yards without throwing an interception or taking a single sack. Admittedly, this strategy is unlikely to work as well against the league’s best defense in the Super Bowl, but giving Manning and Gase two weeks to adapt to their opponent may just be enough. Maybe there’s a reason why Manning has never lost to the same team twice in the same year since 2007.

2.  Aggressive and Opportunistic Defense

Secondly, this adapted offensive approach has given the defense more time to rest and strategize on the sideline and the results look to have paid off. Looking more forceful, explosive, and sharp in its two postseason performances, Denver’s defense has held opposing offenses touchdown-less in six of eight quarters. Last Sunday, the Broncos kept Tom Brady from establishing any momentum, forcing a three-and-out on three of the Patriots’ first five possessions and bringing impressive pressure in key situations. Most analysts expected New England to move the ball effectively with its ground-and-pound star from the previous week, LeGarrette Blount, but he managed only five carries for six yards in the game (one rushing yard less than Brady!). The Patriots simply could not sustain drives with only 16 rushing yards in the entire first half.

Brady summarized the day succinctly, stating after the game that New England “didn’t do much of anything.” For a defense that gave up the 10th-most points per game in the regular season, shutting down the vaunted Patriots speaks volumes about Denver’s postseason defensive effort.

3.  Team Attitude, Leadership, and Communication

While it was exhilarating watching a team put up nearly 40 points a game all season long, this current version of the Denver Broncos seems to have matured and looks as though it has found its most effective identity. The team is functioning at its highest all-around level against top competition, peaking at just the right time heading into the Super Bowl. Owning their narrative as this year’s team of destiny, the Broncos have clearly rallied around their future Hall-of-Fame leader and appear prepared to vie for the Lombardi Trophy. Seattle should be prepared for the stampede.