Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, whose fingertip save against the 49ers helped send Seattle to the Super Bowl for a showdown with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, appears on the regional cover of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/27/14)—on newsstands NOW. Sherman, who led the NFL with eight interceptions during the regular season, deflected a pass intended for Niners wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the end zone during the closing minute of the NFC championship game, which caused the ball to bounce into the grasp of linebacker Malcolm Smith, sealing Seattle’s 23–17 win. In SI’s Super Bowl XLVIII preview, writers list the key storylines as the Broncos and Seahawks head to MetLife Stadium in 10 Things We Think We Think. NFL analyst Andy Benoit believes that Seattle’s D could corral Denver’s dominant receivers, writing, “The Seahawks led the league in every major pass-defending category because they perfected a hybrid scheme that features suffocating press-man corners on the outside. One of them, Sherman, speaks the truth when boasting that he’s the best in the NFL; the other, Byron Maxwell, is long, strong, athletic and alert—and he’s on track to join Sherman on the first tier. With corners who can own the perimeter, Seattle’s speedy, hard-hitting safeties and ’backers can play a more condensed zone inside.” (Page 48)
The Broncos led the NFL in total offense, passing, receiving and touchdowns scored. The Seahawks led the league in total defense, pass defense and interceptions. So what happens when the most prolific passing offense in history meets a secondary of superheroes? Writes Benoit, “It will be fascinating to see how the record-setting Broncos offense attacks this secondary. Manning’s system is rich in man-beater concepts: intertwined crossing patterns, receiver screens, (legal) pick plays and switch releases, in which receivers who are aligned close to one another essentially crisscross early in their routes, hoping to cross up their defenders. While no defense has truly stopped this attack yet, the Sea–hawks are equipped to do so. Sherman and Maxwell can take away Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside. When those receivers go inside, they’ll encounter zone defenders who are among the best in the league at recognizing route designs and picking up assignments. So instead of following these wideouts on crossing patterns and falling susceptible to picks, Sherman and Maxwell can just pass them off to the zone defenders (on plays that even get that far). Denver’s receivers will first have to break free from jams, and the offensive line will have to hold up against a dynamic Seahawks front four.” (Page 48)
So it’ll be the best cornerback in the league versus the best quarterback in the league. Despite Sherman’s penchant for picking off QBs like Manning, SI Senior writer Peter King likes Pot Roast: Broncos 27, Seahawks 24.
For Peter King’s early thoughts on Super Bowl XLVIII click here: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/video/mmqb/20140121/the-mmqb-nfl-peter-king-on-further-review-championship-weekend.sportsillustrated/
Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns (a franchise record) against the Colts in the AFC divisional playoff, appears on the national cover of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/20/14)—on newsstands NOW. Blount, who is in his first season with New England after spending three years with the Buccaneers, had his biggest play against Indiana on a 73-yard touchdown run with 13:08 left in the fourth quarter to put the Patriots up 36–22, before closing it out with a 43–22 and a spot in the conference championship game against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. As NFL analyst Andy Benoit writes, “The Broncos’ run defense will face its own challenge in the 6-foot, 250-pound Blount, who has racked up 355 yards and six TDs in his last two games. Led by tackle Terrance Knighton, Denver stifled the white-hot Chargers last week, but Blount runs—plows, really—behind a man-blocking front that’s particularly mobile and voracious on the left side, where perennial Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and svelte tackle Nate Solder ply their trade.”
Then there’s the Patriots’ undersized and often undervalued wide receiver, Julian Edelman who, after re-signing with New England because no other team wanted him more, had a breakout 1,056 receiving yards season, including 110 yards and two touchdowns in a 34–31 win over the Broncos in Week 12. Writes SI senior writer Tim Layden in this week’s feature on Edelman, “These Patriots are the unlikeliest AFC finalists of the Bill Belichick era, a team that went 12–4 despite being steadily thinned by personnel losses (injuries and otherwise) from June into January. No position incurred deeper cuts than receiver, where quarterback Tom Brady lost his top five targets from 2012, including Wes Welker, the most productive slot man in NFL history. Into that void surged Edelman, 27, who caught 105 passes—fourth in the league, 50 more than any other Patriot and seven fewer than Welker’s average in New England. Edelman also finished fourth in the league in punt return yardage (374). It’s perilous to suggest that these Patriots wouldn’t have survived further attrition (Brady excepted), but it’s also difficult to imagine them in Denver without Edelman.”
Of course all of the hype surrounding the AFC Championship will focus on Brady vs. Manning, who will compete on an NFL field for the 15th time in their pro careers (Brady leads the series 10-4.) This weekend’s game, however, will come down to whether the Broncos’ defense can survive against New England’s dynamic Blount-Edelman duo.
SI’s prediction: Patriots 34, Broncos 28. | NFL analyst Andy Benoit
After stymieing the Saints for the second time this season, this time for a 23–15 win in the NFC divisional playoff and a spot in the conference championship game against the 49ers, Seahawks defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett appear on one of two regional covers of this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/20/14)—on newsstands NOW. Against Seattle’s top-ranked D, New Orleans was only able to convert three of its 12 third-down attempts and one of its three fourth-down tries, while quarterback Drew Brees was held to just one touchdown. Although Seattle is known more for its 12th man and its read-option offense, its defense has become one of legend under coach Pete Carroll. The Seahawks spent a whopping 27% of their salary cap on defensive linemen in 2013, including the signing of Avril and Bennett, and led the NFL by pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 33% of their drop backs. SI senior writer Jim Trotter writes, “Last spring, following his third season in charge of the Seahawks, Carroll finally had a defense built to his specifications. There was size at every position, notably cornerback, where Brandon Browner (6’ 4″) and Richard Sherman (6’ 3″) formed the NFL’s tallest starting tandem. There was speed on every level, from ends Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons to strong side linebacker K.J. Wright to free safety Earl Thomas. And there was success: In 2012, Seattle’s defense led the league in points allowed and was fourth in yards ceded. Still, Carroll wasn’t satisfied. His motto is Always compete—another way of saying Never be complacent. So instead of waiting for the defense to improve with experience and familiarity, he and new coordinator Dan Quinn asked six of their 10 returning starters to line up at new positions or to play new roles.”
The reasoning for Carroll’s overhaul was threefold: 1) to amp up the pass rush; 2) to stiffen against the run; and 3) to fit the system to each player’s skills. Avril, who averaged just under 10 sacks his last three seasons with the Lions, would bring heat off the edge; and Bennett, coming off a career-best nine sacks with the Buccaneers, would provide interior disruption. Writes Trotter, “The results have been stunning. The 2013 Seahawks were No. 1 in takeaways (39) and interceptions (28); and in points (14.4 per game), passing yards (172.0) and total yards (273.6) allowed. Avril finished the season with eight sacks and five forced fumbles, while Bennett had 8.5 sacks. Much of the spotlight falls on the Legion of Boom secondary, but the front seven—or perhaps front eight, considering how frequently strong safety Kam Chancellor plays near the line—contributes just as much.”
Assuming the Seahawk’s D can stick to Carroll’s game plan and contain quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s scrambling, Seattle holds a slight edge.
SI Prediction: Seahawks 24, 49ers 20. | SI senior writer Jim Trotter
Knowshon Moreno, the Broncos’ star running back whose monstrous tears during the national anthem at Denver’s Dec. 1 game against the Chiefs shocked the world, is one of three regional covers for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/13/14)—on newsstands NOW. On the surface it would appear that Moreno wouldn’t have much to cry about in the Mile High City: 2013 was a breakout season in his five year NFL career. He ran for a career high 1,380 yards, including 224 yards on the road against the Patriots in Week 12, and ten touchdowns during the regular season. Still, Moreno’s super-sized tear ducts and over-the-top emotions were a sight to behold. Writes SI senior writer Tim Layden, “You saw those tears and you wondered, What makes a player cry like that before a game? Especially a player like Knowshon Moreno, who is finally thriving in the NFL. In addition to his rushing stats, he caught 60 passes for 548 yards, by far the best in his career, and three more TDs. And he did this for a team with 13 wins and home field for as long as it survives in the AFC playoffs—Denver will face the Chargers on Jan. 12—peaking- with a 37-carry, 224-yard game in the bitter cold against the -Patriots on Nov. 24. ‘He’s been our bell cow,’ says coach John Fox, evoking the bovine metaphor that coaches lovingly employ to describe the most reliable of running backs. Moreno has earned Manning’s trust and respect, and there is no more valuable currency in the Broncos’ locker room—or in any locker room west of Foxborough. ‘He’s a horse,’ says Manning, opting for the equine metaphor. ‘I love his passion. I love his intensity. I love having him standing next to me back there. It’s a very comfortable feeling.’” (Page 50)
The respect and admiration that coaches and teammates have for Moreno is unmistakable. Even guys he competes with for playing time praise his leadership and professionalism. So given all that, and the fact that a new contract is looming once the season is over, why the tears? “Not uncommon at all,” Moreno says. “It’s always been that way for me, all the way back to high school and college. During the anthem it’s always quiet and still, so I take in the moment and say a little prayer. Usually there’s no camera on me. I thank the Lord for letting me play the game. I thank Him for everything. I run through my whole life right there at that moment. Even the bad stuff.” (Page 50) | SI senior writer, Tim Layden
After overcoming a 28-point second-half deficit and continuing on to an improbable 45-44 victory over the Chiefs in the AFC Wild Card game, quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts appear on one of three regional covers for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (1/13/14)—on newsstands NOW. Luck survived three interceptions to throw for 443 yards and four touchdowns, and rush seven times for 45 vital yards. He scored the touchdown that drew the Colts within three points in the fourth quarter on a heads-up-five-yard fumble recovery and return, and he put Indianapolis into the lead for the first time in the game with a 64-yard pass to a wide-open T.J. Hilton with 4:21 remaining. NFL analyst Andy Benoit writes, “While America has been captivated by the ‘revolutionary’ likes of Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and RG3, Andrew Luck has quietly emerged as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. Not best young quarterbacks; best quarterbacks, period. Luck’s -numbers—23 TDs in each of his two years, 81.5 passer -rating—aren’t staggering. But his 10 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or OT (including that gem against the Chiefs) and his 23 victories are.” (Page 23)
In 2012 the Colts selected Luck with the first pick in the draft to replace an injured Peyton Manning. Everyone knew Luck was an elite college QB, but that has fooled people before. Take Matt Leinart, for example. He won the Heisman and a national championship at USC. Or take Tim Tebow. He, too, won the Heisman and two championships at Florida. Neither did anything noteworthy at quarterback in the NFL and both are currently out of the league. So with Manning off to Denver and lingering doubt about whether drafting Luck was a sound investment, fans in Indianapolis waited with baited breath to see if Luck would be a boom or a bust.
As it turns out, boom might be an understatement. Writes Benoit, “Luck is at the heart of the Colts’ success. The NFL loves pocket passers; the 24-year-old is that and more. Not only can he cycle through manifold progressions to find receivers, but he can also work guys open with improvisation. Much like Ben Roethlisberger, Luck extends plays with strength and athleticism. While Roethlisberger flourishes as things break down, Luck flourishes by keeping things together. He has a gift for extending a play without compromising its structure. Even under heat, he keeps his eyes downfield and relies on sharp mechanics to make accurate throws from untenable positions.” (Page 23) Now the Colts are off to New England for a showdown with Tom Brady and the Patriots, where they hope to have more than just a little bit of Luck. | NFL analyst Andy Benoit
To see a gallery of photos of the NFL’s biggest comebacks by franchise go to: