EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Seattle Seahawks spent the bulk of the 2013 season lulling millions of football fans into adopting a distorted perception of their relative might. They conserved their comprehensive displays of excellence for key moments and dared to rely on an old-fashioned, unflashy formula for success, and even as they won 15 of their first 18 games, a lot of people misread the message.
Heading into their Super Bowl XLVIII showdown with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, the darlings of a fantasy-obsessed football universe, the Seahawks were slight underdogs whose ability to slow down a record-setting offense was called into doubt.
Then, on Super Sunday, the Seahawks delivered a dose of harsh reality and smashed that naïve narrative to smithereens. From the jump, Seattle went medieval on the Broncos and never let up, rolling to a 43-8 victory at not-so-chilly MetLife Stadium that evoked memories of the bad old days of perpetual Super Bowl blowouts.
In winning their first championship, the Seahawks showed that many fans and analysts -- and perhaps even the Broncos -- had been considering this matchup from a faulty premise: It wasn't about how Seattle's top-ranked defense would hold up against Denver's record-setting offense; rather, it was whether Manning and the Broncos could avoid being swallowed up by a relentlessly hellacious team at the height of its powers.
"We were ready, from top to bottom," said Earl Thomas, the Seahawks' All-Pro free safety. "Guys could feel it in our locker room, and when we charged out on the field. I think we were more prepared than they were. And they weren't expecting that kind of surge from the beginning of the game.
"People don't understand us. They're kind of used to normal. Well, we're the new normal."
The new normal is a fast, physical, swarming, deep and exceptionally well-coached defense -- one which, on Sunday, would hold an offense that averaged 37.9 points per game in 2013 to a throwaway touchdown and two-point conversion at the end of the third quarter. The Seahawks forced four turnovers, including Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith's 69-yard interception return for a touchdown, and tattooed Manning -- one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history -- with perhaps the most conspicuous dark mark of his 12 postseason setbacks.
Meanwhile, an offense that had produced just 23 points in each of its prior postseason games, victories over the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers, cranked up the volume like Nirvana in the heyday. Second-year quarterback Russell Wilson completed passes to eight different receivers, threw for a pair of second-half touchdowns and made no significant mistakes on the grandest of stages.
Throw in the return of dynamic wide receiver Percy Harvin, whose 87-yard kickoff return to start the second half gave the Seahawks a 29-0 lead and delivered a psychic gut punch to the Broncos' comeback dreams, and the new normal has a hell of a nice ring to it.
And while some of the 82,529 fans at unseasonably warm (49 degrees at kickoff), wind-free MetLife -- and the hundreds of millions viewing on television sets across the world -- might have been blown away by this daunting display of dominance, fourth-year Seahawks coach Pete Carroll expressed no surprise.
"That's what we've been counting on," a raspy-voiced Carroll said Sunday night in a jubilant Seattle locker room. "That's what we thought was going to happen."
If Carroll's completion of a coaching quest that spanned two decades was a cause for celebration, the team he and general manager John Schneider have assembled looks poised for additional party-planning inspiration.
Can Pete repeat?
Let's ask Seahawks owner Paul Allen, who said shortly after handing off the Lombardi Trophy in the locker room, "This team, with so many young players, they could come back and be even better next year."
That's scary, because it's tough to imagine the Seahawks being much better than they were on Super Sunday.
The game began with a cursed connection on par with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's bridge scandal: On Denver's first play from scrimmage, Manning stood in the shotgun formation and surveyed the Seattle defense, only to appear stunned as center Manny Ramirez (who later said the crowd noise kept him from hearing the quarterback's cadence) snapped the football past his right earhole. Halfback Knowshon Moreno raced back and dove on the ball near the back of the Broncos' end zone, and the resulting safety gave the 'Hawks a 2-0 lead on the quickest score in Super Bowl history.
It was soon 8-0 after a pair of Steven Hauschka field goals, sandwiched around a three-and-out on which Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner pummeled Denver receivers on underneath routes. Late in the first quarter, Chancellor intercepted a Manning pass that sailed past tight end Julius Thomas, setting up a Seahawks drive that ended with Marshawn Lynch's one-yard touchdown run.
At that point, the game was 18 minutes old, and the Seahawks had outgained the Broncos by a 161-11 margin. Denver would finally get its initial first down on the ensuing drive, but when Manning dropped back to pass on third-and-13 from the Seattle 35 with 3:36 remaining, the old gunslinger collided with the new normal, and the outcome was not pretty for the former.
Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril met Manning's arm as it released a short pass intended for Moreno, and the ball popped into the air. While Moreno simply stood and watched the horror film play out in slow motion, Smith -- the relatively anonymous outside linebacker who'd made the dramatic, game-clinching interception (off a deflection from star cornerback Richard Sherman) in Seattle's NFC Championship Game victory over the San Francisco 49ers -- swept past him and picked it off, then raced down the left sideline for the shocking score.
"I thought, Again?," said Smith, who would later recover a third-quarter fumble by Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas. "It just goes to show you that the way our defense plays, with so much effort, there are always going to be opportunities. I'm just proud to be part of it."
Super Bowl XLVIIITake a look at the scene on the field from NFL.com's photographers as they provide imagery from Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos.
Malcolm, the most out-of-nowhere Smith to haunt the Broncos in a Super Bowl since Washington Redskins running back Timmy 26 years earlier, ended up earning MVP honors, but it was hardly a slam-dunk decision.
Cases could also be made for Avril, defensive end Chris Clemons, Chancellor, Wilson (18 of 25, 206 yards, two passing TDs, no interceptions) and Harvin. In the eyes of Lynch, the Seahawks' media-shy star, the honor could well have been shared by the entire Seattle defense.
"Matter of fact," Lynch added. "They should've given it to the team."
That absolutely included Harvin, acquired last March in a blockbuster trade with the Vikings, who'd missed all but one game of the regular season while recovering from hip surgery and much of the postseason thanks to a concussion suffered in the Seahawks' 23-15 divisional-round victory over the Saints.
At halftime, as Bruno Mars entertained the masses, the Seahawks' players and coaches implored one another to stay on the gas. Harvin responded by going into Turbodrive, fielding Matt Prater's second-half opening kickoff on a bounce and zig-zagging his way to the end zone.
"The coaches called 'Counter Right' for the first time all year," Harvin said. "These guys (on the return team) had so much confidence. As soon as it was called, they said, 'I'll meet you in the end zone.' We were actually hoping they'd kick it deeper. As soon as I caught the ball, they pretty much wiped the right side of the field out."
Harvin's score pretty much wiped out any remaining suspense, except as to whether Seattle would register the first shutout in Super Bowl history. That didn't happen, but the Seahawks' defense was impressive enough, at least, to put it in the best-of-all-time conversation with teams like the 1985 Chicago Bears and 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
"It has to be (the greatest)," reasoned Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr., who won three consecutive Super Bowls while playing on some exceptional defenses (for the Dallas Cowboys and Niners) in the '90s. "That was the greatest quarterback of all time, so it's only fitting that the greatest defense of all time shut him down."
Added Clemons: "Put us on the same page (as the greatest defenses). I mean, you give us two weeks to prepare for anybody, you've got a problem on your hands. To hear about this team scoring (37.9) points a game and how unstoppable they were ... but we're the No. 1 defense, and you've still got to play against us. It wasn't so much who we were playing against. It was more about us."
It turned out a Seattle team that showed glimpses of its greatness -- first in 2012 as it rose to the ranks of legitimate contender, and later in victories like last September's 29-3 smackdown of the 49ers -- had an A-plus game to offer when it mattered most.
After the game, while the Seahawks' locker room carried a deserved air of jubilation, nobody seemed shocked by Sunday's lopsided outcome. And Lynch, for all his shyness in the spotlight, had no reservations about giving the hordes of visitors a taste of Beast Mode in all its unique splendor.
Blasting "Ready 2 Ride" by Philthy Rich, a rapper from his native Oakland, Lynch danced around his locker as though he were already up in the club. He rocked a red Beast Mode sweatsuit with the pants pulled down low; a blue backpack; a black leather cap reading "MY MINDS MY NINE"; a ski mask; a white Seahawks towel around his neck; and gold Monster headphones covering his sweatshirt hood.
The Pro Bowl running back looked utterly immersed in the moment until he spotted Smith, fresh off the MVP podium, near the locker room entrance. Bursting past a crowd of reporters, teammates and significant others, Lynch wrapped his arms around the surprised linebacker and wrestled him to the ground.
It was a textbook tackle that dislodged Lynch's headphones but left both men smiling with satisfaction.
By then, everyone understood what the 'Hawks had known all along: From top to bottom, this team was ready to ride, and the result was flat-out Super.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.