The Denver Broncos surely had shaken the confetti from their hair and were watching by the time Richard Sherman tipped the potential game-winning touchdown pass into the air, sending the San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl hopes spinning along with the ball Sunday night. It was the signature play for Seattle's signature defensive unit and made plain what Super Bowl XLVIII will be all about.
More like great on historic. For the first time since the 1990 season, the NFL's top scoring defense will face the top-scoring offense -- which also happens to be the top-scoring offense in any season, ever -- in the Super Bowl. Of course, these types of contests don't usually go well for the offense. In the four Super Bowl meetings of top-scoring offenses and defenses since the 1970 merger, the offense has won only once (Joe Montana's 1989 Niners over the Broncos).
Clearly, the axiom that defense wins championships was not written by accident. This, however, will be the first test of stylistic dominance since the league's inexorable shift to the passing game, a revolution best exemplified by Peyton Manning's masterful performance against the Patriots in the AFC title match (74.4 percent completion rate, 400 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions). He was not sacked, never so much as hit the ground. How much of a contrast is that with how the Seahawks play? In Sunday's NFC Championship Game, Seattle intercepted San Francisco's Colin Kaepernicktwice in thefourth quarter alone and sacked him twice.
The Seahawks -- whom the Broncosgot a glimpse of in the preseason, when Seattle's starters jumped to a 17-7 lead before Manning started moving the ball in his limited playing time -- will look much different than New England, of course, and not just because many of the Patriots' best defenders were injured. Seattle, deep in the front seven, has no trouble pressuring quarterbacks; because the Seahawks are able to rotate players, they are unlikely to fatigue the way the Patriots did when stuck on the field for long stretches at altitude in Denver.
The Seahawks also play immensely physical pass defense, taking advantage of their unusually big players in the secondary. Traditionally, Pats coach Bill Belichick had thwarted Manning by having his defenders play physically against his receivers, throwing them off their routes and disrupting the timing of the offense. That strategy was so successful in the AFC Championship Game of the 2003 season that it led to a rules emphasis on calling penalties for downfield contact. Last Sunday, however, the Broncos counteracted Belichick by deploying crossing routes.
"New England has a physical secondary," Manning said. "If you're running all straight and vertical down the field -- you know, intermediate routes -- that's tough. That's what we learned and that's what some of our notes were coming out of the first time we played them. I think they do a great job of taking away your key receiver. With us, we've spread the ball around so well all season, it's hard to know who really to key on. On any given play, one of five guys could get the ball. I think that puts pressure on a defense."
As for Seattle's offense ... Even assuming speedster receiver Percy Harvin returns from a concussion for the game, the unit simply is not built to go score-for-score with a high-powered machine like the Broncos' outfit -- which has punted just once in two playoff games -- because the Seahawks rely more on a running attack. Denver's defense has been considered vulnerable, but it did shut down a Patriots ground game that had been effective in recent weeks.
The Seahawks will not have to account for a running quarterback like Kaepernick. But they will have to contend with a player who even Sherman has called the smartest quarterback in the game, a reflection of Manning's ability to decipher defenses. Manning is so smart, in fact, that it is hard to imagine the Broncos will challenge Sherman too often. After all, only after Aqib Talib, the Patriots' best cornerback, went down early in the second quarter on Sunday did Manning begin to frequently take aim at Demaryius Thomas, who had been shadowed by Talib before the injury.
Seattle could get a significant assist from the weather, which figures to be such a big storyline that Jim Cantore will be quoted as often as the voluble Sherman. When Denver played the Patriots in Foxborough in Week 12 of the regular season, the Broncos -- and Manning in particular -- struggled with the high wind. This past Sunday in Denver, the conditions were perfect for the aerial attack that followed -- clear, warm, dry and still.
That is unlikely to be the forecast for a February night in MetLife Stadium in two weeks. The weather is mostly unpredictable, though -- unlike a meeting that has been forecast by the dominance of a full season.