When the Broncos run
Knowshon Moreno is the very definition of a late bloomer. A first-round pick in 2009, the 5-foot-11-inch, 220-pound tailback was wallowing in relative anonymity in the Rockies before Peyton Manning showed up and rejuvenated his career. Moreno has good power and straight-ahead speed. A slashing-type runner, Moreno is quick to find creases and will sift and weave his way through the bigger bodies in search of cutback lanes. He has good strength and will break his share of tackles. Moreno can push the pile when need be, but he can hit home runs, too. His durability and toughness have been questioned at times — he’s had his share of injuries, both major and nagging — but he has proven this season that he can carry this offense when called upon (but when No. 18 is in your backfield, you won’t be asked very often). Rookie Montee Ball (5-10, 215) has been the perfect complement to Moreno. A compact runner with a powerful lower body, Ball has good vision and will hit holes with authority. Ball has quick feet, runs with good balance and agility, and will lean into opponents. Ball security has been an issue, so it’s likely Ball will be on the bench during clutch situations. This offensive line’s main job will always be to protect Manning, but it’s pretty good at run-blocking, too. Center Manny Ramirez is athletic, quick, and smart. When Manning labels you “awesome,” then more than likely you are. All-Pro right guard Louis Vazquez (6-5, 335) is strong and athletic. When this rugged dude locks on to a defender, he’s not letting go. Left guard Zane Beadles (6-4, 305) is solid and steady. He works hard to open lanes. Seattle’s front seven is formidable and versatile, as many big bodies are rotated in and out. Tackles Tony McDaniel (6-7, 305) and Brandon Mebane (6-1, 311) are the best run stuffers. Both excel at clogging running lanes, leading to negative plays or backs trying to get to the edge where they’ll get swallowed up by a quartet of talented ends in Red Bryant (he’s big and strong), Chris Clemons (he’s swift and powerful), Cliff Avril (he’s athletic and relentless), and Michael Bennett (he’s smart and strong). Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (6-0, 241) is a three-down player who combines toughness and athleticism to track ball carriers from sideline to sideline. Outside backers Bruce Irvin (6-3, 248) and Malcolm Smith (6-0, 226) swarm to the ball.
When the Broncos pass
Two seasons removed from major neck surgery -- and possibly facing retirement — Peyton Manning continues to write one of the best comeback stories in NFL history. One of the smartest and most well-prepared players ever, Manning has seen it all, dissected it all, and figured out a way to beat it all. Manning has off-the-charts presnap recognition skills and is a master at checking out of bad plays (“Omaha!”). Postsnap, he scans the field quickly, spots the best matchup, and delivers accurate, catchable balls; they may not be aesthetically pleasing (Weebles wobble) but they always get where they need to be. The 6-foot-5-inch, 230-pounder rarely locks on to a receiver (they’re all his favorites), and when he throws an interception, it’s usually because a receiver misstepped or a defender has made an exceptional read or play. Wes Welker has the surest hands on the team. The slot man extraordinaire is quick off the line, runs great routes, and catches nearly everything thrown to him. Patriots fans will point out that he’s had some Super Bowl struggles. Demaryius Thomas is big, strong, fast, and physical. He can fight through press coverage and builds speed quickly. He has excellent body control and can adjust to poorly thrown balls — a skill honed during the Tim Tebow era. Eric Decker is a superb athlete. He has deceptive speed, runs terrific patterns, and has good focus and strong hands. He’s tough, too. The man takes hits, holds onto the ball, and bounces right back up. Tight end Julius Thomas is a big man with great athletic skills. The former college basketball star no longer wears the “prospect” label. It now reads “threat.” Thomas has excellent size (6-5, 230), speed, and strength. He will simply fly by most linebackers and overpower most defensive backs. This won’t be a track meet, however, as Seattle’s secondary is loaded with physical playmakers. Cornerback Richard Sherman (he’s been in the news recently) is big (6-3, 195), strong, and rangy. He’s comfortable playing jam coverage or giving a cushion. He’s the best in the business right now. Just ask him. Corner Byron Maxwell has excellent mirror skills. Safety Earl Thomas (5-10, 202) has excellent instincts. He finds the ball quickly and can really lower the boom. Don’t let his comparative lack of size fool you. Speaking of lowering the boom, few do it better than oversized safety Kam Chancellor (6-3, 232). He has excellent vision and is a true heat-seeking missile.
When the Seahawks run
Marshawn Lynch is that rare running back who appears to gets stronger and better every season. Listed at 5 feet 11 inches, 215 pounds, the cut and muscular seven-year veteran looks and plays bigger. Lynch flashes excellent burst at the snap and gets through holes and on defenders in a flash. Never one to shy away from contact (arm tacklers need not apply), Lynch is an absolute beast if he gets into the secondary. He runs with anger and attitude and will flatten defensive backs. Loves to work. The more touches he gets, the stronger he gets. He can wear defenses out. If he’s pounding down bags of Skittles on the sideline, the Broncos are in trouble. Fullback Michael Robinson (6-1, 240) is a good athlete (he was a QB and tailback in previous lives) and willing blocker. Max Unger (6-5, 305) is a superb center. Unger plays with good balance, moves well laterally, and works hard to finish his initial and secondary blocks. James Carpenter (6-5, 321) and Paul McQuistan (6-6, 315) rotate at left guard. Carpenter is strong but inconsistent. McQuistan is quick and aggressive but can be overpowered. Right guard J.R. Sweezy (6-5, 298) is an athletic, aggressive, high-energy player. Lynch loves to run behind Sweezy and road-grading right tackle Breno Giacomini (6-7, 318). Denver’s run defense begins with massive and stout tackles Sylvester Williams (6-3, 313) and Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton (6-3, 335). Williams is quicker than a man his size has a right to be. He has big arms and strong hands. He’s very active, making it hard for opponents to maintain their blocks. His hits hurt. Knighton is disruptive and strong. He shows deceptive quickness and not-so-deceptive power. Also has the best nickname in the NFL. Middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard (6-0, 233) is undersized but productive. A speedy player with good vision and instincts, Woodyard finds the ball quickly and will work hard to break through traffic and make big hits. Outside linebacker Danny Trevathan has gone from nice special teams player to the leader of this unit. Trevathan (6-0, 240) is aggressive and active. He breaks down plays quickly and uses his speed to make tackles from one side of the field to the other. Few players work harder. Fellow outside linebacker Nate Irving (6-1, 245) is solid but has a tendency to overpursue.
When the Seahawks pass
Russell Wilson has everything you want in a quarterback — except maybe ideal height. But the 5-foot-11-inch, 206-pounder has hardly let that stop him from winning an NFL-record 24 games over his first two seasons. A natural-born leader with tremendous athletic skills and confidence, Wilson can stand in the pocket and make plays but is much more dangerous (and more fun to watch) when he’s on the run. A very accurate passer even outside the tackle box, Wilson can sling from everywhere — he is equally adept at going to his left or his right — and does a nice job leading receivers. An outstanding athlete, Wilson is light on his feet and fast. He can hit the corner on the bootleg and go like a tailback. He has nice open-field moves and will leave defenders grabbing at air. Wilson has good field vision and the sense to hit the deck to avoid unnecessary hits. Never appears rattled. Wilson’s top target is the ultracompetitive Golden Tate. A receiver in a tailback’s body, Tate (5-10, 202) has decent speed and a bevy of nifty after-the-catch moves. Tate has strong hands and excellent body control. He will lay out for every pass and usually comes up with the ball but always comes up yapping. A pair of undrafted receivers, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, have emerged as solid playmakers for Wilson. Like most of the Seahawks, Baldwin (5-10, 189) plays with an abrasive attitude. He isn’t a track star but has sneaky speed and will get deep. He has strong hands and can take a hit. Kearse (6-1, 209) knows how to get open. He can make all the routine catches and will throw in a spectacular one here and there. Percy Harvin is blessed with blazing speed and great hands but can’t seem to stay on the field (hip, concussion). If he can stay healthy Sunday, the 5-11, 184-pounder will be a factor. Tight end Zach Miller (6-5, 255) is a big, reliable target across the middle and in the red area. The Broncos secondary has a mix of wily veterans and willing youngsters. Veteran corners Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Quentin Jammer are all proven. Bailey is well past his All-Pro years but still has the skills and savvy to cover. Rodgers-Cromartie has long and strong arms to jam receivers and bat down passes. Jammer has lost more than a step but still shows glimpses. Safety Duke Ihenacho is big-time hitter but lacks coverage skills. Same can be said for Mike Adams, who does have a nose for the ball.
Key matchup: Marshawn Lynch vs. Danny Trevathan
As any one of the thousands of credentialed media members can tell you, Lynch is the strong, silent type. A powerfully-built 5 feet 11 inches, 215 pounds, Lynch has speed, quickness, and
toughness. This cat can be fast as lightning, a little bit frightening, and he hits creases with expert timing (thank you, Carl Douglas). He very rarely goes down on first contact and oftentimes leaves myriad would-be tacklers in his wake. If Lynch can establish himself early and get into a groove, he can control this game by controlling the clock and Peyton Manning’s time on the field. Trevathan has come a long way. A sixth-round pick a year ago, he started zero games as a rookie. This season, the former special teams ace started 16 games and collected 129 tackles and three interceptions. He may lack prototypical NFL size, but the 6-foot, 250-pounder is very active and very aggressive. He finds the ball quickly and will smash into opponents with reckless abandon.
BRONCOS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Throw down: Richard Sherman loves to talk. Put him to the test early and often and see how he fares against the most well-prepared quarterback in history. He has to put up or shut up.
2. Beat down: Employ a nice platoon of Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball and let them try to wear down Seattle’s front seven. It will loosen things up for Peyton Manning.
3. Low down: This offensive line has performed admirably all season. They’ll need to be at their protective best against a defense (Shaun Phillips in particular) that can get to the quarterback.
SEAHAWKS’ KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Boom baby: This vaunted secondary needs to show just how good it is by matching up with the best receiving corps in the business — and one of the best QBs ever — and inflict some pain.
2. Bonus baby: Russell Wilson hasn’t been terrific in the postseason. But he’s been good enough. He needs to play his best game (that means using his head, his arm, and his legs) on the biggest stage.
3. Oh, baby: This front seven has to do what no team has done this season: Put constant pressure and hits on Peyton Manning (without blitzing constantly) to make him skittish and uncomfortable.