3rd downs may decide Super Bowl

If Manning's forced into a lot of third-and-long situations (needing 8-plus yards for a first down), he has been very impressive, converting 27 of 70 plays (38.6 percent). But Seattle leads the league there, allowing only 2.9 yards per play and a 14.5 percent conversion rate on third-and-long passes. If we include the playoffs and look when it gets to third-and-11 or worse, quarterbacks converted once out of 39 plays (2.6 percent) against Seattle.

However, it was just one season ago when the Seahawks' defense ranked dead last in the league on third-and-long, allowing a league-worst 36.4 percent conversion rate and 32 first downs. Things can change quickly in the NFL. Just ask the Broncos.

Seattle offense versus Denver defense

Last season, Denver was dominant with a minus-66.9 percent DVOA on third-down pass defense (which also includes fourth downs), the fourth-best mark since 1989. But that defense is best remembered for Rahim Moore misplaying the ball on third-and-3, allowing Jacoby Jones to catch a 70-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left in a bitter loss to the Ravens.

That was one play, but the Broncos have fallen all the way to the bottom of the league in third-down pass defense in 2013. Denver's minus-40.0 percent DVOA ranks 744th since 1989, meaning a drop of 740 spots in one year. Even more concerning is the fact three of defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio's defenses (two when he coached Jacksonville) rank in the bottom 22. Without pass-rusher Von Miller or cornerback Chris Harris, Denver would seem to be at a serious disadvantage, but this defense has held up in the playoffs against San Diego and New England.

Of the 10 third-down conversions against Denver in the playoffs, seven came in the second half with Denver ahead by at least 16 points. The defense is getting off the field early in the game and allowing the offense to take control.

That will be critical against a Seattle offense that is just mediocre on third down: 17th in conversion rate and 18th in DVOA (14th in third-down passing DVOA). Russell Wilson has converted 36.9 percent of his third-down plays this season, including the playoffs where he is 7-of-22 (31.8 percent).

Ever since a brilliant performance in Week 13 against the Saints, Seattle's offense has sputtered and third down is part of the struggle. Since Week 14, Seattle's offense has converted only 30.4 percent of its third downs, ranked 30th in the league in that time.

Most of Marshawn Lynch's meaningful third-down carries come on third-and-short. Needing 1-2 yards, he converted on 8 of 13 runs. That's better than his career average, which is surprisingly low at 52.9 percent. On third-and-short, this matchup is a push with Denver's defense ranking 17th and Seattle's offense ranking 19th.

This matchup also comes down to the quarterback. Seattle has not been methodical on offense, but has hit on big plays and taken advantage of opponent mistakes. Denver's defense has a bad tendency for getting beat deep on critical downs and Wilson can exploit that with his scrambling ability to buy time.

Wilson has been under duress on 38.8 percent of his third-down plays and converted for a first down only 18.8 percent of the time when pressured. Denver has put the quarterback under duress on 24.2 percent of third downs, allowing a conversion on 20 percent of the pressures.

The defense that does a better job of getting to the quarterback will likely win this game. For as good as Seattle's defense has been, Manning has too many options to go to. He'll find the right one given enough time. Wilson's magic acts in the backfield can be feast or famine, but he's going to strike deep and Denver can only hope someone in the battered secondary will be there this time around. If Denver can eliminate those miscues, the Broncos may actually have the advantage.

Note: Statistics used for this article compiled from Football Outsiders game charting, ESPN Stats & Information and Pro-Football-Reference.

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