DENVER -- The deeper the Denver Broncos play into this season, the harder it is to pick against them.
There's simply something to this team that goes far beyond its mind-boggling offensive statistics or the star power of its quarterback. It's the Broncos' mental toughness, their unyielding belief that they can weather whatever challenges come their way. Now that they've drawn the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Broncos are looking even more like a team about to claim its third championship in franchise history.
For all the great things Seattle has accomplished this season, the Seahawks are arriving at the wrong place at the wrong time. This is the year when Peyton Manning and the Broncos get to savor being the team of destiny, the squad that can thrive even when chaos hovers all around them. They've lost key starters on their offensive line. They watched their best defensive player tear his ACL before the regular season ended and their best defensive back suffer the same fate in their first playoff game. Oh yeah, Broncos head coach John Fox also missed a month of work after undergoing open-heart surgery.
The point here is that Denver is officially this year's Baltimore Ravens, with Manning playing a role that worked well for Ray Lewis last year. That team battled through extensive adversity before eventually beating San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII. The Broncos now have a similar attitude -- that they will not be deterred -- that is working in their favor.
"What we've been through, throughout the year, how we finished last year, everybody deserves to be in at this point," said Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker, referring to Denver's upset playoff loss to Baltimore last season. "It just shows how we stuck together and now we have an opportunity to play in the big game."
The Broncos also have a chance to face a Seattle team that they should beat. There's no question the Seahawks have a great defense: relentless pass rush, speed and athleticism at linebacker and aggressive ball hawks on the back end. What they don't have, however, is an offense that is dynamic enough to exploit a Broncos defense that has been depleted by injuries to players like Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller, defensive end Derek Wolfe, safety Rahim Moore and cornerback Chris Harris. That unit surprisingly has played well in the postseason and that means Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson could face more issues than you'd expect.
For one thing, New England quarterback Tom Brady couldn't dominate the Broncos' defense -- he went 24-for-38 with 277 yards and one touchdown -- in Denver's 26-16 win in the AFC Championship Game. The Seahawks have marginally better talent at receiver than the Patriots but they've also been hurt in two areas. Wide receiver Percy Harvin was plagued by injuries all season and ultimately sat out Seattle's 23-17 win over San Francisco in Sunday's NFC title game. The Seahawks also lost wide receiver Sidney Rice to a torn ACL in late October.
As much as Seattle has survived with less heralded targets like Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, this is still an offense that ranked 26th in the NFL with 202.2 passing yards per game. This really is a unit built around the power running of Marshawn Lynch and the opportunities that approach creates for Wilson's play-action passing. Seattle simply doesn't have the weapons in the passing game to frighten a Broncos secondary that has quickly become a patchwork unit. That matters big in a game where Seattle will need to score touchdowns to win.
The Seahawks also won't be facing a quarterback who will make the errors that doomed San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick on Sunday. Kaepernick had three fourth-quarter turnovers in that contest, including an interception in the final seconds that resulted from Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman tipping an ill-advised pass to linebacker Malcolm Smith for the game-clinching interception. Forget for one moment Sherman's postgame bluster or the classless way he celebrated that play -- by taunting wide receiver Michael Crabtree and clutching his throat in the choke sign. Manning isn't making that throw in that situation. He's going to find the weakest link in the Seahawks' secondary and wear that guy out whenever possible.
That doesn't mean the Seahawks won't get theirs. They deserve all the hype they're getting on that side of the football. It's just that Manning didn't set league records for passing yards and passing touchdowns in a single season solely by getting on a nice roll. He's blessed with exceptional talent around him and a league that is biased toward offense. In other words, bet on Seattle -- a team that loves to clutch and bully receivers -- to not get nearly as many breaks from the officials as they might against other opponents.
This contest already is shaping up as a possible swan song for Manning, which means the emotional advantage resides in Denver. There's clearly a noticeable looseness to him at this time of year that has never been visible in the past. This is a man who was fighting to keep his career alive three years ago, after four neck surgeries nearly sidelined him forever. He can appreciate the effort it took to overcome both that and his departure from the Indianapolis Colts, the franchise that drafted him into the NFL in 1998.
Manning certainly recognizes how close he is to the conclusion of a phenomenal career. If this is where it's going to end, he's entirely comfortable with dropping one-liners at his news conferences and savoring the ride for all it's worth. Great quarterbacks with that type of mindset are tough to beat at this time of year. As Manning said after completing 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, "Playing quarterback is what I was focused on doing today. Nothing more than that."
In many ways, Manning's past three NFL seasons fit perfectly with what the Broncos have become as a team this year. They've had to learn new things about themselves, adjust on the fly and face the doubts that lingered in the wake of last year's crushing playoff loss to Baltimore. The lone upside of that defeat is that it created a hunger in Denver that has driven the Broncos to this point. While Seattle is just blossoming into a perennial championship contender, the Broncos understand they have only so much time left to win a title with Manning under center.
So while this year's Super Bowl is a clash of the two best teams in football -- the top scoring offense versus the top scoring defense -- it also will be a reminder of how championships are now won in this league. There's no doubting that Seattle has the advantage in depth and health at the moment. On the other hand, Denver has shown more resolve and toughness in a season that offered setback after setback. Given what we've seen from recent champions, those are simply difficult traits to bet against.