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Beating the Book: Chris Liss Handicaps the Super Bowl

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Last week was good as both favorites came in, though SEA-SF was a bit of a coin flip. And the Broncos even allowed the Pats to make it more interesting than it needed to be.

The end result, however, is the two top teams in the league all year meeting up in the Super Bowl. The last time that happened was in Super Bowl 44, when Peyton Manning's Colts played Drew Brees' Saints. That Manning team also had the easier road to the Super Bowl, knocking off the Jets, while the Saints had to beat the NFC co-favorite Vikings and only did so due to a late-game interception by Brett Favre. Manning's Colts were also favored in that matchup, but lost by 14. Of course, Indy hadn't just set the all-time record for points scored that year, Seattle's a more defense-oriented team than New Orleans was and, in any event, no single precedent is remotely dispositive of what will happen in a subsequent game. So let's take a closer look at this matchup:


Seahawks +2.5 vs. Broncos

If you look at the advanced stats sites, these teams are fairly close. Massey-Peabody has them about half a point apart on a neutral field (with Denver being favored), Advanced NFL stats had Seattle slightly ahead at the close of the regular season and Football Outsiders (at the close of the regular season) had Seattle and Denver at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, though Seattle was ahead by a significant amount.

The line opened as a pick 'em, but early money came in on Denver moving it quickly to its current place - something I'd assume means sharps were on the Broncos as casual bettors have two full weeks to place their bets. The appeal of the Broncos is obvious with Manning having a season for the ages, though he finished only fifth all-time in quarterback rating, behind Nick Foles this year, Tom Brady the year his 18-0 Patriots lost to the Giants, Manning's even better 2004 campaign (relative to his peers that one was even further off the charts) and Aaron Rodgers during his 15-1 season in 2011. Notably, none of those quarterbacks actually won Super Bowls those years, though the next two on the list - Steve Young in 1994 and Joe Montana in 1989 - did, albeit with considerably better defenses than the Broncos have. And that's the central issue: teams that pass the ball extremely well but don't play good defense usually lose in the Super Bowl to ones that play elite defense. While no single precedent governs any subsequent game, a cluster of roughly analogous games with similar results is more persuasive.

Both Giants-Patriots Super Bowls saw elite pass offenses run aground against defenses at the top of their games - the record-setting 2007 Pats scored only 14 points in Super Bowl 42. The Saints defense allowed 17 points to Manning in Super Bowl 43; the Bucs blew out the Raiders' top-ranked offense in 2002; the 2001 Pats beat the Greatest Show on Turf (GSOT); the 2000 Ravens blew out a more balanced Giants team; the 1999 Titans (who were only in the Super Bowl thanks to the Music City Miracle) barely lost the the GSOT and allowed them far less (23) than their average output; the Jeff Hostetler-quarterbacked 1990 Giants beat the Joe Montana-Jerry Rice two-time defending champion Niners 15-13 in the NFC title game, then beat the Bills (who blew out the 12-4 Raiders 51-3 in the AFC contest) 20-19; the 1986 Giants blew out the John Elway-led Broncos; and the 1984 49ers blew out the Dan Marino-led Dolphins. That last Super Bowl is particularly noteworthy in this context as Marino's assault on the record books that year was a much bigger outlier than Manning's this season. Marino was Babe Ruth lapping the league by a mile, while Manning was Barry Bonds breaking Mark McGwire's 70 by a small margin in an inflated offensive era.

Moreover, every one of those defensive teams that outperformed expectations did so despite the offense having perfect weather conditions. While the weather in the Meadowlands this Sunday is expected to be relatively mild, conditions won't be better than they were during those warm weather/dome Super Bowls, and there's a chance they could be worse.

If you want to distinguish this year's Super Bowl from the cluster of precedents I cited, you could argue Seattle's defense isn't as elite as say the Bucs' 2002 version or even the red-hot Giants teams that beat the Pats with pass rushers like Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul. But when you adjust for era, Seattle's pass defense grades out as top-five in the last 64 years and quite possibly top-two since 1970.

You might also argue the Denver offense is at a different level than the previous ones that came up just short - and this article argues they're the best (even while adjusting for era) - at least before you account for strength of schedule. But the 2007 Pats come up as their top era- and strength-of-schedule-adjusted team in NFL history - and they still managed only 14 points in perfect conditions against the Giants.

Of course, this only addresses one side of the ball, and the Super Bowl will be determined equally by what happens when the Seahawks are on offense and the Broncos on D. The Seahawks were respectable offensively with 5.6 yards per play (9th), while the Broncos allowed 5.3 YPP (15th). And keep in mind Seattle's offense faced the Niners and Cardinals defenses twice each and also the Panthers', while the Broncos defense had the Chargers twice, the Cowboys (who put up 48 on them) and the Michael Vick Eagles. (If you want to throw in the Colts (15th in yards per play who scored 39 against them, or the Pats with Rob Gronkowski who overcame a 24-0 deficit to beat them 34-31, go ahead.)

And when you look at overall strength of schedule (including the playoffs), the results are even more disparate with the Seahawks facing the Niners three times, the Cardinals and Saints twice and Panthers once. The Broncos beat only the Chiefs and Chargers twice and the Pats once.

The bottom line, based on the cluster of precedents where elite defensive teams have handled one-dimensional offensive ones in the Super Bowl, coupled with the Seahawks' considerably harder schedule and the possibility of less-than-perfect conditions, I expect the Seahawks to win this game convincingly. I haven't felt this strongly about a Super Bowl side since maybe... ever. Back Seattle.

Seahawks 33 - 17

Last week we went 2-0 to put us at 3-5-2 for the playoffs. We were 123-123-10 on the regular season. From 1999-2012 we've gone 1,810-1,641 (52.4%), not including ties.