Super Bowl XLVIII Preview: Do the Numbers Favor Peyton's Broncos?

Will Peyton Manning get it done in his third Super Bowl appearance?

Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen two game-winning field goals from Adam Vinatieri’s foot, three defensive touchdowns from Monte Kiffin’s defense and a touchdown toss from a wide receiver.

We’ve watched David Tyree defy physics, James Harrison sprint to exhaustion, an onside kick to start the second half, an undefeated team’s defeat and a power outage. A full-blown, pitch-black power outage.

Football fans have been fortunate over the last 10 to 15 years to see some of the craziest, wackiest things the game can offer in the biggest game imaginable. Perhaps this has to do with the NFL’s natural parity – a single-elimination playoff tournament, like we see with college basketball, that often brings underdog stories.

Or maybe this is just the game. This is why millions of people tune in each week. This is why, aside from the commercials, your mom, wife and best buddy will be watching football with you on Sunday.

They want to experience the drama.

There’s no doubt that we’ll see a vintage NFL matchup on Sunday. We’ve got the two best teams from each conference - something we don’t usually see (but something our metrics accurately predicted) - facing off in the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold environment. In typical NFL fashion, the quarterback from one of the teams is arguably the best we’ve ever seen, but improperly known for his inability to play in the cold.

Oh, and did I mention that he’ll be facing off against a unit that’s been able to stop opposition passing games in a pass-first NFL era? Or the fact that the other quarterback is just a sophomore in the league, and was passed up by every single team at least twice during his NFL Draft?

And then there’s the outspoken All-Pro cornerback, who created more headlines after a post-game trash talking session than anyone else this year, Justin Bieber aside.

Yes, there will be drama in this weekend’s Super Bowl.

But while the storylines are great for football fans, the game itself is what we really care about. And fortunately, we’ve got the numbers and analysis to get you ready for the big game.

How can the Broncos win? What should they do? Does Russell Wilson need to step up his game? Can Richard Sherman’s secondary stop Peyton Manning's passing attack?

Well, let’s see what the numbers say.

Stopping Marshawn

Getting Marshawn Lynch to stop talking isn’t a difficult thing to do. But getting him to stop running? That’s a different story.

At numberFire, we use a nifty metric called Net Expected Points (NEP) to show us how well a player performs. Instead of looking at traditional yardage and touchdown statistics – which don’t always tell the entire story – we look at the down and distance situations on each play, and see how a player affects said play in terms of expected points. You can read more about Net Expected Points in our glossary.

This season, Marshawn Lynch finished with the ninth-best Rushing NEP score of all 200-plus attempt running backs (22 of them). In terms of Total NEP, which factors in receiving metrics, Lynch was the eighth-best, ahead of players like Adrian Peterson and Eddie Lacy.

The bruising back helped the Seahawks to the 11th-best rushing offense in the NFL this year. While this may seem low to those who look at yardage totals as a measure of effectiveness (Seattle ranked fourth in rushing yards), keep in mind that Seattles’ rushing attack rank is adjusted for strength of schedule, using our Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points metric. That, and our NEP metrics aren’t simply yardage-based.

This season, Seattle had eight games against top-half rush defenses – ones ranked in the top 16 according to our Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP metric. Four of them were within the division (Arizona, San Francisco), while the other four came against Carolina, New York (Giants), Houston and Tampa Bay.

Arizona ranked 3rd against the run, Carolina 7th and San Francisco 9th. The rest of the teams ranked between 11 and 13.

The reason I bring this up is because Denver, Seattle’s opponent on Super Bowl Sunday, ended the season with the best rush defense numbers in the entire NFL. The Broncos prevented over 51 points from being scored on them via the ground over the course of the season, which was number one from both a cumulative and per rush standpoint.

In essence, it’s not going to be easy for Marshawn to get things going against Denver. While the team will need him given quarterback Russell Wilson’s inexperience and the potential for poor weather, they may not be able to depend on him the way they have throughout the season.

Russell Wilson’s Big Test

Russell Wilson will play a major role in Super Bowl XLVIII’s outcome. Sure, call me Captain Obvious, but this has less to do with the fact that he’s a quarterback, and more because of the matchup.

As I said, Denver’s rush defense was best in the league when you adjusted their Defensive Rushing NEP for strength of schedule. The pass defense, on the other hand, ranked 22nd in the NFL this year, behind teams like Cleveland and Tampa Bay.

This is where Seattle has their biggest advantage, especially considering Denver cornerback Chris Harris’ season-ending injury suffered against San Diego in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

Russell Wilson ended the 2013 regular season with a Passing Net Expected Points total of 74.66, seventh-best in the NFL. When adjusted for strength of opponent, Seattle’s passing offense ranked fifth in the NFL. And now Percy Harvin’s returning for the offense, giving the Seahawks an added dimension in the passing game. Denver’s pass defense is average at best, and missing a top corner. You do the math (actually, I'll continue to do it for you).

There are obvious problems with this being one of Seattle’s best matchups in the game though. First, Russell Wilson lacks experience. Though we’ve seen a second-year passer, Ben Roethlisberger, win a Super Bowl, we have to keep in mind that Ben’s performance in that game (against Seattle, mind you) wasn’t very strong.

The other issue, and probably a more relevant one, is Russell Wilson’s play down the stretch. Since the Seahawks big win against New Orleans in Week 13, Wilson has played below average according to our metrics, albeit against formidable opponents.

Over the first 12 regular season games this year, Wilson was averaging 6.54 Passing Net Expected Points per game. Over the last four, that number dipped to -0.95, meaning he was playing below expectation – essentially at Ryan Tannehill-like levels. Though he was a little better against San Francisco in the NFC Championship, this has mostly continued into the playoffs as well.

The fact is, Seattle needs to be able to run the ball to move offensively, hence their 31st-ranked pass-to-run ratio this season. But they may have a hard time doing so given Denver’s defensive strengths. The ball will then be in Russell Wilson’s hands to make things happen. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s certainly one that’s dangerous given his inexperience and recent play.

Can Peyton Manning Beat Seattle’s Secondary?

The other quarterback in the game, Peyton Manning, has no problem with inexperience, and he’s clearly played well during every portion of the season. But Manning’s yet to see a secondary like Seattle’s this year, which is why there’s a chance we don’t exactly see 2013’s version of Number 18 on Super Bowl Sunday.

Look, Denver had the best passing offense (by far) this year, and Peyton Manning had the best quarterback season (by far) this year as well. Even when you adjust for strength of schedule, Denver’s passing offense added 251.54 points through the air than a team in a similar situation would have this season – which is absurd – while the second-ranked team, New Orleans, was nearly 70 points behind.

Peyton Manning’s passing offense was the best we’ve ever seen, beating out even Tom Brady’s 2007 arm. However, even though the numbers are fixed for strength of opponent, we should be aware of something important: Peyton Manning didn’t face stout secondaries very often this season. And Seattle, according to our metrics, compiled by far the best pass defense in the NFL over the course of their 2013 campaign.

Sure, the Broncos played Kansas City in Weeks 11 and 13, and Manning tore them apart, especially in the second meeting. But when you look at numberFire’s top 16 pass defenses this season, Denver had just five games against the group.

Moreover, it seems as though Denver played each team, perhaps aside from Baltimore in Week 1, at very opportunistic times. For instance, the Chiefs defense appeared to peak much sooner than their Week 11 matchup – entering Week 11, the team had prevented about 59 points from being scored on them through the air. But that number was barely better than the 57 points they had prevented through Week 7.

In other words, they were barely playing above expectation for three weeks prior to their big game against Denver. And the same could be said when Denver faced the Giants in Week 2 and the Patriots in Week 12.

While this doesn’t mean that Peyton will be ineffective or have zero shot at winning the game and Super Bowl MVP, I think it should lead us to believe that, yes, there’s some validity to the “Who did Denver face?” argument. Though I’m not one to believe in this theory (after all, how is that Denver’s fault? They’re in the Super Bowl!), it still needs to be analyzed objectively.

Peyton Manning may have a hard time being Peyton Manning this weekend. If you look at our strongest predictors via our Premium service, you’ll find that Denver’s raw numbers at quarterback, when analyzed via historical games, are more efficient and opportunistic based.

Peyton Manning won’t be throwing the ball all over the field, and unless Seattle jumps to an early lead, we shouldn’t expect the high volume of throws we're used to seeing from him. He will, however, be throwing the ball efficiently on the field, making big third-down plays and converting red zone trips into touchdowns.

Don’t be surprised to see a more balanced Denver attack.

Pound It With Knowshon

In order to have balance, the Broncos have to run the ball. And what better way to do that than with one of the best NFL running backs from the 2013 season, Knowshon Moreno?

After a slow start to his career, Moreno put it all together this year, finishing with the third-highest Rushing and Total Net Expected Points scores among all running backs. He was good at running the ball effectively with a high volume of carries, and was able to be a security blanket for Manning out of the backfield, catching 60 passes during the regular season.

Though he’s injured, he’s expected to play. And boy do the Broncos need him.

Seattle’s defense was the best in the league according to our metrics, ranking first against the pass and eighth against the run. Both rankings are incredible, and though the rush defense is still far above average, it’s the clear place for an offense to exploit the defense.

Instead of reiterating what I wrote about the rush defense prior to the NFC Championship game, I figured I’d insert it below to show you instances where the Seattle rush defense was taken advantage of:

While the team allowed seven games of fewer than 70 yards rushing, they also gave up 130 or more rushing yards in seven contests, surrendering 200 or more in two of them.

What’s most interesting about this isn’t so much the fluctuation, but rather the result of the games where Seattle gave up a decent chunk of rushing yardage. The team barely beat the Rams in Week 8 in St. Louis, as the Rams totaled 200 yards on the ground. The following week, Seattle had to come back against rookie Mike Glennon’s Buccaneers – the Bucs, in an overtime game, rushed for 205 yards on the ground.

And in their two late season losses to Arizona and San Francisco, Seattle gave up 139 and 163 yards respectively.

The Seahawks played in eight regular season games this year where the margin of victory was no greater than seven points. In those contests, they allowed an average of 146 rushing yards. When the game got away from the opposition – the eight games where the margin of victory was greater than a touchdown – Seattle allowed just 57 yards per game on the ground.

Now, it shouldn't be overly surprising to see that teams who played competitively against Seattle were able to run the ball. This is all game flow related, as a team that loses a lead early will be forced to throw. However, this plays directly into the point above with Manning, noting that he has to play efficiently, not a game based on statistics and volume. In turn, the team needs to rely on their rushing attack to abuse the only (sort of) weakness on the Seahawks' defense, the rush defense.

Expect Knowshon Moreno to have a nice day for Denver, as long as he can stay healthy.

The Super Bowl XLVIII Winner

The most interesting part of this Super Bowl is that one team's strength feeds into the other team's strong suit. Denver can pass the ball better than anyone in the NFL, but Seattle can stop the pass better than anyone, too. Seattle likes to run the ball and control the clock, but Denver's rush defense is best in the league, meaning Seattle may not be able to do exactly what they would like to do.

That's why Knowshon Moreno and Russell Wilson will be important pieces to these offenses. And, because he'll be an additional piece to Wilson's arsenal, Percy Harvin will, too.

The analysis above is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the metrics say about this game. Vegas odds, using our algorithms to predict the best gamble.

But most importantly, we used all of our countless lines of code to determine who will win Super Bowl XLVIII. Curious as to who the algorithms picked? Click here to find out.