EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Peyton Manning didn’t choke. The Seattle Seahawks strangled him.
Much will be written and said about Manning’s inability to win big games over the years. That easy narrative dates way back to his University of Tennessee days and through several disappointing losses with the Indianapolis Colts.
The Super Bowl story line shouldn’t be about Manning’s legacy, but the dominant defense that denied his Denver Broncos in a smothering, 43-8 loss Sunday night at the Meadowlands.
Success breeds imitators around the league. Seattle’s in-your-face performance certainly will force NFL executives to reevaluate their team-building philosophies.
In the regular season, the Broncos delivered the most prolific offense pro football ever had witnessed, with Manning spraying passes all over the field. They scored a record 606 points. They gained a record 7,317 yards.
No matter for the Legion of Boom. They fielded the NFL’s best defense. They ranked first in points allowed, yards allowed and takeaways.
And on Sunday they snatched the Lombardi Trophy and made the Broncos look like chumps.
“I told you we’re the best defense ever, man,” Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said. “We could’ve played anybody today and done the same thing.”
Broncos coach John Fox said his team “ran into a buzzsaw.”
Seattle’s defense was phenomenal, pouncing on two interceptions that weren’t Manning’s fault, a careless fumble by Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas and a strip sack in the fourth quarter. A botched shotgun snap gave Seattle a gift safety on the first play of the night.
Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, with nine tackles, an interception return for a touchdown and a fumble recovery, was the ninth defensive MVP in Super Bowl history.
Is it possible this type of thorough annihilation of the NFL’s best offense could make defense cool again?
“Why wouldn’t defense be cool?” Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril said. “These fantasy games want you to score a lot and all that good stuff. But I’d rather do the hitting than be hit.”
Strong safety Kam Chancellor said his teammates played like “savages.”
“A lot of teams are going to watch a lot of our film and see what we do,” defensive tackle Brandon Mebane said. “We don’t do a lot of outrageous stuff. We just do basic stuff and do it well as a unit.”
Perhaps we should’ve known what was about to unfold when Joe Namath threw an interception on the coin toss.
Broadway Joe, in a splendiferous fur coat, flipped it before the Seahawks barked out their call. Referee Terry McAulay stepped underneath the fluttering coin and clasped his hands around it.
That’s how Super Bowl XLVIII began. The Seahawks won the official toss, and they got most everything right for the next few hours.
Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn rendered the Broncos hapless. Quinn was one of the coaches the Cleveland Browns reportedly wanted but settled for Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine instead.
The Browns fired last year’s head coach, Rob Chudzinski, 352 days after hiring him. Maybe the same men who made that call would fire Pettine after 11 days.
While Manning was the star, the Broncos have a complete offense.
The Broncos gave up the NFL’s fewest sacks. Running back Knowshon Moreno was the first Bronco to rush for 1,000 yards and add another 500 yards receiving. They were the first team in league history to have five players with at least 60 catches.
All of that was negated.
“We played our style against the NFL’s best offense,” Quinn said. “That is gratifying as anything.”
It was the type of display that will cause scouts to look at players differently and coaches to rethink their strategies.
Quinn runs a 4-3 defense that’s simple because his players are so good. The Seahawks have tall, physical cornerbacks who can press receivers at the line.
While many teams build their defenses from the defensive line and backward, draft cornerbacks early and hope to find their safeties in the middle rounds, the Seahawks built from the defensive backfield and forward.
They drafted free safety Earl Thomas 14th overall in 2010 and built their secondary around him. Chancellor was a fifth-round pick. Starting cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell were drafted in the fifth round and sixth round.
Luck is involved when finding star players in the middle rounds. Whether that process was Seattle’s plan or not, it worked. Teams pay attention to what works.
“You can go look for those guys, look for the size and the height and the length,” Chancellor said. “But you can’t find those hearts. The guys on my team are fearless. You can’t teach that.”
The first snap of the game sailed past Manning and into the end zone for a safety. Oh-no-maha! was the worst opening play in the Super Bowl since Thurman Thomas lost his helmet.
You can’t tell me center Manny Ramirez wasn’t jittery about facing Seattle’s nasty defense that first play on the world stage.
The Broncos’ fifth play was a punt. In their two playoff games combined, they’d punted a grand total of once. The Broncos’ eighth play was an interception caused by a deflection.
Seattle had the ball for 11:41 in the first quarter. Denver didn’t get a first down until the game was 19:30 old, but closed the time-of-possession gap with an extended drive – that ended with Smith’s 69-yard interception return for a touchdown. Avril hit Manning’s right arm, causing the ball to flutter like Namath’s coin.
And that was symbolic.
Because with the way Seattle’s defense overwhelmed Denver’s offense, the Super Bowl was over before it began.