EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Denver was walloped 40-10 by Seattle in the preseason with Ronnie Hillman fumbling, Montee Ball stumbling and Peyton Manning grumbling.
The Broncos are a much different team now, one that should return to Colorado on Tuesday for a victory parade clutching their third Lombardi Trophy.
Chewed out by boss John Elway after that spectacle in Seattle last summer, the Broncos responded with a season for the ages, scoring more points than any team in NFL history (606) with Manning throwing for more touchdowns (55) and yards (5,447) than anyone ever had.
They’re not always the prettiest of passes, as Seahawks star talker and cornerback Richard Sherman pointed out, but Manning’s always won with his brain, not his arm.
Manning didn’t disagree with Sherman’s assessment that he “throws ducks.”
“I do throw ducks,” he said. “I throw for a lot of yards and TD ducks, so I’m actually quite proud of it.”
Manning’s “Duck Dynasty” consists of an unprecedented five players who caught 60 or more passes and scored 10 or more touchdowns: Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas and Knowshon Moreno.
This could be the difference Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, where the forecast isn’t for weather as frigid as so many feared.
The Broncos boast enough pick-your-poison talent in their five-receiver sets to befuddle even the stingiest of secondaries like Seattle’s. Including the playoffs, Manning has thrown for an astonishing 59 touchdowns this season.
“I think they had a heck of a season,” Sherman said. “I don’t know if they’re going to score 59 touchdowns in one game. I think that would be a record, too. … We’ve got our own accolades and awards and none of it means anything when you get between those lines.”
No, what matters is execution and Manning has had his team on a no-nonsense mission for months and he’s only ratcheted up his focus and his dogged determination during preparations for the biggest game of his stellar career.
Manning is the only player in this game who’s won a Super Bowl, and his top target Sunday could even be Jacob Tamme or Bubba Caldwell. He doesn’t discriminate, he distributes. He doesn’t often get duped. He deciphers. He doesn’t force passes, he finds the best matchup.
And he’s got time to do it because the Broncos added size and strength to the middle of their line with the addition of right guard Louis Vasquez (6-5, 335 pounds), which moved Manny Ramirez (6-3, 320) to center next to left guard Zane Beadles (6-4, 305).
They gave Manning the room to step into all those throws and he’s also quick enough in his recognition and release to usually avoid the edge rushers who might get past tackles Chris Clark or Orlando Franklin.
The line’s also opened enough holes for Knowshon Moreno to capitalize on soft underneath coverages to amass 1,761 yards from scrimmage, rendering Ball a fresh-legged cohort and Hillman an afterthought.
Ball famously whiffed on Seahawks blitzing linebacker Bobby Wagner in the preseason and Manning had to peel himself off the ground. That ruined his chances of winning the starting job in the Broncos backfield. And Hillman’s fumble at the goal line in that game, which Brandon Browner returned 106 yards for a Seattle score, opened the door for Moreno to become the featured back.
Moreno picked up the blitzes and the first downs all season, providing balance to the Broncos’ aerial fireworks.
Even though star left tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season with a foot injury in September, Manning’s jersey hardly needed the laundry as he was sacked an average of just 1.11 times a game, the lowest takedown rate of any quarterback who started all of his team’s games.
Even when they stall they don’t usually have to call upon Britton Colquitt, who’s punted just once in the last month, because the Broncos have the strongest, most accurate long-range kicker in football, Matt Prater, who kicked a record 64-yarder in icy conditions in Denver last month.
Prater’s 170 points have helped Manning’s prolific offense make up for a defense that lost Von Miller and four other starters but came together down the stretch behind backups and Elway’s free agent jackpot of Terrance Knighton, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips, Paris Lenon and Jeremy Mincey.
Champ Bailey missed much of the season with a foot injury but he’s coming off his best game and playing in his first Super Bowl in his 15-year career.
“Things do take time, and I finally got with the right group of guys,” Bailey said. “I played with some great players, but this is definitely the best team I’ve been on.”
PREDICTION: Broncos 27, Seahawks 23