The nightmare started early, as early as any Super Bowl nightmare has ever started.
Very first snap. Peyton Manning was doing his Peyton Manning thing, walking toward the line of scrimmage to yell OMAHA!!! or some other pre-snap code word that may or may not mean something when Broncos center Manny Ramirez snapped the ball right past Manning’s ear hole and into the end zone.
At that moment, it became a virtual lock that the football-loving world would miss the best part of this game. Because at that moment, an NFL season that has largely been about Manning’s incredible comeback from neck surgeries and a numb throwing arm to the best season of his career and a record fifth MVP award turned into something else entirely.
Eventually, it turned into a 43-8 domination for the Seahawks over Manning’s Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII here at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. And now, it will morph into a misguided and hungry sports media narrative about Manning and legacy and pressure that will feed on itself until there is nothing left but crumbs.
And it will miss the point.
“I hope we etched our names in the history books,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said. “This is the No. 1 offense in the history of the NFL, and we were able to play a good game against them.”
The Seahawks’ defense is among the NFL’s strongest in a generation, worthy of being mentioned with the 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens. This is a monster created by coach Pete Carroll. He overhauled virtually the entire roster with athletic, strong players who thrive in a brilliantly aggressive system that masks discipline with swagger. They are much more than Sherman’s WWE-style interview.
“They’re the best defense in the league,” Broncos tight end Julius Thomas said. “We knew that coming into this. You guys knew it.”
Football is America’s obsession. The NFL made quarterbacks the obsession-within-an-obsession through marketing and rules changes, so we are all about to hear lots of talk about Manning now being 1-2 in Super Bowls and why that means he doesn’t deserve a hypothetical seat at the made-for-TV table of best quarterbacks of all time.
Which means a lot of people will be so distracted debating Manning’s level of all-time greatness that they’ll miss appreciating the Seahawks’ all-time greatness.
“It’s all about making history,” Seattle safety Earl Thomas said. “This was a dominant performance from top to bottom.”
Offense is easier to measure. It’s easier for the highlight shows, especially with more awareness for player safety. Quarterbacks are in on every play, their faces on TV so often on Sundays and then throughout the week selling pizza or razors or headphones.
The field is slanted in favor of the quarterbacks, in terms of attention and money and fame. Because of that, too many will focus on Manning’s failure. But that offense-happy context is exactly why the attention should be on the Seahawks.
“We just feed off each other,” Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith said. “It’s a great group of guys, guys who have chips on their shoulder and have been overlooked.”
The NFL’s emphasis on quarterbacks is the shiny and flashing light that has overshadowed Seattle building its own case for historical greatness — just not the kind of greatness favored by the NFL’s goal of world domination.
Advanced metrics and the eyes of longtime football men tell a similar story, that for all of Manning’s precision and unprecedented statistics, the Seahawks’ defense was every bit as good at what it does as the Broncos offense was at what it does — and that was before Seattle rolled up the Broncos like some sorry high school homecoming opponent.
They turned that first fumbled snap into a safety, set up the team’s first touchdown with an interception and scored the second touchdown with a 69-yard interception return by Malcolm Smith — the longest in a Super Bowl since Tracy Porter went 74 yards against Manning four Super Bowls ago.
You could do worse than Smith’s return for an easy-to-grasp illustration of how the Seahawks used defense to conquer a world that favors offense. If you watch the play again, you will notice the Seahawks only rushed four on the play, with ends Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons emasculating Broncos tackles Orlando Franklin and Chris Clark, essentially meeting each other at Manning. Avril got there a split-second before Clemons and hit Manning in his throwing motion enough that the pass floated in the air for three seconds that might as well have been forever.
Smith — he’s one of the game’s best cover linebackers, even if Sherman and the Legion of Boom secondary get most of the attention — adjusted to the ball and outran everyone to the end zone.
“I’m just the one today,” Smith said. “It happens all the time like this.”
Pressure without blitzing. Strong, fast, big athletes in coverage who perfectly execute press coverage that throws off the timing so important to Manning. All of it working together in violent symphony.
“It’s just the way we play,” Carroll said. “We played our style of ball. We didn’t change anything for this game.”
Basically, the Seahawks did to Manning what the Chiefs had planned to do but could not pull off.
The Seahawks’ masterpiece against one of the best offenses in NFL history is the drop-the-mic moment in a convincing case about their own place in history. Seattle led the NFL in virtually every major category — fewest yards, fewest points, fewest yards per play and most turnovers — and, according to Football Outsiders’ best advanced metric, is the NFL’s seventh-best defense since 1989.
The Seahawks defense is like a cheat code, swimming upstream against a current of inflated offense and winning the race anyway.
“Defense wins championships,” safety Kam Chancellor said. “I guess you can really say that now.”
Right now, the fact that their crowning achievement came against a first-ballot Hall of Famer at the height of his powers will distract from their own greatness instead of add to it. That will change as time moves on and provides a clearer perspective on what we all just saw. But if you’re inclined, skip the waiting period.
Because who knows when the offense-first NFL will see a defense this good again?