EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If it looks like a duck, wobbles like a duck, and it left Peyton Manning’s right arm like a duck, chances are that duck knows exactly where to land safely.
That was the Denver Broncos’ reaction to Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s comment that Manning “throws ducks.” Even Manning eventually joined in with some humor as the two teams spent the week preparing for and talking on and on about their Super Bowl XLVIII matchup at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
“I believe it to be true,” Manning said with a smile. “They say he is a smart player, and I think that’s a real reach with what he is saying there. I do throw ‘ducks.’ I’ve thrown a lot of yards and touchdown ‘ducks.’ I am actually quite proud of it.”
Poor Sherman. The outspoken and controversial self-proclaimed best cornerback in all of football actually spent the week on his best behavior after boasting in the moments after his game-clinching pass defense in the NFC Championship Game. He exercised his Stanford education for all to admire. He was charming. He even called Manning the best quarterback in the game today and one of the best in the 94-year history of the league.
But he still couldn’t escape the negative perception of the honest and accurate assessment he made before the playoffs while serving as a guest columnist on Sports Illustrated NFL reporter Peter King’s MMQB.com website. While listing Manning as the top quarterback in football, Sherman also wrote: “His arm, however, is another story. His passes will be accurate and on time, but he throws ducks.”
Sherman didn’t, ahem, duck his choice of words once he stepped onto the enormous Super Bowl stage.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Sherman said. “He does a great job. But at the same time, when he catches the ball [from center], he doesn’t necessarily catch the laces all the time. But he throws an accurate ball, regardless of how he catches it, how he gets it. He delivers it on time and accurately.”
The words, thankfully, are behind both teams. The action starts at 5:30 p.m. in the first outdoor Super Bowl played in a cold-weather venue. In what will be an advantage for the duck-tossing, five-time MVP and future first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer, Sunday’s weather forecast calls for a high of 49 degrees, a low of 29, little to no wind and only a 20 percent chance of precipitation.
Of course, Manning likes to note that he does play for an outdoor, cold-weather team that’s won 15 games this season. And his one championship came when the Colts beat the Bears in the rain in Super Bowl XLI in Miami.
Another title would make him the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with more than one team. It also would stamp a legacy more fitting for his career rather than leave it facing the possibility of, right or wrong, being affixed with an everlasting asterisk for postseason underachievement.
Standing between Manning and those distinctly different historical destinations is 60 minutes of football and a No. 1-ranked defense that believes it can cement its own legacy by stifling the league’s first 600-point offense and a quarterback who set NFL records for passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55).
“After it’s all said and done, then maybe we will think about what this game meant to our legacy or what this game meant to [Manning’s] legacy or this, that and the other,” Sherman said. “But I don’t think, going into the game, it’s something that we consciously think about.”
Obviously, there are more matchups in the equation. Seattle’s run-oriented offense needs to keep Manning on the sideline by running effectively with Marshawn Lynch and maintaining composure with poised second-year quarterback Russell Wilson. And if that’s not enough, Seattle now has more big-play potential with former Vikings receiver Percy Harvin finally healthy and easily the game’s most explosive X-factor.
The key matchup, however, is Manning’s fully loaded brain vs. a Seattle defense that’s deep, confident and as adept at rushing the passer as it is mugging receivers with its oversized “Legion of Boom” secondary.
Can Manning be pressured?
Manning threw an NFL-high 659 passes this season but was sacked fewer times (18) than any other starting quarterback who played a full season. In Denver’s AFC Championship Game victory over the Patriots and Manning nemesis Tom Brady, Manning was hit only one time while passing 43 times with 32 completions for 400 yards and two touchdowns.
“The key to what Peyton does is how much studying of the opponent and all the preparation he does,” receiver and former Gopher Eric Decker said. “It’s the best, bar none. He’ll blow me away when I’m looking at my iPad and I have a 2003 game film on it and he takes a look over my shoulder and says, ‘Watch play 67, watch play 14.’ It’ll be film of an opponent or maybe a specific coordinator we’re studying. He’s looking at every angle, making sure he doesn’t miss anything and doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to knowing what the defense is about to do.”
The offensive line doesn’t get its due, particularly considering it’s playing with a backup left tackle (Chris Clark) and a former longtime guard who was switched to center this season (Manny Ramirez). As for receivers, there isn’t a favorite because Manning made all of them his favorite en route to a record four of them catching at least 10 touchdown passes.
“The key,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said, “is we need to move [Manning], get him off his spot so he has to move and adjust. When he’s in rhythm and solidly in the pocket — which he is a great majority of the time — then you’re really dealing with the best he has to offer.”
Seattle’s defense ranked No. 1 in several categories, including yards allowed (273.6), points allowed (14.4), passer rating (63.5), interceptions (28) and total takeaways (37). It ranked eighth in sacks (44), but the pressure generated by a line rotation that’s seven deep was a key component this season. The top two in sacks — ends Michael Bennett (8 ½) and Cliff Avril (8) — were signed as free agents before the season.
“We feel like we can pressure anybody,” Bennett said. “So, yeah, I feel like I can get to [Manning]. I wouldn’t be playing in this game [if I didn’t].”
Jams and rub routes
Talk of physical matchups normally is limited to line play and those closer to the ball. But this game features Seattle’s big, strong defensive backs against a hard-nosed Denver receiving corps that is well-schooled running rub routes from bunched-up receiver sets while tiptoeing and sometimes crossing the line between legal contact and illegal pick plays.
“I think the main thing is not to go into it trying to pick,” said Wes Welker, the former Patriots receiver who was accused by Patriots coach Bill Belichick of intentionally injuring cornerback Aqib Talib in the AFC title game.
“You go into it trying to run your route and do what you’ve done for all these years. I think the key things are just running your route the way you’re supposed to run it and it works out for the best usually.”
Seattle’s cornerbacks can play press coverage but also excel in zone coverages that aren’t as vulnerable to rub routes. As for Denver’s potential X-factor, tight end Julius Thomas, well, he’ll be covered a lot by Kam Chancellor, a 6-3, 232-pound safety who helped shut down two of the league’s best tight ends — New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis — in the playoffs.
“A lot of teams play multiple schemes, and it’s kind of like disguised,” Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “The way I see these guys is, they don’t play a whole bunch of stuff, but they play it about as good as you want to play a defense. Their execution is off the charts. They play their three-deep zone and man-to-man as good as you want it designed.”
In other words, Manning won’t see anything he hasn’t already anticipated. It’s just a matter of protection, rhythm and whether those fluttering ducks will land in the right set of hands.
“I still remember the first day I was throwing with Peyton,” receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “It wasn’t the prettiest ball, but it was always in the right spot and it was easy to catch. It’s like catching tissue paper. It’s so easy to catch, it really doesn’t matter if it’s a spiral or wobbly. I never had a quarterback like that before.”
Julius Thomas also doesn’t mind the term “ducks.”
“Whichever animal or word you want to use to describe Peyton’s passes, I’ll take them every day,” he said. “Whether that be duck, goose or cat passes, I’ll continue taking them.”
Chancellor agreed with Sherman’s analysis before pausing, smiling and using three words to clarify his stance while trying not to tick off a living NFL legend whose 16th season has been his best :
“Accurate, successful ducks.”