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OUCH: The Humiliation of Manning

The front page of the Denver Post website put it this way: “For Super Bowl starters, the Broncos suffered from a horrific case of stage fright. Jitters turned to panic. Panic leaked to disaster. Disaster became humiliation.” That’s a good start, but the Post’s list of sad Super Bowl nouns doesn’t quite capture the misery of Sunday night’s Broncos catastrophe. Humiliation turned into deep, unending despair. Deep, unending despair became profound emptiness. Profound emptiness transformed into convulsive sobs. Then the Seahawks scored again, and it was only the third quarter. Later, there were locusts.

The NFL’s postseason tournament doesn’t typically crown pro football’s best team. Last year, the ho-hum, 10-6 Ravens hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. The year before, it was Eli Manning’s 9-7 Giants, who barely scraped ho-humitude before a late-season surge. But the 2014 playoffs were not a crapshoot. They were a coronation. The Seattle Seahawks, 43-8 winners in Super Bowl XLVIII, are pro football’s best team. The Seahawks are so dominant, and so overpowering, that it’s not really fair to say that everybody else is playing for second. It’s more like the rest of the NFL is playing for 53rd, or 177th. All hail our neon-green-accented overlords.

On Sunday night in New Jersey, the Denver Broncos were definitely the best team wearing orange. Peyton Manning is a football genius. There is no defense he hasn’t seen before, no scheme he can’t outsmart. On the first play from scrimmage, Broncos center Manny Ramirez snapped the ball over Manning’s head. When the Broncos’ Knowshon Moreno fell on the prolate spheroid in the end zone, Seattle had a 2-0 lead after just 12 seconds. This, it turned out, would be one of the Denver offense’s best plays of the night: If Moreno hadn’t dived on the ball, Seattle would’ve had a touchdown instead of a safety. The best offense in NFL history, a team that scored a record 606 points this season, had been reduced to flailing around in its own end zone, desperately trying to abate its own ineptitude.

Denver did not play well—Seattle, after all, took the lead without even really doing anything. Broncos coach John Fox also didn’t have a good day: His decision to punt from the Seattle 39-yard line with his team trailing 29-0 early in the third quarter elevated football-coach risk aversion to something more like hyper-milquetoast performance art. But this was less a Broncos defeat than a comprehensive Seahawks victory, one that validates Seattle’s coach, their players, and their remarkably uncomplicated defensive scheme.

As Chris Brown explained in Grantland, Pete Carroll’s defense is at once aggressive and conservative. The Seahawks play press coverage on receivers at the line of scrimmage, taking advantage of their cornerbacks’ strong cover skills. Once opposing wideouts make their way down the field, they fall into a zone, relying on their safeties’ incredible range and hitting ability.

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