By Richard Winer, M.D. for TonySoftli.com
The AFC and NFC Championship Games were an interesting study of contrasts that resulted in a Super Bowl XLVIII match-up of markedly contrasting teams. Peyton Manning seemed to be in an operating room where he performed with surgical precision in leading the Broncos past the Patriots. By comparison, the NFC contest between the Seahawks and the Niners looked like it was being held in an emergency room or maybe a M.A.S.H. unit with Seattle surviving. Yet, for all of the differences between Denver and Seattle, the two teams have won their four playoff games by scoring between 23 and 26 points and giving up 15 to 17 points. Here are the some of the numbers from Championship Sunday that jump out and help tell why these teams won.
The Broncos have had 16 drives in the postseason and amazingly every single one has reached midfield. This hardly ever happens in one game, let alone back-to-back games in the playoffs. Only one of those drives has lasted less than two minutes and that was the drive against San Diego that ended in a fumble on a play that started at midfield. Ten of those 16 possessions have lasted more than four minutes, a staggering number that can’t help but be a secret to success when playing at altitude. Not surprisingly, the Broncos have led in time of possession by over ten minutes in each playoff contest and last Sunday they ran 40 of their 71 plays past the 50-yard line.
How prolific was the Denver offense? The average gain on first down plays was 7.25 yards, over a yard better than their impressive regular season average of 6.20 yards and nearly two yards better than the league average of 5.35 yards per first down play. For the second straight playoff game, the Broncos converted over 50 percent of third down attempts as they averaged 5.5 yards to go while gaining over seven yards per third down play. For the game, Denver had 19 plays go for more than ten yards and they had eight explosive plays of at least 20 yards (seven were passes). Manning completed 32 passes for exactly 400 yards and he tied the record for most completions in a Championship Game. Neil O’Donnell first set the mark with the Steelers in 1994 against the Chargers. Then, three years ago, Brother Eli also had 32 completions in the overtime win over the Niners. Those two quarterbacks threw 54 and 58 passes, respectively, while Peyton completed an AFC Championship Game record 74.7 percent of his 43 passes to reach that mark.
Let’s not forget the Broncos’ defense and special teams. The defense has not allowed any postseason points coming out of the locker room for the first and third quarters. In fact, 30 of the 33 points allowed have come in the fourth quarter. In the New England game, Denver did something that was a reminder of the Rams with Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker—they allowed no return yards. The Patriots started every one of their eight drives at the 20-yard line following seven kickoffs and one punt that resulted in touchbacks—I don’t recall the last time I saw that happen in a game at any level. It’s a good thing that Denver punter Britton Colquitt also serves as the holder on placements because otherwise he might not play in enough quarters to earn a letter. The Broncos have run 141 plays in the postseason in 16 drives and Colquitt has only been called upon to punt the one time. Kicker Matt Prater came through with a 54-yard fourth quarter field goal and that was the longest in Conference Championship. It’s remarkable to think that the old record was held by none other than Lou “The Toe” Groza who made a 52-yarder for the Browns all the way back in 1951 when the Rams defeated Cleveland, 24-17.
The Seahawks took a less conventional path to the Super Bowl. Their first play from scrimmage was nearly disastrous when Aldon Smith forced and then recovered a Russell Wilson fumble. The Niners set up shop in the red zone at the Seattle 15-yard line, but during the regular season San Francisco scored only nine touchdowns in 24 drives that started past midfield. The Seahawks had been equal to the task in the regular season not allowing a single red zone touchdown in the first quarter. The Niners gained but eight yards on their three plays before settling for a Phil Dawson 25-yard field goal. Eight of the nine previous playoff games had been won by the team scoring first, so the Seahawks had to buck a trend.
When the Niners took a double-digit lead in the second quarter, it looked extremely rocky for the Seattle 11 and the 12th Man that day. After all, Colin Kaepernick had already gained over 100 yards rushing thanks in large part to back-to-back 12 and 58-yard runs that set up the touchdown that gave San Francisco a 10-0 lead. He is the only player on a losing team in the postseason to have a running play of more than 20 yards. By the way, the only other quarterback to rush for 100 yards in a playoff game over the past 50 years is Michael Vick. The Seattle offense had yet to get untracked except for four passes to Doug Baldwin for 89 yards. In the first half, the Seahawks only averaged 2.1 yards on 11 first down plays while the Niners were gaining 7.8 yards per first down play.
The second half and especially the fourth quarter was a different story. The teams exchanged touchdowns that came from outside the red zone and for the game only one touchdown was scored in six red zone drives for the two teams. At the half, Seattle had run nine plays past midfield to only eight for San Francisco. By game’s end, Seattle had exactly one-half of their 58 plays past the 50-yard line while the Niners only added six plays in Seattle territory in the second half. Remember how the Niners had such fantastic field position to start their opening drive. Well, their next ten drives started on average at their own 18-yard line. Seattle had an average drive start at their own 19-yard line in the first half, but that changed dramatically in the second half when they started on average at the 47-yard line—the San Francisco 47-yard line. Overall, the Seahawks enjoyed a 13-yard advantage per drive start.
After overcoming a 3rd-and-22 situation to start the fourth quarter, the Seahawks initially took the lead on a 35-yard pass from Wilson to Jermaine Kearse on fourth down and seven yards to go with just under 14 minutes remaining. The Niners had three more possessions and they all ended in turnovers, giving them a total of eight turnovers in their two games in CenturyLink Field. Both teams had allowed a rather miniscule 34 points off of turnovers during the regular season and both team scored three points following turnovers on Sunday.
Fourth quarter turnovers should almost count as two turnovers because they are so pivotal to a game’s outcome. In this postseason, the ten winning teams have yet to commit a turnover in the final stanza while the losing teams now have seven fourth quarter turnovers. Since 2008, the winning playoff teams are a whopping plus-42 in the fourth quarter turnover ratio (45 for the losing teams and only three for the winning squads). And, if you go back 15 years to the Rams’ Super Bowl winning season, the winning playoff teams are plus-104 in fourth quarter turnovers. During that time, not one of the nine teams that have committed three fourth quarter turnovers has won and only the Seahawks in 2005 survived two last quarter turnovers to defeat the Redskins (who also had two fourth quarter turnovers).
In a real oddity, the two teams had the exact same total offense with 308 yards. That has only happened twice before in postseason play—Houston and San Diego in 1961 and the Niners and Giants in 2003. Seattle had precise balance offensively with both 29 plays rushing and passing. The Niners were virtually balanced with 28 rushing plays and 26 passing plays. The Seahawks survived although they became only the second team this postseason to win with less rushing yardage than the opponent.
Earlier this month, the top two college football teams had to travel from the Southeast all the way to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl to decide the BCS Championship. On February 2, the top NFL teams will travel from out West to New Jersey and MetLife Stadium to decide Super Bowl XLVIII. It might be very chilly that night in the Meadowlands, but the hype is already heating up for what should be a most intriguing game.