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2014 Super Bowl XLVIII Free Pick

Super Bowl XLVIII: Broncos vs. Seahawks, 6:30PMET
Whether it’s because of the overreaction to Richard Sherman’s outburst following the NFC title game or the fact that Peyton Manning can see the light at the end of his career, the Broncos have become “Joe Public’s” team for Super Bowl XLVIII.

It’s hard to blame the betting public for wagering on the Broncos at a near 70-percent clip. Teams have a difficult enough time beating Manning when he has six days to prepare for them, let alone two weeks. Denver also is a matchup nightmare for any defense thanks to Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno, and John Fox and Jack Del Rio has the defense playing as well right now as any point in the season.

Do you feel a “but” coming on?

I like the Seahawks. I’d shop around until I found the line at 3 or bet it up to a field goal, but it wouldn’t shock me if Seattle won outright. The team with the No. 1 defense in the regular season has often fared well in the Super Bowl, going 12-4 straight up over the history of the game. Not only did Seattle have the best defense in the league this year, the referees often “let ‘em play” in the Super Bowl, which benefits the physical nature of the Hawks’ back seven.

It’s not easy, but the way to beat Manning is to disrupt his timing with his receivers, just like the Colts did to Denver in Week 7. Indianapolis won that game in large part because its defense forced three turnovers and Andrew Luck played mistake-free football, but the Colts’ cornerbacks also got their hands on the Broncos’ receivers at the line of scrimmage and often re-routed them off the ball. That flustered Manning and while he still threw for nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns, it was a enough to send Denver to its first loss.

The Seahawks play “Cover 3″ better than any team in the league thanks to Pete Carroll. Outside of Week 2 when he shadowed Anquan Boldin (and subsequently shut him down), Sherman doesn’t “travel” a lot but he and his fellow cornerbacks know Carroll’s system perfectly. The Hawks like to funnel everything inside to where all-everything safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor can make plays between the hashes. K.J. Wright, Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin can also be a handful to deal with in coverage from their linebacker positions.

Carroll is also multiple with his fronts, meaning that half of his defensive line will play one-gap while the other half or at least some personnel will play two-gap. That can also cause confusion for an offensive line, especially one like Denver that uses a zone blocking scheme. It doesn’t happen often, but if you can confuse Manning and/or his offensive mates, that’s another way to beat the Broncos.

Speaking of Carroll, he’s likely to do something in this game to steal a possession or take a shot down field in order to come up with the big play. Fox, for as solid as he is, often plays things conservatively and I think in the end that could cost him. We saw what happened the last time Manning was in the Super Bowl and Sean Payton rolled the dice with an onsides kick. In the battle of Carroll versus Fox, I’m siding with the coach that’s going to roll the dice.

On the other side of the ball, there’s no question that Seattle’s offense is a concern. They haven’t been right in over a month. But hopefully Darrell Bevell has discovered something over the last two weeks and realizes that he has neutered Russell Wilson to the point of diminishing returns. When the handcuffs were off Wilson in the second half of the NFC title game, he delivered. While the offense still runs through Marshawn Lynch, Bevell needs to allow his young quarterback to make plays. And while Wilson is a Super Bowl virgin, he’s also one of the more poised young signal-callers in the league. Having Percy Harvin back should also help, if nothing else than to make Denver be aware of him.

In the end this is one of the best Super Bowl matchups we’ve seen in quite a while. Nothing would necessarily surprise me although the only true value in this game is taking the points with a Seattle team that should thrive in the underdog role.

SUPER BOWL XLVIII FREE PICK: SEATTLE SEAHAWKS +3

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Sportsbooks set early odds for NFL Final Four

After a typical NFL season with all sorts of surprises and countless ups and downs, we end up with four teams left standing who many would list as the four best teams in the NFL. New England pounded Indianapolis with the running game as LeGarrette Blount ran wild for 166 yards and 4 touchdowns, giving the rest of the NFL the blessing of not having to listen to Jim Irsay any more this season. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning and the Broncos took care of business against upstart San Diego last night to set up another Peyton Manning/Tom Brady matchup for a trip to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, on the NFC side, San Francisco took care of Cam Newton and the Panthers while Seattle won a slugfest against Drew Brees and the Saints.

Anyone looking forward to next week already can check out the early NFL odds at online sportsbooks as Denver is a 5-point favorite at home versus New England and Seattle is a 3.5-point favorite at home versus San Francisco. Not only do we have 4 excellent teams, but we have some serious rivalries as well which makes these games even more interesting and also complicated to pick. We have the Manning/Brady matchup, though now Manning is wearing Denver orange. Can Tom Brady and the Pats take another championship run away from Manning in a season where Manning shattered the record books? Does New England’s new-found running game alter the analysis here?

Also, with Seattle and San Francisco we have one of the more physical and bitter rivalries in the NFL, with a deeper rivalry between coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll as well that’s been going on since their Stanford/USC days. Seattle has owned the 49ers in Seattle and has frankly overpowered them. But San Francisco has improved dramatically from early in the season with Colin Kaepernick playing much better. Also, Russell Wilson hasn’t been playing quite as well, and look for the 49ers to stack the box and dare Wilson to throw deep. We’ll see which young quaterback emerges this week.

Regardless of the results next week, we should have an epic Super Bowl on our hands with contrasting styles, as the AFC has two traditional teams with classic drop-back passers while the NFC teams feature younger, more mobile quarterbacks. This should be fun!

Let the Russell Wilson hype begin . . . again

Bill Barnwell takes a look at the big four rookie quarterbacks from 2012 and tries to project out to 2013 and beyond. He offers up some interesting statistics and comparisons that contribute to any conversation about the future prospects of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.

Yet while he addresses how Andrew Luck had little to work with in Indy, he then brushes that off when deciding which of the group has the biggest upside. Like many NFL writers he obsesses too much about the stats and spends less time discussing what he actually sees on the field.

Andrew Luck was the single factor that drove the Colts. Plus, he did it as a classic drop back passer. Sure, he’s big and strong and he can scramble, but he didn’t rely on the trickery of the read-option to open up the passing game.

RG3 showed tremendous passing ability, but he’s the best runner at the quarterback position since Michael Vick, and the Shanahans milked that for all it was worth until the “geniuses” outsmarted themselves and almost destroyed Griffin’s career. Griffin is a rare talent with a golden arm, but now he’ll probably need to rely more on that arm without the same threat posed by his legs. His numbers from last year mean much less in that context.

Kaepernick and Wilson also benefited from the threat posed by their running ability, but both of them had the luxury of playing for teams that were loaded with talent. Both teams had excellent defenses and two of the best running games in football. Alex Smith looked like a pro-bowler in the same 49ers offense before Kaepernick took over. So it’s hardly fair to compare their stats to Luck’s stats without taking that into account.

Wilson definitely showed me a lot last year, but he’s also playing a dangerous game when he runs out of the pocket. At least Pete Carroll isn’t as reckless as Mike Shanahan, but I’m still not completely sold on Wilson being an elite quarterback. That said, he gets another weapon this year with Percy Harvin, but I suspect NFL defenses will adjust to his game.

I’ll take Andrew Luck over all of them, any day of the week.

Matty Ice and a crazy weekend of football

The games aren’t even over yet, so we might get some more heroics and bizarre plays in the Pats/Texans game, but the Falcons and Seahawks seemed determined to come up with a game that was even more epic than Denver’s stunning collapse yesterday. Here’s some observations:

- Congrats to Matt Ryan. He sealed his “Matty Ice” nickname with two excellent passes starting at his own 31 yard line with 25 seconds left. All of this happened after what looked like a stunning Atlanta collapse that would have haunted Ryan for years. Instead, Seattle came up short after a great comeback. As a Cleveland fan, I know how Seattle fans feel.

- John Fox did his best Marty Schottenheimer impersonation, and the results were brutal for Denver fans, who had to watch their own version of “The Drive” against them engineered by Joe Flacco and the former Browns. Here’s Will Brinson regarding John Fox:

Remember when Fox decided on Saturday night that he shouldn’t give Peyton Manning a chance to win the game with two timeouts left, the Broncos on their own 20-yard line and 31 seconds left in the game? Yeah, he probably didn’t enjoy watching the Falcons take the ball at their own 31-yard line with 25 seconds and two timeouts and roll down for a score in about 15 seconds. It only emphasizes how bizarre his conservative coaching was against the Ravens.

Peyton Manning blew it in overtime with a rookie-type mistake, but he should have been given the chance to make 2 or 3 throws to get that last-second field goal in regulation. Also, before Flacco’s epic drive, Fox decided to run the ball on third down instead of letting Manning try to complete one pass that would have sealed the game. Brutal.

- Flacco was the hero and he made some awesome throws, but he also missed some open bombs and threw several passes that easily could have been intercepted. He made a ton of money for himself last night, but as a Cleveland fan I don’t mind seeing Baltimore eat up a ton of cap space for him.

- I was wrong about Russell Wilson. The kid can play and he was poised to be the hero, but Seattle left too many seconds on the clock for Atlanta after an epic comeback. That said, we saw today some of what we saw from Wilson in college. He’s at his best when his team is down and he can just try to create. In running a traditional pro offense he’s a little more limited. But, he had a hell of a rookie season and Pete Carroll made the right call starting him.

- Carroll did not make the right call trying to ice the kicker. Ouch!

- Atlanta did a good job playing the read-option today, and I think they’ll be ready for Colin Kaepernick. As for Kaepernick, people are focusing on the runs, and they certainly were huge in the win over Green Bay, but the guy has a rocket arm and he made the big throws that made the difference in that win. He’s still very raw on shorter throws and needs to shed the Derek Anderson approach of throwing short passes at 100 mph, but he’s a real weapon on offense. I’m not a fan of the read-option, and any team that uses it risks getting their quarterback beaten silly, but a team like San Francisco might sneak in a Super Bowl before that happens. The Shanahans weren’t so lucky with their irresponsible, high risk running strategy with RG3.

Ten Observations from Week 15 in the NFL

1. Adrian Peterson is this year’s MVP if…
Nobody doubted Peyton Manning’s ability to lead the Broncos to an AFC West title this year. The biggest question surrounding Peyton was his ability to absorb a hit, not fill the one need Denver desperately needed on offense. People assumed he would do that. But nearly every pundit had the Vikings finishing in the basement of the NFC North and yet here they are in the middle of December still competing for a wild card berth. Manning has been outstanding but what Adrian Peterson has been able to accomplish less than a year after major reconstructive knee surgery has been nothing short of incredible. Minnesota’s offensive line and defense shouldn’t be forgotten as we dole out credit for the team’s success, but Peterson is the biggest reason why the Vikings remain relevant in 2012. Opponents design specific game plans in efforts to stop Peterson and yet they can’t even slow him down. They know if they can build a lead and force Christian Ponder to beat them throwing the ball they’ll win. But they can’t because Peterson simply won’t allow them. Granted, Sam Bradford and the Rams helped Minnesota earn its eighth victory of the season on Sunday. But when Peterson sprinted 82 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter the Rams had just tied the game with a Brian Quick 4-yard touchdown reception. It wasn’t as if Peterson’s run put the contest out of reach – it was the beginning of him taking over the game. If he leads the Vikings to the postseason while rushing for over 2,000 yards in a pass-happy NFL, then he undoubtedly has my vote for MVP.

2a. The Bears are finished.
With their 21-13 loss to the Packers, the Bears no longer control their own destiny and they don’t hold the tiebreaker with current fifth seed Seattle because of their 23-17 loss to the Seahawks in Week 13. The question becomes: Will missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years spark change this offseason? How Chicago can fire Lovie Smith when former GM Jerry Angelo ignored the offensive line for most of his tenure is beyond me. Year after year the Bears had opportunities to fix their front five and Angelo never delivered. That said, this is now four straight years that Smith and his coaching staff have been owned by Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers. If your current coaching staff can’t beat your biggest competition, you’ve got an underlying problem.

2b. Packers coach Mike McCarthy makes decisions sometimes…
…that should have all of humanity questioning how the hell he was able to win a Super Bowl. That throwback fake that he called (or allowed his special teams coach Shawn Slocum to call) on the punt return midway through the fourth quarter in Chicago was beyond inane. You’re up 11 points in the fourth quarter, McCarthy, run the clock and secure a victory the ol’ fashion way.

3. Best team in the NFC? It has to be the 49ers.
While they did wind up blowing a 31-3 lead, the 49ers have to be considered the best team in the NFC after the show they put on last night in Foxboro. Granted, the 12-2 Falcons also beat the defending Super Bowl champions 34-0 but no team in the conference can match San Francisco’s physicality and now that Colin Kaepernick is their quarterback, the Niners are now more dangerous on offense, too. As he showed last night by mishandling a handful of snaps from under center and throwing an interception in the end zone, Kaepernick isn’t perfect. But he’s going to learn something new each week that will make him better down the road. It had to be troubling for Jim Harbaugh to watch Tom Brady carve up his defense for 34 points, and adjustments must be made in the secondary. But the bottom line is the Niners not only won the game, but also handled a team that had just humiliated an excellent Houston club just six nights prior.

4a. The Falcons defense has been outstanding against elite QBs.
Fifty-eight point five, 37.6, and 40.7. Those are the quarterback ratings of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning when facing the Falcons in the Georgia Dome this year. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan put together another fantastic game plan on Sunday, one that had Eli Manning under constant duress while shutting down running back David Wilson in the second half. They managed to shutout the defending Super Bowl champions without one of their key defenders, safety William Moore, all while stuffing New York on three separate fourth-and-shorts. Matt Ryan is now 33-4 at home over his career, and Nolan’s aggressive defense has done its finest work inside the Georgia Dome this year. The Falcons won’t quiet critics until they win a playoff game. But they’ve got a great chance to pick up their first postseason win if they can secure home field throughout.

4b. There isn’t a more maddening team in the NFL than the New York Giants.
Four weeks ago the Giants crushed Green Bay 38-10 but followed up that performance with a 17-16 loss in Washington. Then they scored 52 points in a 52-27 beat-down of the Saints only to post a goose egg in a 34-0 loss to the Falcons on Sunday. Eli Manning had one of those games where you wanted to shake him to make sure he wasn’t sleepwalking and David Wilson bombed as the team’s featured back (at least in the second half). New York’s secondary is also extremely beat up and several defensive linemen walked off the field limping after trying (and failing) to tackle Atlanta ball carriers throughout the day. Granted, we know better not to count Tom Coughlin’s team out when they still have plenty of life. But Giants fans have every reason to be concerned after what transpired in Atlanta on Sunday.

5. The Seahawks have become that team nobody wants to face in the first round.
Granted, over the past two weeks they’ve beaten up on Arizona and Buffalo. But they also outscored Arizona and Buffalo 108-17 and somehow managed to score three defensive touchdowns in the process. And if that didn’t get your attention, Pete Carroll is having his team throw deep on fourth down up 58-0 and calling fake punts up 30 points in the fourth quarter. Here’s what’s really scary: Marshawn Lynch is ripping through tackles and bursting into defensive backfields while also allowing to rest in the fourth quarter because his services are no longer needed in blowouts. Seattle’s biggest offensive weapon is going to be fresh – relatively speaking, of course – come January, and that should leave the Seahawks’ future opponents awfully anxious.

6. Putting Cousin’s performance into perspective.
It’s amazing, really. The Redskins found two quarterbacks with potential in this year’s draft while the Browns can’t find one intriguing quarterback in 14 years of drafting. It’s one thing to play hero when you only take seven snaps at the end of a game. It’s quite another to go on the road with your team’s playoff hopes on the line and face an opponent that not only has had an entire week to game plan for you, but is also in the midst of a three-game winning streak. Kirk Cousins (26-of-37 for 329 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) was beyond impressive in Washington’s Week 15 victory over Cleveland. He was poised, calm under pressure, and showed a fair amount of mobility as well. The 54-yard touchdown throw he made when he rolled to his right on a designed bootleg and dropped the ball perfectly into Leonard Hankerson’s arms was a thing of beauty. With their biggest superstar sidelined with a knee injury (RGIII), Cousins may have just saved the Redskins’ season.

7. Sam Bradford remains completely indefinable.
Bradford completed 35-of-55 passes for 377 yards with three touchdowns in Sunday’s loss to the Vikings. But he also threw an interception and lost a fumble that in large part led to the Rams falling behind 30-7 at halftime. Never have I witnessed a player give both his critics and supporters enough firepower to continue one excruciating debate after another. He’s making progress yet he’s painfully inconsistent. He often delivers uneven performances yet he can be clutch in crucial moments. He’s completing 60-percent of his passes yet he somehow battles with his accuracy. Is he on the verge of greatness or straddling the line between good and mediocre? Is he the next Eli Manning or Alex Smith? Half of St. Louis will draw one comparison while the second half will settle for the other. It’s maddening. Here’s what we know about Bradford: He should continue to improve if the Rams continue to build around him. They need to strengthen their offensive line, add playmakers to their receiving corps, and offer him some stability by not changing the offense. Here’s what we don’t know: Everything else.

8. One bad decision dooms Roethlisberger, Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger was fantastic on Sunday in Dallas. He completed 24-of-40 passes for 339 yards with two touchdowns and constantly bought himself time by moving outside of the pocket. On one play in the second quarter, he evaded the pass rush (a very good NFL pass rush in Dallas) for nearly 10 seconds before finding Heath Miller for a 30-yard touchdown. It was one of those games where an elite quarterback put his team on his shoulders and was practically willing them to victory. Of course, his performance on this day will be remembered for his biggest mistake. Brandon Carr made a fantastic interception in overtime when he jumped a route and picked off Roethlisberger to set the Cowboys up for a game-winning field goal. The loss left Pittsburgh at 7-7 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs with two games to go. If the Steelers can’t sweep their final two games and sneak into the postseason, that one throw will loom large.

8a. The NFC East is once again ready for a thrilling ending.
Everyone figured the Cowboys would eventually settle for a .500 season but their massive victory over the Steelers on Sunday has breathed new life into Dallas. The victory came on the heels of the Redskins’ win over the Browns, but also the Giants’ embarrassing 34-0 loss to the Falcons. If the playoffs were to start today, the Redskins would own the fourth seed after securing first place in the NFC East, while the Giants would be the sixth seed and the Cowboys would be on the outside looking in. But fortunately for diehard NFL fans, there’s still two more weeks of thrilling football to be played in the East. The Cowboys might have the toughest road, as they’ll host the always-dangerous Saints this Sunday before finishing at Washington. The Redskins, meanwhile, will visit the hapless Eagles on Sunday before hosting Dallas in Week 17, and the Giants will visit Baltimore before hosting Philadelphia in their final game of the season. Of course, the Bears and Vikings are still in the wild card mix as well so buckle up, sit tight and enjoy the friggin’ ride.

9a. Joe Flacco is literally burning future earnings every week.
Flacco completed 20-of-40 passes for 254 yards with two touchdowns in Baltimore’s 34-17 loss to Denver, but he did most of his damage after he put his team in a 31-3 hole. He lost a fumble on a quarterback sneak and before throwing a pick-six at the goal line he sprinkled in three straight three-and-outs, which allowed the Broncos to build a sizeable lead. The Ravens are going to begrudgingly win the AFC North and make the playoffs for the fifth straight year, where they could be bounced very early. Somewhere Cam Cameron is smiling.

9b. Moreno finally flashing his ability in Denver.
Now finally healthy, Knowshon Moreno is running like the back that Denver thought it drafted back in 2009. He literally jumped over Ed Reed in the Broncos’ 34-17 victory over the Ravens on Sunday, and Reed was practically standing up. Athens, Georgia grew accustomed to Moreno’s combination of power and athleticism, but now it’s a welcome sight in Denver, too. Moreno has allowed the Broncos offense to continue firing on all cylinders despite losing Willis McGahee.

10. The Panthers will be a playoff contender at this point next year.
The pass two weeks Cam Newton has been sharp on passes outside the numbers and in turn, he’s made DeAngelo Williams a bigger weapon in both the running and screen game. While they’ll need to continue to build on the defensive side of the ball and give Newton another weapon in the passing game, the Panthers will be a team to reckon with in 2013. Following the team’s third win in their last four games, Carolina fans are appropriately asking themselves, ‘Where has this been all season?’

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