Kragthorpe: Super Bowl is Manning vs. Seahawks' secondary
Thanks to Richard Sherman's left hand, Colin Kaepernick's last pass of the NFC championship game would not be remembered as The Catch IV in San Francisco 49ers' lore.
And now the Seattle Seahawks' fabulous secondary will meet Denver quarterback Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl.
This is good stuff. Manning certainly will have to earn his second championship, facing Seattle's aggressive defensive backs on a cold night in New Jersey. This pairing will be dissected thoroughly for two weeks in the buildup to Super Bowl XLVIII, but this is all you really need to know: One of the greatest passers in NFL history will go against the best secondary in the league.
The caricature version of the matchup will frame it as Manning's humility vs. Sherman's brashness, and that's actually valid. Sherman's postgame rant Sunday undoubtedly turned off a lot of fans. Yet that degree of confidence if that's the right word is pretty much required to play cornerback in the NFL, and Sherman usually backs up his big talk with big-time performances, such as his game-saving play against San Francisco.
But here comes Manning, who shredded New England's coverage in a 26-16 victory in the AFC championship, throwing for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots were weakened when cornerback Aquib Talib was injured, just as happened to them last January in the AFC title game against Baltimore.
New England simply couldn't cover Denver's receivers, and Manning was as sharp as ever, completing 32 of 43 passes.
Seattle will present a much tougher challenge to Manning. The Seahawks feature cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Sherman and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas in a scheme that's both aggressive and conservative, if that's possible. There's not much blitzing, but the coverage is so tight that the pass rush becomes effective.
Kaepernick was able to scramble for big yardage and also extended some plays that resulted in completions. He responded to an interception midway through the fourth quarter by leading the 49ers on a late drive inside the 20-yard line, only to have Sherman leap and tip the ball, which fluttered into the waiting arms of linebacker Malcolm Smith in the end zone to preserve Seattle's 23-17 win.
Otherwise, the pass almost certainly would have found the hands of 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree, rescuing a dramatic victory for San Francisco. That play would have become like Joe Montana's pass to Dwight Clark, Steve Young's toss to Terrell Owens and Alex Smith's pass to Vernon Davis that gave the 49ers some legendary playoff victories in the past.
Those plays all occurred at Candlestick Park, where the 49ers staged their final appearance in December. Kaepernick could not quite deliver at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, as another No. 1 seed advanced to the Super Bowl.
So a Seattle defense that includes linebacker Bobby Wagner of Utah State will oppose Denver's offense, with Zane Beadles of Utah as the starting left guard. Wagner was involved in 15 tackles Sunday. Beadles and the Broncos' line kept Manning from being sacked, having allowed only 20 sacks through 18 games.
Overall, the matchup resembles two recent Super Bowls that sent New England's passing scheme against the very good defenses of the New York Giants. This one will be played in the Giants' venue, where the temperature is expected to be in the mid-20s at kickoff.
That's hardly the controlled environment of a dome or the ideal conditions of a game in Florida, but this will be a memorable Super Bowl. Manning and the Seahawks secondary will make it so, one way or the other.
Super Bowl XLVIII
P Denver Broncos vs. Seattle Seahawks, Feb. 2, 4:30 p.m., Ch. 13