NFL Picks - Super Bowl

Last Updated: 3/10/2014 8:21 PM ET
Super Bowl XLVIII: Predictalator Picks  In-Depth Analysis
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Super Bowl XLVIII Content

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Super Bowl XLVIII Pick: Seattle +2.5 over Denver (Covers 60%)
See: Game Summary Matchup Analysis Key Players

Game Summary
Super Bowl XLVIII features two teams whose identities could not be more different. Seattle is built around physical play, stout defense and a balanced attack that leans on the running game at a greater rate than the average NFL team. Denver put together one of the clear top three passing offensive seasons in NFL history and has the best overall set of skill position players in the league, yet is largely vulnerable elsewhere (relative to typical top seeds and Super Bowl participants).

As different as these teams may seem, they certainly share some characteristics in common. The most notable of these is that they are clearly the best two teams in the NFL and stand out within their respective conferences. Denver ranked first in the league in averaging 0.98 more yards-per-play than opponents, while Seattle finished second in the same metric with a 0.95 yards-per-play margin. Both teams have won at least 13 games by more than a field goal and each only lost to teams (by six points or fewer in each case) that finished in the top ten in our final regular season NFL Power Rankings. This is not last year’s Super Bowl that featured two teams that changed drastically down the stretch and “got hot” at the right time.

Since Week 2 of the NFL season, the Predictalator’s projected Super Bowl every week was Denver vs. Seattle. To add to that, both of these teams were more than 50% likely to make the Super Bowl for all but two weeks in that stretch as well, a feat rarely seen by any team in any week before the playoffs started in the last decade (let alone two teams consistently). This is the best Super Bowl we could have this season and it may be the best matchup of NFL teams in the Super Bowl in the league’s history. Not too surprisingly, the spread on this game has stayed below a field goal and has, at times already, favored either team.

Also tying these teams together (besides John Moffitt and their states’ legalization of marijuana) is the fact that they have both done all of this despite dealing with critical injuries (and suspensions). One could make a case that rush linebacker Von Miller and offensive tackle Ryan Clady are/were the second and third most valuable players on the Denver Broncos and they have barely seen the field this year due to health (and suspension for Miller) issues. Recently, Chris Harris, who has been a fixture in the secondary for Denver for three seasons, was lost for the rest of the postseason with a knee injury. Similarly, Seattle wide receiver Percy Harvin has game-changing talent when healthy. He has not been healthy all year (and, while we expect him to play, it would be impossible for us to project Harvin to be in that game-changing form in the Super Bowl after just 37 snaps all year). Meanwhile, Richard Sherman’s teammate across the field at cornerback, Brandon Browner, is out with a(nother) suspension. The Seahawks have dealt with major health issues along the offensive line all season as well.

And yet both teams have dominated. And there is no question that they both deserve to be here.

While their journeys may sound similar and the matchup looks like a classic, there is one major difference between these two teams that ultimately leads us to our prediction (both straight-up and against-the-spread) – the Seattle Seahawks are, simply, the more complete football team. Sports and direct competition are often about utilizing one’s strengths to exploit an opponent’s weaknesses.

Another way to say that is the oft-used cliché around the office that “styles make fights.” Generally, the team with the fewest exploitable weaknesses has the best chance to win in a contest that is otherwise similar. Denver’s greatest strengths are all-time elite numbers, but the Broncos have a few holes, particularly in defending the pass and running the ball efficiently (especially late in games with a small lead when it is more important to do so). Seattle has elite numbers as well, but, aside from some concerns with penalties, the Seahawks, who finished the season in the top ten in all of our strength-of-schedule-adjusted efficiency categories, do not have glaring weaknesses.

Here are the game charts that generally accompany our weekly, in-depth analysis for the NFL. While teams are usually ranked relative to all other teams playing that week, we have updated this chart to rank the team’s standing compared to all 32 NFL teams. This helps to put the true value of each facet of the game for each team in more appropriate context when reviewing two squads.

Sunday, February 2 at 6:25 PM ET:
Seattle Seahawks +2.5 @ Denver Broncos (Covers 60.0%), UNDER 47 (Covers 52.7%)
ATS Play Type: Normal
O/U Play Type: Light
The Vitals:
Projected Score: Seattle 23.8 - Denver 21.5
SU Pick and Win%: Seattle wins 54.8%
ATS Pick and Win%: Seattle Seahawks +2.5 covers 60.0%
ATS Wager for $50 player: $80
O/U Pick and Win%: UNDER (47) 52.7%
O/U Wager for $50 Player: $3
The Teams: SEA DEN
Straight-Up Record 15-3 15-3
Against-the-Spread Record 11-5 12-6
Over/Under Record 7-11 11-7
Avg. Points For vs. Against 25.7-14.6 36.4-24.0
Strength of Schedule Rank (of all NFL) #8 #18
PM Passing Efficiency Rank #6 #1
PM Rushing Efficiency Rank #9 #22
PM Pass Defense Efficiency Rank #1 #19
PM Rush Defense Efficiency Rank #10 #9
Actual Pass/Run Ratio 47.3%/52.7% #59.7%/40.3%
Turnover Margin +23 -2

Against common opponents (Jacksonville, Houston, Indianapolis, Tennessee, New York Giants), Denver went 4-1 straight-up and 3-2 against-the-spread with an average final score in those games of 39.4-24.4. Against those same five opponents, Seattle was 4-1 straight-up and 2-2-1 against-the-spread with an average score of 27.8-16.8 (the takeaway from that is that not much can be gleaned from the common opponent exercise in this case since it’s a small sample size and they were mostly bad teams).

Using strength-of-schedule-adjusted, play-by-play statistics, the Predictalator has played Super Bowl XLVIII 50,000 times before it's actually played. The Seattle Seahawks win outright 54.8% of those games and by an average score of 23.8-21.5 As 2.5 point underdogs, who win outright in the upset, the Seahawks (+2.5) cover the spread exactly 60% of the time, which is a "normal" play that would warrant an $80 play from a normal $50 player. The money-line for the Seahawks is +115 (i.e. wager 100 to win 115). This requires at least 46.5% to play. A normal $50 player with +115 odds on a team winning 54.8% of the time can justify a $77 wager on the team to win. The OVER is 18-18 in games these teams have played this season, so, not surprisingly, we have a very light, though playable opinion on the total. The UNDER (47) hits 52.7% of the time. At least 52.38% confidence is required to win at the typical -110 juice. At 52.7% confidence, the UNDER is worth just a $3 play to a normal $50 player. Utilizing the Parlay Calculator, Seattle (+2.5) and UNDER (47) both cover 31.6% of the time.

Matchup Analysis
In analyzing games, the team that wins a game is most often the team that best exploits favorable matchups and generally gets a little "lucky." While luck usually comes from turnovers, especially when the two teams are otherwise evenly matched, balance is critical to success. In this case, balance does not necessarily mean that a team must pass as often as it runs, but that it must find the right mix of decisions to exploit the other team's weaknesses while hiding its own.
Let's take a close look at the matchups in Super Bowl XLVIII:

Seattle’s Run Offense vs. Denver’s Run Defense:
As noted above, Seattle finished the season as our ninth ranked run efficiency offense. Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks faced the eighth toughest schedule with respect to run defenses and averaged 4.3 yards-per-carry in the regular season and 4.5 yards-per-carry in the postseason. They did this despite running the ball more than 50% of the time, which meant that defenses were keying on the run more than the pass. As physical as Lynch is, he can fit the play-making mold of a “feast or famine” (though “famine” in this case rarely means zero or negative yards) running back that can pick up two or three yards on almost every carry all game and then break a game-changing run. Lynch has had at least a twenty yard run in eight games this season, including both playoff games. The most efficient player running the ball for Seattle is quarterback Russell Wilson who uses his legs to buy time and make plays in the passing game, yet can also be effective taking off and running or on designed run plays. Wilson averaged 5.3 yards-per-carry on 104 attempts, which is almost identical to what he did last season. That being said, Wilson only has 16 rushing yards on eight carries in the playoffs and has not had more than eight attempts or 50 yards since Week 6. Denver’s defensive strength is its run defense, which also ranks ninth overall. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is the best active player on the defense (which was on full display against New England in the AFC Championship game) and linebacker Danny Trevathan is exceptional at getting sideline-to-sideline behind him. Facing a formidable schedule of strong rushing attacks, the Broncos allowed just 3.9 yards-per-carry in the regular season and gave up a total of 129 yards rushing in two postseason games (3.8 yards-per-carry). With respect to Seattle’s offense against Denver’s defense, this is strength vs. strength. In the projected Super Bowl XLVII boxscore, the Seahawks combine for 3.8 yards-per-carry.
Edge: Push

Seattle Pass Offense vs. Denver Pass Defense:
We have to start by discussing Denver’s pass defense. Opponents threw the ball about five percent more often in games than the Broncos did due to the big leads that Denver was consistently able to build. That makes some of the Broncos aggregate passing defense numbers a little gaudier than they should be, but that does not mean that this is a strong unit. The Broncos fell below league-average in sack rate (6.3%) and interception rate (2.8%) and were essentially league average in yards-per-pass allowed (7.1). That’s with a full season of cornerback Chris Harris and nine games from linebacker Von Miller, the two most important players to the Broncos’ pass defense when healthy, both of whom are injured for this game. The Broncos do not have a single player in their active secondary who played at least 250 snaps this year and grades as an above average player at his position. Much has been made of Russell Wilson’s passing yardage totals down the stretch, but his overall numbers – 3,357 yards on 407 pass attempts (8.3 yards-per-attempt), 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions - are stellar for anyone. He should not be expected to maintain the 70% completions and 10+ yards-per-pass that he put together over a four game span in November and December, but neither would Peyton Manning. Wilson is definitively one of the league’s top ten quarterbacks right now. Plus, with the emergence of Jermaine Kearse, Golden Tate’s explosiveness and a healthy Percy Harvin, Seattle’s skill position unit in the passing game is deep and presently underrated. Seattle averages 7.6 yards-per-pass in our projections for this game (which is better than a yard more than what Peyton Manning and the Broncos are expected to do… interestingly, the Broncos were actually out-gained per reception over the course of the season as well). 
Edge: Seattle (this matchup should make the difference)

Denver Run Offense vs. Seattle Run Defense:
In the Super Bowl podcast (complete with picks, props, Live ScoreCaster and more), we analyze each unit against its corresponding unit on the opposing team. Denver does not fare as well in that exercise comparing Marshawn Lynch to Knowshon Moreno as it does when looking at this head-to-head matchup. Ultimately, Seattle still has the edge, but it is not as obvious. The Seahawks can and need to be run on. In the games this year in which Seattle failed to cover the spread, opponents rushed for an average of 145 yards on 34 carries (4.3 yards-per-carry). In the other games, Seattle allowed just 76 yards a game on only 22 carries (3.4 yards-per-carry). We grade the Seahawks run defense tenth in the league, which is strong, but technically their weakest ranking for them in our six core efficiency categories. Unfortunately for Denver, despite ample opportunity to pad rushing stats late in games with the lead, the Broncos only topped 145 rushing yards three times and 4.3 yards-per-attempt four times all year. Against a below average defensive schedule, they ended the regular season averaging just 4.1 yards-per-attempt and posted 3.9 yards-per-attempt in two postseason games. Removing Peyton Manning’s 32 rushes for -31 yards and Brock Osweiler’s (kneel down driven) three carries for two yards, the numbers do look better from an efficiency standpoint – Knowshon Moreno has averaged 4.3 yards-per-carry and Montee Ball 4.7 – but this still is not a strength for Denver and it probably needs to be in the game itself to provide Denver with the balance it needs to offset a very strong and very aggressive Seattle pass defense. Denver rushes for 4.0 yards-per-carry in our projected Super Bowl XLVIII boxscore.
Edge: Seattle
Denver Pass Offense vs. Seattle Pass Defense:
Most epic clash ever. Having studied and specialized in historical context for much of my career, I’m comfortable saying that Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback of all-time and that his 2013 season is clearly one of the three best passing performances in the league’s history (he is competing against himself in that category as well). This is the best and most well-rounded set of skill position weapons that Manning has ever had and he is at the top of his game with respect to making protection and route calls. Through the AFC Championship, the Broncos lead the league in most net-yards-per-pass play (8.0), fewest interceptions-per-pass attempt (1.5%) and fewest sacks-per-pass play (2.9%). That’s a triple crown win that sounds so absurd that we’ve never thought to award it. And yet, in this game, this matchup is a “push.” That is how good the Seattle Seahawks are against the pass. Seattle leads the league in most interceptions-per-pass attempt (5.3%) and fewest yards-allowed-per-pass play (5.4) - both by a healthy margin - while ranking fifth in the league in sacks-per-pass play (7.8%). Do not necessarily expect something to give. The matchup will be a blast to watch. The game will likely be decided elsewhere. We project Denver to throw for 6.3 yards-per-pass play (only Andrew Luck in the regular season and Drew Brees in the postseason were even able to top 6.7 team passing yards-per-attempt against Seattle).
Edge: Push
Special Teams:
In the short-term (i.e. one game, not 50,000), a big special teams play has far more relevance than it does in assessing teams' general strengths and weaknesses. In other words, this will be short because it does not mean too much to this exercise. Just like we have to account for the Coors Field bias in the Colorado Rockies numbers, we have to do the same with Denver’s kicking and punting calculations given that this game will not be played at high altitude. While that does even the numbers, Denver still gets the edge overall. Denver and Seattle both finished in the top four of our overall special teams rankings and they finished first and second in field goal percentage. Matt Prater is a slightly better kicker than Steven Hauschka and Denver has a notable edge in kick returns. Trindon Holliday is certainly an X factor for this game, but that could have as much to do with his propensity to fumble as it does his explosive nature on kick returns. Of course, then there is the ultimate X Factor/question mark in special teams: Percy Harvin.
Edge: Denver
Misc. - Coaching, Penalties, Turnovers, Crowd
Since Seattle had the most negative impact from penalties in the league BOTH offensively and defensively, penalties are a slam dunk win for Denver (though penalties are called less frequently both in the postseason and in colder temperatures). Turnovers, on the other hand, are an easy category win for Seattle. The Seahawks have a +23 turnover margin and Denver -2. We project Seattle to win the turnover battle by +0.5, which is notable because we have the Seahawks winning the game while gaining fewer total yards than the Broncos in our average projected boxscore. As far as both teams are from home and as big as the market where the game is played, the crowd should be truly neutral. Coaching comes through in the numbers, but there is an edge here. All four coordinators were hot names in head coaching searches and all are seemingly strong minds for their respective expertise. It does come down to the head coaches, John Fox of the Broncos and Pete Carroll of the Seahawks. The way I evaluate coaching, in-game decision making in critical situations is of the utmost importance. Fox, more of a game-manager and CEO than a hands on coordinator or motivator tends to be overly conservative, especially with fourth downs. The team also did not skip a beat when Fox missed time with health concerns earlier. That’s good news for the Broncos and speaks to the foundation of this franchise, but it’s not necessarily a ringing endorsement for Fox in this comparison. Carroll is the more aggressive and better defensive mind of the two defensive oriented head coaches. His fingerprints are all over this team in the way it is constructed and plays. The Seahawks can sometimes be aggressive to a fault, but I would much rather that than to be conservative to a fault. Carroll and Seattle get the overall edge in coaching.
Edge: Seattle

Based on that information, here are the most important players for each team:

Most Important Offensive Player to a Broncos’ Victory: Knowshon Moreno, RB
With as stout as the Seahawks’ pass defense is, some semblance of balance will be important for the Broncos to establish, especially in order to keep the best tandem of safeties in the NFL honest. Furthermore, with four unique talents all capable of being primary targets in the passing game – Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas - it’s difficult to pinpoint one player from that group that needs to have a great game for the Broncos to win. Seattle is thinking about and preparing for the same concept. The more attention to the weapons in the passing game, the more opportunities a player like Moreno will have to make a mark on the game. Teams that have troubled Seattle have been able to spread the field in the passing game, yet still have confidence to run the ball consistently, even out of more passing oriented sets.

Most Important Defensive Player to a Broncos’ Victory: Danny Trevathan, LB
Trevathan should be used to this kind of pressure by this point in the season. Despite playing second fiddle to Wesley Woodyard going back to their college days at Kentucky, Trevathan has emerged this year (partially due to an injury to Woodyard) as the player on the Broncos defense tasked with doing a little bit of everything. He is on the field on every down, plays very well off of Terrance Knighton against the run and, though not an elite coverage linebacker, he can find the football in the air (he is second among active players with ten passes defensed and leads the team with three interceptions). For the Broncos to succeed, Trevathan is going to have to make plays that keep Russell Wilson and the Seahawks guessing, not the other way around.

Most Important Offensive Player to a Seahawks’ Victory: Russell Wilson, QB
This is Russell Wilson’s game to lose. The second-year quarterback has the most favorable matchup in this contest and will very likely be the reason that Seattle wins or loses. Wilson has thrown an interception on just nine of his 450 pass attempts (2.0% interception rate) this season and only has three multiple interception games in his 36 games played (to go with 19 games with no interceptions). He has been sacked on almost exactly 10% of his dropbacks (well above the NFL average of about 6.5% over the last decade). And he has completed at least one pass of 40+ yards in half of his starts this year. Wilson will need to avoid mistakes, be comfortable making plays with his feet when it gives the team an advantage (without taking too many sacks in the process) and hit on at least one explosive play downfield in order to put his team in the best position to win. The Seahawks may need just a little more than a “game manager” in this contest, but Wilson does not need to match Peyton Manning (in this game or in the general Manning mold) for Seattle to win.

Most Important Defensive Player to a Seahawks’ Victory: Byron Maxwell, CB
This should probably note all Seahawks tasked with playing in coverage, especially on the outside or in the slot and likely in press situations except for Richard Sherman. Peyton Manning may have an ego, but he is not stupid. Do not expect him to test Sherman much during the game (unless it’s to set something up for later in the contest). Manning will do everything he can to pick on less experienced players. Maxwell is at least third in line for this role after Brandon Browner and Walther Thurmond lost their chances to star in the “Legion of Boom.” Maxwell is another bigger cornerback (though not quite Sherman’s size) who plays physical defense. He does not need to make an interception or other big play for Seattle to succeed, but he does need to find a way to keep from being exploited/picked on.

Percy Harvin entered last week as the only true question mark as it relates to current injuries. It looks like he is prepared and preparing to play, though his impact remains a question mark. We have added him to the active roster and he appears in the projected boxscore at slightly less output than the player props are forecasting. As much as he was targeted when on the field in the two games he played, it is impossible for us to expect that he can change this game. Moreover, it should only be able to help our pick if Harvin can put together a complete football game in the manner that made him such a weapon in Minnesota.

While it got more pub than it should have leading into a matchup in the AFC Championship game against a New England Patriots team devoid of weapons on the outside in the passing game, Chris Harris’ injury likely looms larger now than it did in the previous game. Harris had a good combination of experience, intelligence, youth and athleticism that could be sorely lacking for a Broncos defense that will have to stay in coverage even longer than usual while Russell Wilson scrambles while looking to make plays downfield.

Line Movement:
Though the NFC was made a 2.5 point Super Bowl favorite heading into Conference Championship weekend, Peyton Manning’s brilliant performance and Seattle’s early game struggles made this a PK (a zero spread) when the line opened soon after the NFC title was crowned. Almost three-fourths of the action has come in from the public enamored with Manning on the Broncos, pushing this line quickly to Denver as the favorite. The current consensus spread is Denver -2.5. Literally every Las Vegas sportsbook that we track is currently at Denver -2.5 with standard -110 juice, suggesting the line is not likely to move any further (plus, taking the spread to Denver -3 puts a distinct chance of a “push” in the Super Bowl into play, which few people on either side really want). At the current spread of Denver -2.5, we have our fifth consecutive “normal” pick on the Super Bowl (out of five that we have projected on and second projected outright upset (after New York over New England two years ago). Keep an eye on the juice as select books make move the odds to Denver -115 or greater without changing the line. And, as always, use the Play Analyzer to re-run the game at the consensus line or your lines. The total has fluctuated more recently and does not have unanimity. It opened at 47, was bet up originally to 48 and even 48.5 in some books, yet has come back down to 47 as the consensus (47.5 still exists). This could be volatile throughout the week, however, due to the public’s reaction to weather. Speaking of…
The weather forecast utilized in these projections anticipates temperatures at kickoff to hover just over 30 degrees, with winds out of the Northwest at 8-18 MPH (gusts no stronger than 25 MPH) and almost no chance of precipitation during the game. The temperature has some impact on our analysis, but not much. Should the temperature drop or precipitation become more probable, it’s unlikely that such a forecast would warrant re-simulating the game. If winds are anticipated to pick up to significant gusts, the team that runs the ball more than it throws it (Seattle) and also has the best, play-making pass defense, would have a greater advantage than we already assume.