NEW YORK — The Denver Broncos are slight favorites to win Sunday’s Super Bowl, primarily because even at the age of 37, Peyton Manning belongs on the short list of the NFL’s all-time untouchables.
The four-time league MVP is probably slower than some of the offensive linemen who protect him so ferociously each week. There’s no mystery about the coordinates of Manning’s favorite hangout, either.
Still, you can’t get to him.
“We have to get Peyton Manning off his spot,” Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin said. “That’s about it.”
The primary task for Seattle’s league-leading defense Sunday is easy to identify and inordinately difficult to attain: pocket change.
Despite his slow gait, Manning is the toughest quarterback to sack in NFL history among passers with at least 40 starts. He has been dropped on only 3.1 percent of his career pass attempts, slightly lower than Dan Marino.
“It’s historically as hard as it gets,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said about the challenge of putting Manning on the hard ground of MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. “It can’t get any tougher. We would love to affect him, because he’s extremely effective in the pocket. The precision in which he gets the ball out is what makes him so difficult to sack.”
Neither the Chargers nor Patriots were able to sack Manning in the AFC playoffs, but Seattle’s defense is a cut above.
The Seahawks topped the NFL in scoring defense, total defense and takeaways. They boast three Pro Bowl players in the secondary — cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
“They’ve got a very aggressive bunch in that secondary,” Denver coach John Fox said. “They don’t do a whole lot, but what they do is really good. They’re long, they’re fast and they’ve got good ball skills.”
They’ve also earned the nickname “The Legion of Boom” for a physical style of play that could give Seattle pass rushers an extra second or two to get to Manning.
“Seattle has an excellent rush and excellent cover guys,” said new Bucs cornerbacks coach Gill Byrd, a 10-year defensive back with the Chargers. “I think it’s going to be a tough day for Peyton Manning. He’ll get the ball out, but that’s where the tight coverage on the receivers comes into play. It’s going to be an awesome game.
“The No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense ... it’s going to be special.”
In his 16th NFL season, Manning was sacked only 18 times while setting single-season records by throwing for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. He shredded New England in the AFC championship game, throwing for 400 yards. Denver punted only once in a 26-16 triumph.
“As a defense, you’ve got to not show him what you’re in,” said Patriots corner and ex-Buc Aqib Talib, who left the AFC title game with an injury early in the second quarter. “You’ve got to do a great job of disguising. It seems like Peyton Manning always puts them in the best position to succeed.”
Traditionally, putting Manning on his back has a direct correlation with his team’s success. In games when Manning has been sacked more than twice, his record is a pedestrian 16-19.
Sacks are drive-killers, but the Seahawks will judge themselves on their ability to disrupt the timing that keyed Denver’s record scoring output in 2013.
“We take a lot of pride being able to protect No. 18,” Broncos center Manny Ramirez said. “You want to elevate your game just because you know who’s back there throwing the ball.”
Unlike his counterpart — Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson — Manning is no threat to scramble. On the rare occasions he faces considerable pressure, Manning relies on a keen pocket presence and the confidence of knowing where the rush is likely to come from.
For NBC analyst and former Bucs coach Tony Dungy, the game could be decided in large degree by the men in stripes.
“It will be interesting to see how the game is called,” Dungy said. “The Seahawks secondary is going to play physical with Denver’s receivers, thinking the refs won’t throw the flag too often in a Super Bowl. If it’s a loose game, it will favor the Seahawks because it will help their rush.”
San Diego and New England failed to challenge Manning’s targets consistently. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker routinely ran unencumbered off the line of scrimmage while getting into their crossing routes.
Seattle has a better idea.
“We play fearless and confident, and when you play in the absence of fear, I think you’re going to play your best ball,” Earl Thomas said. “This is what we want. We want to face this kind of offense ... we don’t want to take the easy way.”
If the Seahawks can throw off the exquisite timing between Manning and his talented receiving corps, pass rushers such as Cliff Avril and former Buc Michael Bennett will have more time to disrupt Manning’s rhythm.
“He’s been special since the day he walked into the NFL,” Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons said of Manning. “I don’t think there’s a defense he hasn’t seen.
“If he knows exactly what you’re doing before you do it, he already knows where to go with the ball. We can’t let that happen.”