A lot of media hype has surrounded this year’s Super Bowl XLVIII matchup between the Denver Broncos’ No. 1 offense and the stifling, league-leading No. 1-ranked Seattle Seahawks’ defense.
But as is true every year, there are factors of note in play when the two teams take the field and square off on Feb. 2.
Different personnel groupings will create small windows of opportunity for both teams, but what will win the Super Bowl is how each teams’ units will match up against the opponents’ superstars.
Here’s a look at those matchups:
Broncos receiving corps vs. “Legion of Boom”
The Super Bowl pairing of Seattle and Denver is a pairing between what’s arguably the NFL’s best corps of receivers and the league’s best secondary.
Love him or hate him, Richard Sherman is statistically one of the best cornerbacks currently in the NFL. He has led the NFL with eight interceptions this season, and anchors a hard-hitting secondary which includes Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman.
Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas spoke on the possibility of facing Sherman one-on-one in the Super Bowl. “He’s a great player.” Thomas said during a press conference. “I’d love to have that matchup to show what kind of player I am.”
In addition to Thomas, the Broncos boast a deep stable of receivers which includes Eric Decker, Wes Welker, and TE Julius Thomas. Each of the aforementioned players has scored ten touchdowns during Peyton Manning’s record breaking season.
A key to the Broncos’ receivers opening things up could be a pick play just like the kind Welker used against the Patriots, in which he was criticized for later by Bill Belichick.
However, if the “Legion of Boom” is able to limit the Broncos’ passing game, Seattle has its best chance to win.
But if the Broncos receivers are able to run rampant, Seattle’s fate may be in the hands of second-year quarterback Russell Wilson, who has not posted more than 320 yards passing or four passing touchdowns in a game this season. Admirable numbers, certainly, but not legendary numbers by any means.
Russell Wilson vs. Broncos’ linebackers
With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey foreseeably locking down the big pass play, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson will have to rely on his legs to open up Seattle’s defense, like he has done for most of the season.
The Broncos have matched up well against mobile quarterbacks this season, which is due in large part to the speed and intelligence of Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan. Like Wilson, Woodyard and Trevathan’s NFL draft stock suffered due to a lack of size. Ironically, the smaller, speedier stature of the two former Kentucky Wildcats has made them ideal in spying the mobile quarterbacks Denver has faced this season.
In games where either Woodyard or Trevathan have played the role of “spy”, the Broncos have notched blowout wins against teams led by mobile quarterbacks Terrell Pryor (Raiders), Michael Vick (Eagles), and Robert Griffin III (Redskins).
“They have great skill players.” Woodyard said following the Broncos’ Saturday practice. “With Russell Wilson extending the play, making plays with his feet and throwing the ball down the field…we’ve just got to make sure their playmakers aren’t making any kind of plays.”
If Denver can keep contain against Wilson, the Seahawks defense may become a one-dimensional scheme of handing the ball to Marshawn Lynch. While handing the ball off to “Beast Mode” is never a bad idea, a run-only offense would have a hard time trying to keep pace with a high-powered, Manning-led offense.
However, if Wilson is able to extend pass plays until his receivers find an opening, or scramble for positive yardage, Seattle will have a good shot at taking home their first Lombardi Trophy.
Marshawn Lynch vs. Broncos defensive line
When the Seattle Seahawks have the ball, it will pit the two seemingly immovable wills of “Beast Mode” and “Feast Mode” against one another.
Even without the likes of Von Miller, the Broncos defense was “eating greedy” against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, led by the likes of Terrence “Pot Roast” Knighton.
Knighton had a breakout performance in the AFC Championship, including a key sack on a New England attempt to convert on fourth down. He also plugged up holes in the run game as the Broncos held the Patriots to only 64 yards rushing a week after LeGarrette Blount gashed a Colts defense for 166 yards rushing and four rushing touchdowns a week prior.
While the Broncos are not likely to completely stop the Seattle run game, simply slowing down Lynch and holding the Seahawks to field goals would be a victory for the Broncos defensive lime.
The Broncos know the task ahead of them. Linebacker Wesley Woodard emphasized the importance of “swarming” Lynch when speaking with the media on Saturday.
Marshawn Lynch plays a key role in this game no matter which team you’re rooting for. If the Seattle back is able to run the ball effectively, the Seahawks offense will not only be able to score points, but also keep Peyton Manning of the field.
Conversely, if the Broncos’ defensive line is able to “eat greedy” up front, Seattle will have a tough time relying on the run game alone in an attempt to match Manning point-for-point.
Broncos offensive line vs. Seattle defensive line
Much like when the Seahawks have the ball, the battle in the trenches will be important when the ball is in the hands of the Broncos’ offense.
With the addition of Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Tony McDaniel and O’Brien Schofield in the offseason, the Seahawks have transformed into possibly the most dominant defensive front in the NFL.
Offensive line play will have to be stellar on the Broncos’ end no matter what the game plan is. The Denver o-line allowed zero sacks in the AFC Championship game, allowing Manning to put up 400 yards of passing.
But the possibility of inclement weather in the first cold weather Super Bowl may mean the Broncos will have to lean on workhorses Knowshon Moreno and Monte Ball. With temperatures below freezing in Foxboro, Moreno tallied over 200 yards rushing against a Patriots defense in the regular season.
Denver’s offensive line will have to put together an elite performance if the team expects to have that kind of success against the Seattle front four.
If the Seahawks are able to generate pressure and force turnovers, the Seahawks will be able to reproduce a winning formula created by the Chargers and Colts in Broncos losses during the regular season.
But if Manning leaves the game with a clean jersey, he’ll also be leaving with a trophy, just like he did against the New England Patriots a week ago.
Matt Prater vs. Steven Hauschka
While these two players won’t be on the field at the same time, Super Bowl XLVIII could be a repeat of the kicking battle Hauschka and Prater played out during Broncos training camp in 2011.
Hauschka lost that kicking battle, but a clutch field goal in the preseason against Seattle that season caught the eye of Pete Carroll and he has been solids the Seahawks’ kicker ever since.
Hauschka was a solid 33-of-35 on field goal attempts this season, but one of his misses came from inside 30 yards out.
Interestingly enough, trepidation from Hauschka on a 53-yard field goal attempt in the NFC Championship game led to the Seahawks going for it on fourth down, a conversion attempt which ended in a Seattle score en-route to their 23-17 win over the 49ers.
But whether it’s field goals or touchdowns, leaving points on the field is a big no-no against a Peyton Manning-led offense.
Matt Prater beat out Hauschka in 2011 for good reason. Since that time, Prater has made Broncos fans all but forget about Jason Elam with 150 points scored this season, making all but one of 26 attempts during the regular season, including an NFL record 64-yard field goal.
Prater missed practice for three consecutive days at the Broncos’ practice facility with an illness before the team left for New York on Sunday, but given his importance to Denver’s scoring when drives stall, fans should pay close attention to his health this week.
Adding to the drama could be the weather; snow and strong winds have been predicted by some weather analysts for the Super Bowl.
As has been the case with numerous Super Bowls over the years, the game on Feb. 2 could come down to whether or not a kick is missed or made. Depending on the result, this year’s Super Bowl may produce the next Adam Vinetieri, or the next Scott Norwood.
Super Bowl XLVIII will certainly be billed as a pairing of the NFL’s No. 1 offense and top-ranked defense. But it’s not all about that one narrative—the game is much bigger than that.