The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were the NFL’s top two teams all season long. They were also two of the more fascinating squads to follow as the year unfolded. Now, they will face off in Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on Sunday and there are a ton of reasons to watch this edition of the big game.
The matchup for Sunday’s showdown is simply phenomenal, as are the background stories leading up to it. This should be a fun one.
As we approach kickoff on Sunday, here are 10 storylines to keep an eye on in what is sure to be one of the most interesting football games in recent years.
10. Will Percy Harvin make an impact?
Seattle has been successful all season without Harvin, a guy they signed to a six-year, $67 million contract ($25.5 million guaranteed) this offseason. The 25-year-old wideout played in only one game this year, catching just one pass for 17 yards. That was his entire 2013 season, thanks to injuries, including the concussion he’s currently dealing with.
The Seahawks sent a first-round pick in the 2013 draft and third and seventh-round picks in the 2014 draft to the Minnesota Vikings to acquire Harvin, who didn’t debut until Week 11 thanks to offseason hip surgery.
Harvin has the ability to make a big difference on the field, but he has a lengthy injury history that has kept him out of action for most of the past two seasons. That said, the Seahawks only need him to show up for four quarters on Sunday and as long as he practices without incident and is ready to go, the Broncos are going to have to account for him.
9. Will Wes Welker make up for big drop in Super Bowl XLVI?
With 4:06 remaining in Super Bowl XLVI, the New England Patriots led the New York Giants 17-15 and had the ball on New York’s 44-yard-line. It was second and 11, when Tom Brady dropped back and found his favorite target, receiver Wes Welker, wide open between three defenders at the Giants’ 25-yard-line. Brady’s throw was slightly behind Welker, but the All-Pro wideout should have made the catch. He didn’t. Instead of clinching the Super Bowl, that drop gave the Giants new life and they took advantage, getting a stop on defense before driving the length of the field for a game-winning touchdown.
Welker will now have a chance to make up for what was the biggest mistake of his career. He will be trying to win his first Super Bowl on Sunday and erase the memory of that huge drop.
8. All Richard Sherman everything
With one post-game interview, Richard Sherman has gone from an outstanding cornerback only football fans have heard of, to national celebrity. The amount of articles either condemning or defending Sherman this week in the wake of his outburst after Seattle’s win over the San Francisco 49ers has been staggering.
Sherman is undoubtedly one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, and whatever he does or says in and around the game will be magnified because of what happened after the NFC Championship Game. It’s fair to say his outburst elevated him and a the same time he’ll be under a much bigger spotlight and is much more open to criticism.
7. The weather
The NFL’s decision to put the Super Bowl in an outdoor stadium in a cold-weather city has rightfully drawn tons of criticism. The best-case weather reports for Sunday in East Rutherford say it will be cold. The worst-case projections claim there will be snow at some point. No one really knows what’s going to happen yet, but that hasn’t stopped people from talking about it.
You can bet the old line about Peyton Manning not being able to play in the cold will come up again, and on paper the Seahawks definitely look like the team better equipped to deal with playing in adverse conditions.
6. John Fox’s health
Denver Broncos head coach John Fox underwent aortic valve replacement surgery earlier this season, and beginning with Week 10, he missed a few weeks before returning in Week 14. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio filled in for Fox, but things clearly weren’t the same for the Broncos without their head coach on the sidelines.
I’ve never talked to anyone who didn’t rave about Fox. He is a beloved figure, which is why so many people were concerned about his health scare. While he is apparently fully healthy now, it’s not hard to see the 58-year-old potentially retiring if the Broncos win the Super Bowl. Fox has never won one, though he took the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII, where they lost to the New England Patriots 32-29.
5. Russell Wilson (new school) vs. Peyton Manning (old school)
If Russell Wilson had entered the NFL 10 years ago as a 5-11, 206-pound quarterback who could run a little bit, he would have been converted into a slot receiver. Instead, the diminutive signal-caller will start the Super Bowl for the Seahawks.
On the other sideline, Peyton Manning stands at 6-5, weighs in at 230 pounds and is the prototypical drop-back, stay-in-the-pocket quarterback. In fact, when Manning finally hangs up his cleats he will arguably be the best pocket passer to have ever worn an NFL jersey.
Wilson represents the NFL’s new-school philosophy that is emphasizing athleticism at the quarterback position. Manning is the definition of the old-school quarterback. The 25-year-old Wilson was dismissed by many scouts as being too small and not strong enough to compete in the NFL, while Manning was the anointed one, a phenom who had to live up to all the hype from the moment he was drafted way back in 1998.
The two men couldn’t be more different, yet here they are, at the same place, as champions of their respective conferences and about to face-off in the Super Bowl. The clash in styles, and stories of the two quarterbacks in this game is fascinating.
4. Seattle’s secondary vs. Denver’s receivers
The Seattle Seahawks have the NFL’s best secondary, bar none. Any arguments to the contrary are completely without merit. The “Legion of Boom” has loads of talent to spare, even after cornerback Brandon Browner’s suspension. On Sunday in the Super Bowl, they will face the NFL’s top group of receivers in what should be an epic matchup.
For the Seahawks, the secondary starts with Sherman, who I believe has solidified himself as the NFL’s top cornerback. Throw in Pro Bowl safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and you’ve got the most athletic, hardest-hitting group of coverage guys in the NFL. Third-year man Byron Marshall is currently filling in for Browner and has four interceptions and a forced fumble on the season as well. This guys are all big, strong, athletic and intimidating.
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos have three of the NFL’s top receivers. Demaryius Thomas had a career year with 92 receptions, 1,430 yards and a whopping 14 touchdowns. Eric Decker wasn’t bad himself, as he hauled in 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 scores of his own, while Wes Welker battled injuries but is one of the NFL’s most consistent wideouts. Despite missing time, Welker still managed to catch 73 passes for 778 yards and 10 scores.
On top of that, tight end Julius Thomas had a breakout year, catching 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Broncos are so tough to defend because Manning is so adept at finding the open man. And with four outstanding targets, someone is almost always open.
Sunday’s showdown in the passing game should be thrilling to watch.
3. Pete Carroll’s quest to prove doubters wrong
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was run out of the NFL in 1999 after unsuccessful stints with the New York Jets (1994 season) and New England Patriots (1997-99). Carroll took two years off before being hired as the head coach at USC, where he completely remade himself into one of the most successful coaches in college football history.
Carroll was at USC from 2001 to 2010 and posted a remarkable record of 97-19, with two national championships, seven Pac-10 titles, seven BCS bowl game appearances and six BCS bowl wins.
While some see Carroll’s legacy as tarnished by the Reggie Bush scandal at USC, the facts are this: despite some popping off by some members of the media who don’t know anything about the case, Carroll was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing by the NCAA and was not even given a token show-cause penalty as a result of the investigation.
He took over the Seahawks in 2010 and immediately set to work creating a roster of guys he knew would buy in to his system. Fast forward four years and he’s taken that group to the Super Bowl. If he wins on Sunday he’ll have accomplished the rare double of winning a national title in college football and the NFL and will have proven all of his doubters wrong.
2. No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense
On Sunday the NFL’s top offense will face off against its top defense in the kind of matchup fans dream of.
The Seahawks were unbelievable on defense in 2013, allowing a league-low 273.6 yards per game. They had the NFL’s top pass defense, allowing just 172.0 yards per game through the air, which is simply staggering. Seattle also surrendered a league-best 14.4 points per game. The Seahawks had the NFL’s top defense and, frankly, it wasn’t even close.
Meanwhile, the Broncos were far and away the league’s top offense. Denver averaged a league-best 457.3 yards per game, which was a whopping 40 yards per game more than second place (Philadelphia Eagles, 417.3). The Broncos passed for an insane 340.3 yards per contest (tops in the NFL by 32.9 yards per game) and rushed for 117.1. Denver set an NFL record by scoring 606 points this season, and averaged 37.9 per game. The truly insane stat is that the Broncos averaged 10.1 more points per game than anyone else in the NFL (Chicago Bears, New England Patriots tied at 27.8).
Sunday’s game will truly be a heavyweight matchup between the NFL’s best offensive and defensive teams.
1. Peyton Manning’s quest for another title
Peyton Manning may be the best regular season player in NFL history. The 37-year-old quarterback is the league’s only four-time MVP award winner (he could make it five this year), he’s a 10-time All-Pro (seven first-team selections), a 13-time Pro Bowler and an eight-time AFC Offensive Player of the Year. He owns dozens of NFL records and could continue to break more depending on how long he keeps playing. But Manning has only won one Super Bowl title and for a huge chunk of his career he was considered a guy who couldn’t win the big one.
Manning is 1-1 in his two Super Bowl appearances, but when he guided the Indianapolis Colts to a championship in Super Bowl XLI, many thought he had finally gotten over the hump and more would come. But it took the Colts three years to return to the big game, and when they got there, they lost to the New Orleans Saints 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV. That night, instead of stepping up in the clutch when his team needed it, Manning threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown by Tracy Porter. That errant pass sealed the win for New Orleans.
Now, four years later, Manning has a chance at redemption. He can become one of the rare quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls and erase the “can’t win the big one” label once and for all.