All the way back in September, 32 NFL teams began the 2013 season with a common goal: reach Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey/New York.
After 17 grueling weeks of regular season play and another three epic weeks of postseason games, two teams have realized that goal.
With their victories in the AFC and NFC Championship Games, the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks have set the card for the 48th edition of football's greatest spectacle at MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2.
Thousands of fans will shell out thousands of dollars to pack a frozen stadium while the game will be broadcast to millions around the globe. This year's Super Bowl could once again break records for TV audiences. 108.4 million folks tuned in to last year's game. The two previous Super Bowls were the most-watched events in U.S. history with 111.3 million in 2011 and another 111 million viewers for the 2010 game.
Over the next two weeks, the matchup will be examined from just about every conceivable angle, but let's kick things off with an early preview of Super Bowl XLVIII.
One of the biggest storylines surrounding Super Bowl XLVIII has been in play since well before the teams were even determined.
Since the day that New York/New Jersey was awarded the game, fans, players and the media alike have wondered aloud how big a factor the February weather would be at MetLife Stadium.
Fans may want to layer.
As Doyle Rice of USA Today reports, Accuweather meteorologist Bernie Rayno is forecasting game-time temperatures in the upper 20s, with wind chill knocking that number into the high teens.
However, based on historical averages compiled by New Jersey state climatologist David Robinson, the odds of snow on February 2 are less than one in five, per Rice.
The venerable Farmer's Almanac, on the other hand, disagrees. The 197-year-old publication predicts that a winter storm will strike the Northeast around the time of the Super Bowl, per the Associated Press' David Sharp.
Said managing editor Sandi Duncan, "It really looks like the Super Bowl may be the Storm Bowl."
Assuming the weather is just cold, neither participant should be all that adversely affected (at least no more than their opponent), but high winds and/or significant precipitation would appear to benefit the power run game and smashmouth defense of the Seahawks.
In fact, where gambling is legal, you can even bet a few bucks on the weather.
As Rice points out, online gambling site Bovada recently announced both the odds for snow (3-2) and the over/under for temperature (32 degrees) at the Super Bowl.
Speaking of gambling...
Every year, football fans around the world wager a few bucks here and there on the Super Bowl.
Like, say, nearly $100 million in Nevada casinos alone for last year's Super Bowl, according to Gillian Spear of NBC News.
One of the first questions even casual fans ask about the Super Bowl is "who's favored?," and the dust had hardly settled in Seattle before the betting lines started popping up for Super Bowl XLVIII.
Lines/Odds courtesy of SportsBook.com (current as of 1 a.m. ET on Jan. 20):
Point Spread: Denver -3
Money Line: Denver -135 (bet $135 to win $100), Seattle +115 (bet $100 to win $115)
Super Bowl XLVIII is all about contrasts.
The Broncos are defined by their prolific offense, while defense sets the tone for the Seahawks.
Seattle led the NFL in a litany of defensive categories, including total defense, passing defense and scoring defense. Its vaunted "Legion of Boom" secondary is the NFL's best.
It will take an even better effort than Seattle's stellar defensive showing against San Francisco to knock off Manning and the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Here are three keys to an upset for the Seahawks:
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
As great as the Seattle defense is, their best defense against Manning and the Broncos might actually be their offense.
Getting into a shootout with the most potent scoring offense in NFL history probably isn't a good idea, but a blueprint exists for downing the Broncos that the Seahawks should closely examine.
The last time Denver lost, to the San Diego Chargers in Week 15, the Chargers pounded the ball on the ground, handing the ball off 29 times to Ryan Mathews. San Diego rushed 44 times in total, while QB Philip Rivers attempted only 20 passes.
The Seahawks have a bruising back in Marshawn Lynch, and Seattle absolutely must establish the run game at The Meadowlands.
Simply put, the Broncos can't score if they don't have the ball.
It worked for the New York Giants in the Super Bowl against Jim Kelly's "K-Gun" Buffalo Bills. It also worked for the Patriots against "The Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams.
It can work for Seattle against Denver.
Russell Wilson Must Step Up
Even if the Seattle defense plays well and the Seahawks get the ground game going, Manning and the Denver offense are going to get theirs sooner or later.
At some point in Super Bowl XLVIII, Russell Wilson is going to have to make a big play, be it a scramble to keep a drive alive or an all-important third-down completion.
In that regard, there's some cause for concern. Wilson's passer rating and completion percentage are both way down in the playoffs as opposed to the regular season, and the second-year pro has only a single touchdown pass in two playoff games this year.
Granted, Wilson has played well enough to get the win in those games, but they were in Seattle.
This game isn't, and Wilson needs to shake off his late-season funk if the 'Hawks are to lift the Lombardi Trophy.
Make Peyton Manning Uncomfortable
We'll close with the single most imperative key to victory for the Seahawks. Unfortunately, it may also be the most difficult to pull off.
The Broncos possess one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Football Outsiders ranks the group tops overall in the league in pass protection.
Of course, if you flip that, the Seahawks' defensive front ranks a very respectable seventh in the NFL in pass rushing. The team finished fifth in the NFC with 44 sacks, and while Seattle doesn't possess a dominant pass-rusher, the team does have several very capable ones.
Avail yourself of that depth. Come at Manning not only with defensive ends Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons, but also with plenty of blitzes.
Yes, it means more man coverage, but if there's a team in the NFL with a secondary up to the task, it's the Seahawks.
The alternative is giving Manning all day to throw the ball. The Patriots, who had more sacks in 2013 than Seattle, were unable to get any sort of pressure in the AFC title game.
Manning carved them up to the tune of 400 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of nearly 120.
The Broncos were the AFC's top seed this year, propelled to a 13-3 record by Manning and a record-setting offense.
The numbers they put up this year were staggering. 5,477 passing yards. 55 touchdown passes. 606 points scored.
All were NFL records.
However, the most impressive facet of Denver's win over the Patriots in the AFC title game may well have been the performance of the defense, which all but completely stymied Tom Brady and the Patriots for most of the game.
We know what the Denver offense is capable of, but Sunday's game showed how dominant the Broncos can be when the defense plays well. If Denver is going to keep that defensive momentum going against the Seahawks, here are three things they must accomplish:
No Skittles for Marshawn Lynch
The focal point of the Seattle offense is undoubtedly running back Marshawn Lynch. Whether it's banging away between the tackles, running in the zone-read or setting up play fakes, the Seahawks go as Lynch goes.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, stopping Beast Mode is easier said than done. Even if he struggles early, the Seahawks will continue to feed Lynch. Such was the case in the win over San Francisco. The Niners bottled Lynch up in the first half, but by game's end, he was the first running back this season to top 100 yards on the ground against the 49ers.
If there's a silver lining, it's that stopping the run has been a strength in Denver all season. The Broncos were seventh in the NFL against the run in 2013, per Pro-Football-Reference, and Denver gave up only 64 yards on the ground in their AFC title game win over the Patriots.
Get After Russell Wilson
In the first half of Sunday's NFC Championship Game, the 49ers were very effective in applying pressure on Wilson. Four first-half sacks put the Seahawks in long down-and-distances and the pressure also affected the Seattle QB's accuracy with the football.
San Francisco wasn't as successful in keeping that pressure going in the second half, but it provides a blueprint for the Broncos.
The Broncos were somewhat effective in pressuring Tom Brady in the AFC title game and ranked a respectable 13th in the NFL in sacks in 2013, but defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio may want to dial the blitzes up a notch in an effort to rattle the young signal-caller.
Maintain Discipline Deep
As much as it sounds like I'm advising Denver to load the box (I am), it's just as important that Denver's last line of defense play with discipline in the Super Bowl.
Wilson's 51-yard completion to Doug Baldwin in the NFC Championship is a perfect example of why.
The Seahawks QB isn't just dangerous because he's mobile. More so than any of the other "young guns," Wilson is constantly looking downfield while extending the play with his legs.
That makes it imperative that the Denver safeties not allow Baldwin, Golden Tate and Percy Harvin (if he plays) to get behind them on a busted play.
No easy points.
If you're a fan of football, it's hard not to like this game.
It's a classic offense-vs.-defense showdown. Can Manning continue his offensive assault against the NFL's best defense? Can Wilson and the Seahawks score the 27-30 points it may well take to win this game?
Most importantly: What the holy heck is going on with the people at Old Spice, and how terrifying is their Super Bowl ad going to be?
That and the equally frightening thought of the Bruno Mars and Red Hot Chili Peppers halftime show aside, we're talking about the top two seeds in the playoffs meeting for only the second time in 20 years.
The other? Manning's last trip to the Super Bowl, a loss to the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.
At the beginning of the season, I picked the Broncos and Seahawks as this year's Super Bowl participants, forecasting a Seattle win.
I was half right.
Manning just has too many weapons in the passing game and too much time with the football, while Wilson's struggles over the past month and a half can't be ignored.
It will be a close game, and Manning won't throw for 400 yards again, but three touchdown passes (including two to Eric Decker) will be enough for Manning to cap off a career year with a Super Bowl MVP award and his second ring.
The Early Pick: Denver Broncos 27, Seattle Seahawks 23