The stage for Super Bowl XLVIII is set. We have the place, the date and the time. And with the AFC and NFC Championship games now in the books, we also know the participants.
With two weeks left to go, the only thing we must await is the final outcome.
Of course, the fact that the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks won't play the final game of the 2013-14 NFL season for another two weeks is no reason to hold off on making some early predictions.
Over the next few pages, we will examine just how these two teams stack up and make a few educated predictions on what will unfold at MetLife Stadium on February 2, 2014.
The Broncos paved their way to the Super Bowl primarily on the throwing shoulder of quarterback Peyton Manning.
The 16-year veteran passed for an NFL-record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns during the regular season and capped off Denver's two-game playoff run with a 400-yard, two-touchdown performance against the New England Patriots in the AFC title game.
However, this does not mean that the Seahawks will only have to worry about the passing game defensively.
While the Broncos drew plenty of attention for fielding the league's top passing offense during the regular season (340.2 yards per game), the team also quietly produced an efficient 117.1 yards per game on the ground (15th in the NFL).
During the playoffs, Denver's backfield duo of Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball combined for 236 yards rushing with one touchdown. This means that while the Seahawks are sure to pay plenty of attention to Denver's stellar receiving corps, they will have to find a way to contain the ground game as well.
Of course, Denver will have to win its battles against one of the league's stingiest defenses.
Seattle finished the regular season ranked first in scoring defense (14.4 points per game allowed), pass defense (172 yards peer game) and total defense (273.6 yards per game).
With one of the game's all-tie greats under center, the Broncos will find the way to move the football at times during this game. However, Seattle's defense is stout enough to keep the Denver scoring to a manageable level.
This is a virtually even matchup, with the Broncos getting a slight advantage because of the balance and explosive nature of their offense. However, that edge is not great enough for Denver to win without a fair amount of help from its defense and special teams.
While the Denver offense has forged an identity as a pass-heavy team, the Seattle offense has molded itself at the other end of the spectrum.
The Seahawks fielded the league's fourth-best rushing offense during the regular season (136.8 yards per game), but just the 26th-ranked passing offense (202.2 yards per game). These statistics can be misleading, however, as the Seahawks did not throw the football as much as other teams due to their ability to find success on the ground.
Wilson's ability to run the football is one of the most dangerous aspects of the Seahawks offense, but he is an extremely capable passer as well. This could ultimately spell trouble for the Denver defense.
Denver's strength on defense is against the run, not versus the pass. The Broncos ranked eight in the NFL in run defense during the regular season (101.6 yards per game allowed) and limited the Patriots to a mere 64 yards rushing in the AFC title game.
They ranked just 27th (254.4 yards per game) against the pass during the regular season, though, and will have their hands full against Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, possibly Percy Harvin and the rest of the Seahawks receiving corps.
Denver should have the ability to limit the Seattle rushing attack, at least on conventional plays. However, Wilson will prove difficult to defend as a dual threat, which could force the Broncos to bring members of the secondary into a run-support role.
Wilson should be able to have enough success in the passing game to bring about regular scoring opportunities. Whether or not the Seahawks can outscore Denver will largely depend on the Seattle defense.
The Pass Rush
Though the Broncos' season has been largely been defined by the team's ability to rack up yards and points offensively, the Denver defense has regularly gone about its business racking up sacks.
Despite playing much of the year without star pass-rusher Von Miller, the Broncos managed to amass 41 sacks (13th in the league) during the regular season. They added six more during the postseason, including two on quarterback Tom Brady during the AFC Championship.
Denver's ability to generate pressure is a huge asset for a team that often forces opponents into a high-scoring contest with Manning and Co.
Against the Seahawks, however, the defense will have to pressure and contain Wilson, one of the most dynamically mobile quarterbacks in the league today
Wilson is extremely dangerous as a running or passing threat outside of the pocket, so the Denver defense will face a tall order. If the pass rush can force Wilson into making quick decisions, though, it should be able to at least minimize the number of big plays he is able to produce.
Expect the Broncos to aggressively pressure Wilson throughout the game, in very much the same way the Baltimore Ravens attacked San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during last year's Super Bowl.
Linebacker Shaun Phillips, who led the team with 10 sacks during the regular season, will likely lead an attempt to hit Wilson early and often in order to alter his timing and affect his willingness to run with the football in tow.
The game could very much hinge on Denver's ability to do this. as Wilson proved during the NFC Championship that he can make plays against even the top NFL defenses.
Wilson's Ability to Make Plays on the Run
As mentioned earlier, an uncanny ability to make plays with his legs is what makes Wilson so difficult to defend. But it is often the threat of running, and not the actual act, that allows him to make the game-changing plays that will be required to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Wilson regularly used his legs to buy time against the 49ers in the NFC title game. This allowed him to throw for 215 yards against a pass defense that was much more dominant (San Francisco ranked seventh against the pass during the regular season) than Denver's.
Because he is a constant threat to both run and pass outside the tackle box, the Denver defense will have to consistently watch Wilson when he breaks free of the pocket. This could create hesitation and uncertainty on the part of the defense as it adjusts in order to defend the dual-threat quarterback.
If Wilson can regularly use this extra time behind the line to find open receivers downfield, he will have the potential to shred Denver's 27th-ranked pass defense throughout the contest.
On the other hand, it could be the Seattle offense that is in trouble if the Broncos can manage to take away Wilson's ability to run and force him to play exclusively from the pocket.
Expect the Broncos to spend the next two weeks devising a way to prevent the type of back-breaking plays that doomed the 49ers in the NFC title game.
Still, Wilson should remain unpredictable enough to provide at least a few big moments—both on the ground and through the air—while on the run. Just do not expect him to make them look as easy as he has done throughout Seattle's run to the Super Bowl.
Football fans dream of big-time games featuring an elite offense against a top-notch defense, and Super Bowl XLVIII is set to deliver exactly that.
It is also shaping up to be a very evenly matched affair. Manning and the Broncos have the ability to take advantage of every opportunity presented to them, while the Seahawks defense can make enough plays and force enough mistake to give Seattle a chance to win every time it takes the field.
Ultimately, we have to give the Seahawks a minor edge in this contest because of the team's ability to successfully run the football and potentially keep Mr. Manning off of the football field for long stretches of game time.
Expect the Broncos to move the football relatively well between the 20s but to settle for field goals much more often than they would like. This will keep the game close throughout and could provide the Seahawks with some late-game opportunities similar to the ones it had against the 49ers during the NFC Championship Game.
Ultimately, Seattle wins its first Lombardi trophy in a heavily contested classic.
Seattle 26, Denver 23