Super Bowl XLVIII now looms on the heels of the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks becoming champions of their respective conferences. Every player involved must employ their finest performance of the season to give their team a chance to win, particularly Broncos tight end Julius Thomas.
With Denver and Seattle approaching their offensive attacks in considerably different ways, the former aiming to increase the game's pace and turn it into a shootout and the latter attempting to control the clock through its rushing attack and play-action game, the team that's able to play their game better will be in a more favorable position come the second half.
The most highly anticipated matchup, in a broad sense, is Peyton Manning vs. Seattle's defensive secondary.
Manning has yet to see a defense in the 2013-14 season like the Seahawks. The 16-year veteran will be facing Richard Sherman for the first time in his career in a meaningful game. Manning's only prior experience against the All-Pro was brief action in a 30-10 preseason loss in 2012 and a 40-10 preseason loss in 2013.
Sherman is aware, however, that his trash talking has run its course when it's time to face the future Hall of Famer—as reported by Eric Adelson of Yahoo Sports.
"When you try to get in Peyton's head," Sherman remarked, "you get lost."
The two-time All-Pro has made his respect for the legend well known through his MMQB segment with Sports Illustrated's Peter King.
When we played Peyton in the preseason, I found a new appreciation for the way he makes adjustments at the line of scrimmage; he controls the protections, and if he sees the blitz coming he slides it. The thing that sets him apart is that he’ll change it to a run play if you don’t have enough players in the box, and they’ll get five or six yards because you’re not ready for it. Nobody else has both the authority to do that within their offense and the understanding to know when it’s appropriate.
Sherman is still confident in his abilities and his sureness in defending Manning.
"His arm, however, is another story," Sherman said. "His passes will be accurate and on time, but he throws ducks."
Manning's most important weapon will be his big target over the middle in Julius Thomas.
It's no secret to Broncos personnel and opponents alike that the former fourth-round pick is an integral difference-maker.
The AFC's third-leading receiving tight end hauled in 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns in his regular-season presence.
His absence was profoundly felt.
Denver's second of three losses in 2013 came in the Week 12 matchup against New England, a game in which Thomas was inactive.
The tight end found paydirt in all but four regular-season games, one of which was a loss to the San Diego Chargers.
The emergence of the first-time Pro Bowl selection bodes well for his old quarterback that doesn't possess the mild mobility he once did.
The rapport between the two made the difference in the AFC's divisional round, a game in which the Broncos claimed vengeance against the AFC West rival to which they once fell.
On a third down, leading the Chargers by seven with less than three minutes to play and needing 17 yards for a first down, Manning connected with Thomas for 21 yards on an out-and-up route that effectively iced the game for Denver.
Manning had high praise for his tight end following the win, according to Sports Illustrated's MMQB with Peter King.
Julius was huge all game. He’s been huge all season. Those were two huge plays. Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes, after practice, in practice … to me, that’s one of the most rewarding parts of football. You put that work in off to the side, after practice. It pays off in a game, and it really makes you feel like it was worth it.
The Broncos, whose offensive line allowed just 30 sacks in 2013, will give Manning time to make decisions. When Seattle's secondary has Denver's star receivers blanketed downfield, look for Manning's reliable tight end to make drive-sustaining plays at crucial times.
Unless otherwise mentioned, all stats were gathered via Pro-Football-Reference.com.