For all the talk of parity in the NFL, this season's two best teams have made it to the grand finale.
The Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks fought through tough divisions, posted 13-3 records in the regular season and held court on their home fields in the playoffs, setting up an epic Super Bowl XLVIII matchup.
What makes this showdown at East Rutherford's MetLife Stadium most unique is the fact that cold and potentially inclement weather will be the conditions under which the teams play.
That figures to favor Seattle's style of pounding away with the running game and leaning on its defense to hold up down the stretch. Then again, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is coming off a 400-yard performance in the AFC title game, and he has a loaded lot of receivers capable of devastating any defense.
As kickoff approaches on Sunday, Feb. 2, let's take a closer look at the hype surrounding this clash of the league's biggest titans.
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
When: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Spread: Broncos -2.5, per Vegas Insider
The pressure has been squarely on Manning since the postseason began. His incredible 16-game stretch during the regular campaign was one for the record books, but it would be all for naught if he didn't back it up with success in the playoffs.
Now Manning has moved to an even 11-11 in his postseason career thanks to wins over the San Diego Chargers and his arch-nemesis, the New England Patriots.
The latter victory was nothing short of legendary, as he threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns without turning the ball over. Credit the offensive line, too, which afforded Manning plenty of time:
The Patriots' defense put Peyton Manning under duress on just 3 of his 43 dropbacks today (7%), their lowest pct. in a game this season.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 19, 2014
As quick as his release already is, Manning presents even more problems when he's being blocked for properly. But the real storyline involving the 37-year-old is how he's fought back from four neck surgeries to get on the cusp of pro football's pinnacle.
Overcoming the adversity of a grueling rehabilitation process, an entire year away from the NFL and enduring a gut-wrenching loss to Baltimore in last year's playoffs was enough to endure just for Manning to get to this point.
This is the ultimate chance for Manning to silence any remaining critics—in the adverse weather, against a tremendous defense—and become the first QB ever to lead two different franchises to a Super Bowl title.
Critical Crossroads in Seattle
Part of the territory that comes with drafting as well as the Seahawks have is the need to reward overachieving players with big contracts.
Marquee defenders such as lockdown cornerback Richard Sherman, All-Pro safety Earl Thomas and outside linebacker K.J. Wright are all entering contract years next season. Sherman and Wright were drafted in the fifth and fourth rounds, respectively, in the 2011 draft, so they're due for a strong extension.
Then there's QB Russell Wilson, a third-round choice in 2012. The following season is his time to earn a new deal, but with the importance placed on his position and two great years under his belt, Wilson is likely to gain more attention from the front office.
Check out the difference between Wilson's earnings and that of Manning's, per Brian McIntyre:
Seahawks QB Russell Wilson made $526,217 during 2013 season. Broncos QB Peyton Manning made $882,353 per week (even the bye) in 2013.— Brian McIntyre (@brian_mcintyre) January 20, 2014
Wilson's draft classmates include Bruce Irvin and the underrated heart of Seattle's front seven in middle linebacker Bobby Wagner—a second-round pick.
The incentive for this core to stick together will heighten with a Super Bowl triumph and the potential to build a dynasty in Seattle. Coming up short threatens to create schisms and tension moving forward.
Not everyone is going to be able to stay—that's just the reality of salary-cap constrictions. But as young and promising as this Seahawks team is, their window to win the Super Bowl may be closing faster than the perception would indicate.
Of course, Denver is facing similar circumstances because of the uncertainty as to how long the Manning era will last.
A Matchup for the Ages
The Seahawks sport the No. 1 scoring and total defense, while Denver has the highest-scoring offense and also led the league in total yards per game. Manning threw for a record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns; Seattle led the NFL with 39 takeaways.
It will be fascinating, to say the least, to see which top-flight unit comes away with the better performance. Chances are, both will do some damage, creating a beautiful juxtaposition on the cold gridiron.
Sherman weighed in himself in closing out a MMQB.com column from Monday, Jan. 20:
The Broncos stand in our way, and it’s a large obstacle. They’ve got the smartest quarterback in football and receivers who are large (mostly), explosive with the football and run great routes. Wes Welker is quick and elusive, Eric Decker is a great receiver with hands and speed, and Demaryius Thomas is as strong as they come. And Peyton knows how to get each of them in spots.
It’s the No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense. It’s a match made in heaven, and we couldn’t be more excited. If you’re any kind of competitor and you have any kind of dog about you, you want to play against the best. Finally, we get the opportunity.
Pete Carroll and his head coaching counterpart in the Broncos' John Fox are both defensive-minded and possess great leadership qualities. The chess match between coordinators will also be compelling.
Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase, working in tandem with the cerebral Manning, will have to contend with the wit of Dan Quinn's calls on the Seahawks' vaunted defense.
Who will win Super Bowl XLVIII?
Two veteran minds will match up when Seattle play-caller Darrell Bevell does battle with Jack Del Rio.
The expertise Del Rio has with regard to linebackers will be key in limiting Seattle's sensational rushing attack featuring the dual-threat Wilson and powerful running back Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch. Doing so without Von Miller in the fold is something the Broncos have dealt with a lot this season, but his absence on read-option plays will be particularly tough to deal with.
As for the tantalizing quarterback duel: Manning is a classic pocket passer playing in an uptempo, modernized offense. Wilson excels in the pocket but is a great runner as well, and there are read-option wrinkles in the Seahawks schemes, but Bevell tends to lean more on smashmouth principles.
Add everything up, and both of these rosters have areas they can exploit on the opponent to create what should be among the best Super Bowls in recent memory—if not of all time.