Can either offensive line hold up?
For the first time since 2009, the Super Bowl will feature the top two seeds. Unlike many years, the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos emerged as definitive favorites early in the season and withstood the pitfalls of the NFL's one-and-done playoff format to reach the big game.
Consequently, there are very few glaring weaknesses for either side to exploit. With so many strengths on both sides, the game will likely come down to which unheralded performer can elevate his performance to give his team the extra edge.
There are plenty of worthy candidates on both sides—indeed, some of these so-called "X-factors" would be full-fledged stars on other rosters. Examining each team's offense, here are a couple role players who will play especially critical roles in the Super Bowl.
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
When: Sunday, Feb. 2, at 6:25 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Spread: Broncos -2.5, per Vegas Insider
Over/Under: 48, per CBS Sports
Harvin did not play in the NFC Championship because of a concussion, but with two weeks until the Super Bowl, there is a solid chance the explosive slot receiver suits up. Indeed, there have already been multiple reports that Pete Carroll believes Harvin will be ready:
Stop us if you've heard this one before: Seahawks expect Percy Harvin to be ready for Super Bowl http://t.co/kM3jKfriVD— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) January 20, 2014
If he suits up, he could be the difference-maker for the Seahawks' passing game, especially when considering Denver's weaknesses. The Broncos have recently used Champ Bailey in the slot, though Bailey played more outside against New England last week.
Regardless, Denver does not have anyone who can match up with Harvin's speed and playmaking ability in space. Julian Edelman, who could be portrayed as a reasonable facsimile of Harvin, compiled 10 receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown, representing the Patriots' most successful source of offense.
Seattle is considerably more dangerous than the depleted Pats were, and the Broncos cannot load up in the box to key in on Marshawn Lynch. Expect Harvin to receive some one-on-one opportunities to wreak havoc.
Giacomini, the Seahawks' right tackle, has battled injuries and ineffectiveness for much of the year. In the Super Bowl, he will likely face off against Shaun Phillips, Denver's best pass-rusher.
If there's a weakness to Seattle, it's the offensive line. The Seahawks held up fairly well against the Niners, conceding just two sacks, three hits and seven hurries. Still, an undermanned Broncos unit presents a tougher challenge than many might expect, as NFL.com's Marc Sessler notes:
Denver's defensive front deserves equal credit, holding the Patriots to 16 yards rushing on eight attempts at the half while dropping a hammer on last week's hero, LeGarrette Blount, who finished with a measly six yards. The Broncos pass rush got at Brady in key spots, chasing down the Patriotsstar passer for a pair of crushing sacks -- one on third down and another on fourth -- that kept New England out of the end zone.
Giacomini will be particularly under the microscope because of the player he will face for much of the game, but Denver's front seven has emerged as an underrated strength, a shock after season-ending injuries to Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe.
Russell Wilson can survive because of his mobility and improvisational ability outside the pocket, but Giacomini and the Seahawks' line must hold up to let their quarterback establish some rhythm early on.
It feels strange calling Welker an X-factor, but such is the life of someone in arguably the league's deepest receiver corps.
The biggest storyline surrounding this game is the Broncos' historically great passing offense versus the Seahawks' historically great passing defense, and Welker stands as a potential fulcrum of which side ultimately wins this epic tug-of-war:
The Seahawks secondary does not really have a weakness, but the path of least resistance is probably slot corner Walter Thurmond. During the regular season, opposing quarterbacks went 26-of-38 for 195 yards targeting Thurmond in the slot, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Granted, Thurmond also did not concede a touchdown, and he is certainly no sieve. But he is an above-average cornerback at best, and Welker torches nearly anyone from the slot. For a Broncos team that may have trouble passing for the first time all season, Welker's chain-moving routes stand as a critical ingredient in Denver's offensive success.
Denver's offensive line has excelled all year, leading the league in virtually every pass protection category. However, left guard Zane Beadles does stand out as the potential black sheep, with a team-worst minus-7.6 pass protection grade, per PFF.
Even the slightest crack can be deadly against the Seahawks pass rush. Seattle does not have a signature star, but the quartet of Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin and Cliff Avril led Seattle to the sixth-highest sack percentage during the regular season. As The Herald of Everett's John Boyle notes, that has been as critical to Seattle's stifling defense as the loud "Legion of Boom":
With the addition of Bennett (8.5 sacks), Avril (8.0), the improved play of defensive tackle Clinton McDonald (5.5) and the knack middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (5.0) has shown on delayed blitzes, it has been harder for any one individual to pile up numbers. This year, Seattle's 44 sacks are tied for eighth most in the NFL, and the Seahawks have not been held without a sack in a single game this year.
"I think it's been a significant difference," Carroll said. "The pass defense numbers show that, and everybody has helped out. All of the guys that have come in have helped and they've helped the other guys play better. So it's interesting to see how it does tie together. We've been playing pretty much the same coverage principles, but when the rush picked, our numbers went down in terms of our opponent's production. So it's been a big factor."
Similar to Giacomini on the Seahawks, Beadles is not alone in this responsibility, but he does stand out as the most noticeable weak link. Peyton Manning is a master of pocket presence, with precise footwork and arm angles that allow for maximum accuracy. Nevertheless, interior pressure may be troublesome for Manning, who was never particularly mobile before his ankle injuries this season.
Neither offensive line has come under much heat this year because of their respective quarterbacks' abilities to compensate. With each facing a stiff challenge, it may be the line that cracks first that ultimately determines the game's outcome.