Super Bowl XLVIII promises to be an entertaining spectacle and a fantastic clash between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos.
Both teams won their respective conferences this season, cruising to many dominant victories thanks to their depth, consistent excellence and impeccable game plans.
Sometimes things don't go according to design, though, and the measure of a great team is not how it's doing when all is well. Rather, it's how teams respond when the going gets tough that transforms them from contenders to championship-caliber outfits.
In the pivotal moments during the regular season and the playoffs, both Seattle and Denver came up big, fortifying their status as favorites to hold a parade with the Lombardi Trophy in hand.
Only one of these brilliantly built clubs can take home the NFL's ultimate prize, and the loser will be lost in the midst of history. Thus, it's worth reflecting on both the Seahawks and Broncos and how they got to this grand stage.
Super Bowl XLVIII
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 last time the Baltimore Ravens had entered Sports Authority Field at Mile High, they handed Denver one of its most devastating playoff losses in double overtime.
That defeat in the divisional round could have gotten Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and his entire team mired in a funk. Instead, it was the Ravens who suffered from a Super Bowl hangover and Manning and Co. who looked to have the competitive edge.
Manning put on a sensational performance to kick off the 2013 NFL regular season in the Thursday night showcase when he threw for a ridiculous 462 yards and seven touchdowns.
It was only the beginning of what would be a historic campaign and the best year of Manning's prolific career—and perhaps in the history of the league at his position.
That 49-27 blowout win wasn't even as close as the scoreboard indicates, which appropriately portended how the season would play out. Here the Broncos are, still alive, while Baltimore failed to qualify for the postseason.
Revenge isn't always healthy. In this instance, though, it was the jump-start to the season Denver needed and sparked a ton of momentum. Other than a shootout 51-48 win in Dallas, the Broncos won their first six games by no fewer than 16 points.
Denied a chance to meet the NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers in the previous NFC Championship Game by losing to the Atlanta Falcons, there was some disappointment for the Seahawks' nucleus to battle back from.
A shaky 12-7 road win over the Carolina Panthers in Week 1 didn't help determine what type of team Seattle would be.
Then a crack at the Niners happened in the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field.
When the 29-3 drubbing was over, the NFL knew these Seahawks would be a force to be reckoned with moving forward.
The battle got testy between these bitter archrivals, with 22 total penalties being called and plenty of chippy play going on. It was ugly under center too: Russell Wilson completed just 8 of 19 attempts for Seattle, and Colin Kaepernick turned it over four times and had a total QBR of 14.0.
Wilson wouldn't really endure a sophomore slump en route to a second consecutive stellar season under center after being a third-round draft choice in 2012.
Although Kaepernick ran for 87 yards in Week 2, he was truly exposed for the first time as a questionable pocket passer. Bear in mind, this letdown came after he threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Green Bay to start 2013.
Next up in this saga could have been the aforementioned Week 5 thriller at Dallas—the Broncos' first true test of the season. But was anyone surprised that Cowboys QB Tony Romo threw a game-deciding interception late?
Yours truly supports Romo more than most may. That, however, was a rhetorical question. Moving on.
No one really knew what to expect when Peyton Manning returned to Lucas Oil Stadium, which was the house he essentially built after a stupendous career with the Indianapolis Colts franchise.
Manning was taking on his successor, 2012 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck. The hype was palpable, and "The Sheriff" was welcomed back to his stomping grounds with a standing ovation and even a video tribute.
Once the sentimentality and formalities were out of the way, it was time for some prime-time Sunday Night Football. As it turns out, the game also marked Denver's first loss, 39-33.
Luck went 21-of-38 passing for 228 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. One storyline that somewhat overshadowed the QB duel for the ages was the season-ending knee injury to Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, which proved costly to Indianapolis later on.
A furious comeback charge staged by Manning fell short in the end, but he still managed 386 yards and three touchdowns through the air despite having minimal help from Knowshon Moreno (15 carries, 40 yards, TD) in the backfield.
Trailing 24-7 in the middle of the third quarter to a winless team in Week 9 is not the way the Seahawks drew it up, but the 27-24 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers served as somewhat of a blessing in disguise.
Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis perhaps put it best after the game, per the AP (via ESPN.com):
"When you have a team down like that, you've got to choke them out," said Revis. "Because great teams come back. And they are a great team."
Seattle's "12th Man" was galvanized by a Russell Wilson 10-yard touchdown run that cut the deficit to 24-14 after the extra point with five minutes left in the third quarter.
From there, the Seahawks' stout defense began to assert its might, confuse Buccaneers rookie QB Mike Glennon and finally at least limit the damage Mike James was doing in piling up 158 yards rushing.
Marshawn Lynch got going on the ground too, carrying the rock 21 times for 125 yards. It was the second of his three 100-yard rushing games on the season, though he did have steady production throughout to still accumulate a total of 1,257 rushing yards.
The most important takeaway from this was that it was the wake-up call the league's eventual No. 1 defense needed to not let its guard down no matter the opponent.
That could be said for the Seahawks as a whole at the midway point of the season. They had just come off an ugly 14-9 win in St. Louis and were in a bit of a funk. Pulling off this epic comeback signaled a turnaround and a valuable lesson learned in victory.
A roller-coaster stretch saw the Broncos stand tall to a trying month of tests following their Week 9 bye.
After defeating the AFC West rival San Diego Chargers 28-20, Denver had two games in three weeks against the Kansas City Chiefs, who were undefeated ahead of their first matchup with the Broncos.
Sandwiched between those two encounters with the revitalized Chiefs was a clash with the New England Patriots—an always tough foe among the NFL's elite.
Week 11's 27-17 triumph at home saw Denver take care of business on its own turf before the brutal two-game road trip. After jumping out to a 24-0 lead on the Patriots, legendary signal-caller Tom Brady fueled an inspiring comeback to force overtime.
Broncos defensive back Tony Carter had a punt toward the end of the extra period bounce off him, and Nate Ebner recovered for New England. That led to Stephen Gostkowski's game-winning 31-yard field goal to give the Pats a 34-31 victory.
One positive that emerged from that game was Knowshon Moreno's career-best 224 yards rushing, which showed that the Broncos' prolific passing offense could be supplemented with adequate balance.
Moreno was a bit gassed for the second clash with Kansas City, but rookie Montee Ball stepped in with 13 carries and 117 yards. The real stud, however, was Manning, who racked up 403 yards and five touchdowns in a 35-28 win.
That gave the Broncos a decisive head-to-head tiebreaker advantage on Kansas City in addition to a one-game outright lead in the AFC West at 10-2.
A late bye in Week 12 threatened to stymie the Seahawks' momentum after two convincing wins over Minnesota and Atlanta kept their six-game winning streak intact.
The New Orleans Saints—even with the likes of Drew Brees triggering a dangerous passing attack—were no match for the seemingly invincible Seattle squad in a 34-7 blowout.
A Murphy's Law scenario of sorts developed for the visitors. Two three-and-outs sandwiched by a fumble returned by Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett for a touchdown marked the Saints' first three possessions.
It didn't help the Saints that Russell Wilson was the quarterback firing on all cylinders, completing 22 of 30 passes for 310 yards and three touchdowns in addition to piling up a game-high 47 yards on the ground.
Brees couldn't get anything going against Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary and connected with star tight end Jimmy Graham on just three out of nine targets for 42 yards. One of them was a second-quarter touchdown that cut the lead to 17-7, but it wasn't nearly enough.
This served as the stage upon which it appeared the Seahawks would indeed be the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and that any team traveling there for the playoffs would have its hands full to say the least.
Peyton Manning tossed four touchdowns in each of his final two games to get to 55 TDs on the season—a new NFL record. The 37-year-old also set a record for most yards with 5,477.
That yardage didn't come without a little drama, though. Due to a questionable forward pass to wide receiver Eric Decker that went for a gain of seven in the regular-season finale, Manning may not have had enough to eclipse the record held by New Orleans' Drew Brees (5,476).
Thankfully for Manning and the Broncos, the play stood upon further review, and The Denver Post reported what NFL spokesman Michael Signora had to say on the matter:
The stats crew at the game scored this play as a forward pass. During the course of the season, there are many similar plays which could be reviewed by the Elias Sports Bureau, the league's official statistician. In this case, the determination of Elias is that the fairest resolution is for the ruling of the on-sight stats crew to stand.
A true masterpiece was on display in Manning's Week 17 dismantling of the Oakland Raiders, where he completed 25 of 28 passes for 266 yards and four scores.
The bizarre events that unfolded and threatened to rob Manning of the record won't soon be forgotten, especially since he eclipsed the previous mark by a mere one yard and was taken out of the game deliberately thereafter.
Perhaps Brees' 2011 campaign should be painstakingly reviewed to see if he could scrounge out a couple extra yards.
There turned out to be three teams in the NFC West that won at least 10 games. In addition to the 13-3 Seahawks, there were the San Francisco 49ers (12-4) and Arizona Cardinals (10-6), the latter of which didn't make the playoffs.
The Niners got the better of Seattle in San Francisco in a tight, physical 19-17 battle in Week 14.
Russell Wilson hadn't lost a game at home in his career until the Cardinals kicked the door down in Week 16.
That accentuated the struggles Wilson had endured down the stretch despite his solid overall numbers on the season: 3,357 yards and 26 touchdowns to just nine picks passing, and 539 yards and one score rushing.
Wilson's QBR of 11.5 against the Cardinals was by far his worst of 2013, and even though his Arizona counterpart Carson Palmer threw four interceptions, the Cardinals still managed to pull out a 17-10 win.
In a way, that almost lifted the pressure the Seahawks had to keep their perfect record at home intact over a two-year period, then deal with the possibility of preserving it in the postseason.
With the way head coach Pete Carroll has instilled a fiery attitude in his players, it's something they likely would have embraced. Instead, they had to embrace the adversity that came with losing.
The Seahawks responded by welcoming the St. Louis Rams to town in Week 17 and laying a 27-9 beating on them to clinch the division and the conference's top seed.
Sweating it out was necessary for Seattle to achieve what it set out to do. Having home-field advantage wound up being critical in its push to reach Super Bowl XLVIII.
The big question was what Peyton Manning would do when the playoffs rolled around. He sported a 9-11 all-time postseason record and had "just" one Super Bowl win to his credit—and that came with Rex Grossman as the opposing quarterback for the Chicago Bears.
That's something the doubters would say, but Manning didn't do much to quiet his critics in the divisional round, where the Broncos almost blew a 17-0 lead entering the fourth quarter before holding on to win 24-17 against the San Diego Chargers.
The opposing head coach was Mike McCoy, who served as Denver's offensive coordinator the year before and had drawn up a good enough game plan to beat the Broncos in Week 15.
Manning averaged 6.39 yards per attempt in that game—his second-lowest total of the season—but made up for it in a big way by throwing for 400 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-16 triumph over New England in the AFC Championship Game.
Denver's defense held up rather well in both playoff contests and got key stops when they were absolutely needed.
Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball have combined for 236 yards through those two games, but in the potentially inclement weather for Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium, they could improve that production at least a little.
The chances the Broncos have at knocking off the Seahawks for the Lombardi Trophy really rest on the conditions. If the weather is too severe, Manning will likely have trouble distributing the ball despite having so many viable targets like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas.
All season, no matter the circumstances, Denver has been able to adjust. Its high-powered offense will have its hands full with Seattle's top-ranked defensive unit, though.
A conservative offensive game plan defined the Seahawks' 23-15 divisional-round win over the New Orleans Saints, which allowed the visitors to hang around a little longer than the home fans would have liked.
But perhaps Seattle was saving something special for the third clash of the season with the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game. That went the Seahawks' way too in a 23-17 nail-biter.
Superstar cornerback Richard Sherman deflected a late pass that was intercepted by linebacker Malcolm Smith, sealing the victory in appropriate fashion. Also fitting for this swagger-filled bunch of Seahawks, Sherman was amped up and went on a postgame tirade for the ages.
Now this venerated secondary and defense will face the ultimate test against Peyton Manning and the Broncos' incredible offense.
Should the weather be a factor, Seattle is better built to deal with it. Marshawn Lynch spearheads the physical ground game, and Russell Wilson can make plays with both his arm and his feet.
The supporting cast of receivers Wilson has to work with is inferior to what Manning has at his disposal, but the second-year signal-caller did show signs of overcoming his recent struggles versus San Francisco.
Wilson completed 16 of 25 passes for 215 yards and a clutch 35-yard TD pass to Jermaine Kearse. It was easily his best game passing against the Niners. However, his zero yards rushing in that contest must improve for the Seahawks to have the best chance at capturing the Lombardi Trophy.
It will be fascinating to see if Seattle's defense or Denver's offense gets the best of a dream matchup. Working in the Seahawks' favor is the common notion that defense wins championships.
That just may ring true once again, resulting in a Super Bowl parade through the Emerald City.